Shofar and Rosh Hashanah

    February Purim 1999          
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Opinion & Society

The Rabbi's Assistant

By Aryeh Katz

I worked, for a time, in a small town in rural Florida. I was now seeing myself, for the first time, as a "Jew", though I knew little of what that really meant. When Rosh Hashana approached, I decided that as a Jew, I ought to do something religiously appropriate. I knew not what Jews were supposed to do on such days other than to go to some type of services at a Temple or Synagogue.

The area where I lived had no Temple or Synagogue of it's own. There were enough interested Jews in the area to rent out a town community center and bring in a Rabbi from a nearby larger community. I had no idea what the services would be like, but I showed up, as I felt it was now my duty.

I was surprised to see how many other people showed up for the services. Apparently there were more Jews here than I had suspected. I was comforted to see so many others "coming out of the woodwork". Though we were strangers, there was an unmistakeable feeling of kinship between us. The services began, and I did my best to read along in the english prayer book. Everything was unfamiliar to me, and I tried to make what sense of it that I could.

The visiting Rabbi was rather uninspiring. He seemed to do little other than to sit there trying to look important. What I recall most was the Rabbis assistant, whom I'll call Mr. Phillips. He was remarkable. Although I'm willing to bet that Mr. Phillips saw little of the Rabbi's paycheck, he easily performed the bulk of the work.

Mr. Phillips led the Rosh Hashanah services in a faithful if rather mechanical manner. There were no snide comments or bad speeches from Mr. Phillips. The only thing that might have been objectionable, the peculiar squeaks he periodically emitted, were entirely forgiveable when one considered his age. "Mr. Phillips", you see, was a portable cassette player that the Rabbi had brought along. Along with the tape player, the Rabbi brought some tapes of the Rosh Hashanah services, complete with chazanut (cantorial), and, the grand highlight, as I'll shortly explain.

The congregation sat quietly, and respectfully, through most of the services, listening to "Mr. Phillips", interspersed by short comments, and an occasional speech from the Rabbi. So this was how Jews prayed on Rosh Hashanah. I was not impressed. Overall, I found the services quite confusing and unsatisfying.

The biggest challenge, aside from staying awake, was deciding where to look. Apart from the tape player, there was no clear central focus. It was awkward to stare at the tape player for too long. The prayer book was boring. The Rabbi and the other congregants were more interesting to look at, but even that grew tiresome. Many of the other congregants seemed to be having the same problem. Some solved it by closing their eyes - or were they sleeping? I couldn't tell.

The most memorable part of the experience for me came near the end of the services. Acting on some type of queue, the Rabbi rose from his seat, removed the tape of cantorial singing, and inserted a new tape. The suspense seemed to build. Everybody was sitting quietly in expectation for something. What would it be? An inspiring sermon? A special prayer? The tape player droned on, squeaked, and then finally emitted a high-pitched, piercing sound somewhat reminiscent of a poorly-played french horn. The sound continued, on and off, for a few moments. Now I was totally lost - I had no idea what this was, or why I was hearing it. I looked around at the other congregants, hoping for a clue. Nobody else looked startled or confused by the strange sounds. I decided that this must be a normal part of the services, and sat there quietly, trying to mask my bewilderment.

The services concluded, and people cordially wished each other a happy new year. There were a lot of handshakes and pleasant smiles, and then everybody went their separate ways. The Rabbi and "Mr. Phillips" were still there when I left, perhaps lingering behind to discuss the performance. I walked out into the intense September sunshine, assuming that whatever a Jew was supposed to do on Rosh Hashanah, I had just done it. Now it was time to get back to other business.

Soon afterwards, I forgot about the whole experience. I had a myriad of other interests in my life at the time. Judaism still took a back seat.

Two years later, when Rosh Hashana came around, I was in Israel learning on a yeshiva. I had already been there for several months, and was becoming familiar with Jewish custom and ritual. Still, it wasn't until the Rosh Hashana services, while seeing and hearing the shofar being blown, that I remembered those strange sounds I had heard on tape two years back. Finally I realized what they were supposed to be.

With all due respect to "Mr. Phillips", the taped rendition just wasn't the same thing.

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from theFebruary Purim 1999 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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