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    A View from the Pew

    Kol Nidre

    Kol Nidre


    My daughter’s voice professor Dr. Fred Scheff,  a gifted tenor and the principal cantor for Temple Shalom in Middletown, RI, invited Martha and my husband and I to celebrate Kol Nidre, the service on the evening before Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement - the holiest day of the Jewish year. This year, Kol Nidre fell on the evening of Shabbat, Friday night. As sundown approached on the ninth evening of the Ten Days of Repentance, the community committed to its ritual fast beginning at sundown on the evening of Kol Nidre and broken at the end of the at the end of the next evening after a full day of prayer on Yom Kippur and concluding with the sounding of the Shofar. (The weight of the fast and celebration resembles the Paschal fast and feast of Christian Triduum.) As the sunset announced the beginning of Kol Nidre, the community gathered together to sing prayer as it sought repentance and right relationship with God and one another. I anticipated hearing some of the most profound and beautiful music found within Judaic repertoire and was not disappointed.


    Appointed persons come forward to hold the sacred scrolls of Torah to symbolize a rabbinical court (Beth Din) as the cantor sings:


    "In the tribunal of Heaven and the tribunal of earth, by the permission of God — praised be He — and by the permission of this holy congregation, we hold it lawful to pray with transgressors."


    The dialogue of between God and people became obvious in the celebration of Kol Nidre through the integrated leadership of the Rabbi and the Cantor. Indeed, throughout the service, the rabbi never referred to his counterpart as “the cantor.” The rabbi simply called him “Cantor” when he announced each portion of the service. (i.e. “Cantor will continue with Shir Shalom.” “Cantor will continue with Kol Nidre.” The egalitarian model of two leaders at work in spoken and sung dialogue on behalf of the community along with the community’s faithful discourse of verbal and musical response reminded me of a well scored symphony. Beyond that, a second cantor, Edward Scheff, father of Fred, led the assembly responses in Hebrew in his place within the assembly, to mark the place for both the community and the principal cantor who led prayer. When Ed finished, Fred picked up his ‘cue’ to begin the next section of the service. These folks know how to worship, I marveled. The roof lifted with the sound and passion of vibrant prayer. I wanted to remove my shoes; here was a burning bush of holy ground.


    The singing of the Kol Nidre sung prayer sent me reeling. Cantor Scheff chanted the gorgeous melodic phrases heavily laced with prayerful emotion, varying the difficult music passagios with tenderness, intensity and vocal dexterity.  The community responded likewise,


    "All personal vows we are likely to make, all personal oaths and pledges we are likely to take between this Yom Kippur and the next Yom Kippur, we publicly renounce. Let them all be relinquished and abandoned, null and void, neither firm nor established. Let our personal vows, pledges and oaths be considered neither vows nor pledges nor oaths."


    Profoundly moved, the next part really struck me when we said together,


    “May all the people of Israel be forgiven, including all the strangers who live in their midst, for all the people are in fault." That’s me, I thought. “I’m a Gentile worshipping with my Jewish sisters and brothers, all praying to the same God of mercy, compassion and forgiveness. How amazing.” At prayer’s end, Torah scrolls replaced, the customary evening service began.


    Throughout Kol Nidre, Rabbi Marc Jagolinzer and Cantor Fredric Scheff exhorted the community to follow God’s ways as representatives from the community held the sacred scrolls of Torah as a reminder of God’s living word among us. The rabbi and cantor, with the worshipping assembly, extolled the Lord as God of heaven and earth. Cantor Scheff, with the assistance of a magnificent vocal quartet and accompanied by organist Stephen Martorella reminded the community of its salvation history. Rabbi Jagolinzer preached on the importance of how words can work as a bolster for others and likewise wound them through lies, gossip, xenophobia (the sin of chauvinism) or other failures that not only offend God but hurt the entire community, using examples from scripture and contemporary writers like Elie Weisel and Abraham Hershel to make his point. We beat our chests and asked for God’s mercy. We sang prayer for the sick, mourned the dead by name and remember those who died in the Shoah. The prayer for peace and the prayer for the sick brought me to my knees, not only because of the musical beauty from Cantor Scheff and the quartet, but the poignant and full-bodied singing of the assembly. We all know someone who is ill; weeping could be heard as names were called out for prayers from the community. “Hear us,” we called out, over and over again. “Hear us….”


    I wanted to jump out of my seat and dance in the aisle with a tambourine in my hands during some of the more rhythmic pieces, which I found as lively as the Dayenu of Seder. I restrained myself but I think I should have danced! I’ll lay odds that if we could YouTube a celebration of Kol Nidre centuries ago, people danced. Why not? Miriam danced. Sarah danced, probably with Abraham. I believe that God dances at Kol Nidre; why shouldn’t we? Next year……


    Thank you to Dr. Fred Scheff and the community of Temple Shalom in Middletown for the opportunity to profoundly pray and celebrate with you on the holiest night of your liturgical year. Blessed holy days.