Monday , January 17 2022
Cantor BB's Blog

Jewish and Truly Perplexed: A Cantorial Origin Story

Cantor BB's Blog

So how did I get here? I mean wind up as a Jewish Cantor? A Hazzan and full member of the Jewish clergy. I wasn’t born to it. Nope. I was raised in the most secular of Skokie homes. Sunday School, not Hebrew school (parental units though that would be a waste of time). BBQ ribs on Sundays. Glazed ham when we had company (though not on Passover!). Chanukah, yes. Yom Kippur? Only barely, and only until company came for the break-fast in the late afternoon. Friday night dinner, definitely: white tablecloth, baked chicken, and Lipton’s Chicken noodle soup. Kiddush in English from the old Union Prayerbook. Havdalah? I had no idea until I was an adult. Kashrut? No way. (My mom’s favorite argument against was the apparent arbitrariness of making chicken “meat” when eggs were “parve.”

My mom was spiritual and knowledgeable in her own way. She quoted Talmud (she learned in adult education classes) and insisted with engage in the Talmudic practice of “pilpul” (which was more or less argument for argument’s sake) throughout my teenage years. But I’ll pick up the story a few years later…

When I was about 24 years old, I found myself sitting in Temple (or synagogue or shul) on a Saturday morning. It was probably the last place I wanted to be. I hadn’t been in one in years and this particular synagogue was “Traditional,” a sort of Midwest Modern Orthodox (yeah, that helps!). Let’s just say that pretty much everything was in Hebrew, mumbled quickly and incoherently to my then-20-something American ears.

We were there to celebrate the forthcoming marriage of my sister, who was marrying a guy raised traditionally, the son of Holocaust survivors. She was having an Auf-Ruf (a sort of feting of the about-to-be married couple) and her fiancé’s family belonged to this synagogue. We sat through what seemed like an interminable service conducted in a language I barely understood (barely, being a charitable term for my knowledge—or lack thereof.)

My father had passed away about nine months earlier. I sat between my mom and my uncle (who knew a lot more about this Orthodox thing), and I periodically glanced sideways at my uncle, assuming he knew more about what we should be doing—and when. Should we stand? Sit? Bow? BOW???! I turned the page of my prayer book when he turned his pages.

Suddenly I heard a word I understood: “Kaddish.” Kaddish! I knew that word well enough. Like I said, my dad had just passed away less than nine months earlier and I knew that was the prayer you’re supposed to say when you’re in the first year (fine point: it’s not really a year) after a parent dies. So I heard “Kaddish,” and knowing you were supposed to stand for the Kaddish, I did. My uncle looked at me and tugging my arm, gesturing for me to sit, he said “No. Sit. It’s not the Kaddish you need.”

Oh.

Now I was really confused. Several Kaddishes later, and nearing the end of the service, once again, the rabbi said “Kaddish,” by now quite knowledgeable that I was not to stand or otherwise acknowledge this prayer.

I had the whole thing puzzled out by then, being as the prayer book was of no use to me. I’d figured out that my uncle knew that my mother had paid some guy in another synagogue to say Kaddish for the year. I figured that her transaction absolved me of this obligation. So, saying seated, I knew I was doing what I supposed to do, and that I wasn’t going to appear once again to be the idiot in the room!

Out the corner of my eye I saw my uncle motioning to me. “Get up,” he whispered urgently. “Up. Now!” he said through his teeth. It was nearly the end of the service. And I finally got it. This was where you were supposed to say the Mourner’s Kaddish. Ahh. Needless to say, I was completely confused; perplexed, even. 

Spending most of the service in a state of unending anxiety trying not to look completely ignorant in front of my sister’s family to be (and she was more clueless than I was, trust me), I failed to connect what we were doing with anything remotely spiritual. And so it went. Synagogue services were a two-hour bore (unless the sermon happened to be unusually compelling), and I spent most of my time trying futility to keep up with the rapid Hebrew (and standing up at the right time). This was hardly the foundation for anything remotely spiritual.

This became a chronic problem when, after getting married, my husband wanted to join a Conservative synagogue. I was all for doing whatever he wanted to do; it certainly didn’t matter to me which synagogue we didn’t attend (except for the requisite High Holy Days and other special occasions). Except, there was a problem. He wanted to go. Like, often. As in every week (and on every holiday). OY!

By then (it was a year after my sister’s wedding) I’d figured out the Hebrew alphabet, more out of self-defense than anything else, and thought I knew my way around the curves and angles of the aleph-bet (that’s what we in the Jewish ed biz call the Hebrew alphabet).

So I dabbled a toe and went with him. I could barely contain my glee to have recognized a word I’d heard—in Hebrew, actually finding it in the prayer book (tada!)—and then my dismay as they quickly moved ahead of me, leaving me in the dust of the aleph-bet and trying catch up. All pretty much to no avail.

Sound familiar?

Eventually, I caught on and then some, especially after deciding that at the age of 35, it was time to have a Bat Mitzvah (nope, never had one when I was 13). So I studied and struggled and learned enough to get through the day, but something more important happened during that process: a spark lit long ago by I-don’t-know-who ignited and suddenly I couldn’t get enough.

Giving up a promising career as a public affairs consultant, I eventually made the life-altering decision to become a professional Jewish Cantor. Far from a “voila,” the process takes years of study and experience. But here I am doing what I love–what I’m meant to do.

So, that’s where I came from, and if you’ve read this far, hopefully, you’ll accompany me on this blogging journey. We’ll cover rituals, holidays and observances familiar and obscure, and much more. I can’t promise to make you a maven (an expert), but I can promise that you’ll be more knowledgeable about this ancient and sometimes overwhelming religion of ours. And maybe you’ll even be able to keep up with your kids (or grandkids)!

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About Barbara Barnett

A Jewish mother and (young 🙃) grandmother, Barbara Barnett is an author and professional Hazzan (Cantor). A member of the Conservative Movement's Cantors Assembly and the Jewish Renewal movement's clergy association OHALAH, the clergy association of the Jewish Renewal movement. In her other life, she is a critically acclaimed fantasy/science fiction author as well as the author of a non-fiction exploration of the TV series House, M.D. and contributor to the book Spiritual Pregnancy. She Publisher/Executive Editor of Blogcritics, (blogcritics.org).

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