Book Review of Joey Weisenberg's Building Singing Communities

Sunday, July 22, 2012


Joey Weisenberger’s Building Singing Communities: A Practical Guide to Unlocking the Power of Music in Jewish Prayer, with a Foreword by Rabbi Elie Kaunfer, 2011; a Publication of Hadar’s Minyan Project
Reviewed by Shoshana Brown

Published in the Journal of Synagogue Music, Vol 37

This book, launched together with an accompanying CD (Joey’s Nigunim: Spontaneous Jewish Choir) which is sold separately, is timely and much needed. To use it, however, you have to be willing to take a plunge, for Weisenberg—Music Director at the Kane Street Synagogue in Brooklyn, NY and Music Faculty member at Yeshivat Hadar in Manhattan—describes a vision of synagogue-singing/praying that most of us have never witnessed. I had heard Weisenberg give a presentation at an Independent Minyan Conference, and so, was not surprised at what he describes in his book. But I suspect that neither hearing nor reading about it can give one a true grasp of what it’s like.

One probably needs to attend either a service at his synagogue or a class at his Yeshiva in order to understand the essence of his approach: “...every congregation that aims to take its singing energy to the next level must develop a core group of singers who stand close together, directly surrounding the ba’al t’fillah. I like to call this group the “Spontaneous Jewish Choir” and its participants “musical gabba’im. But this singing core is not a new idea at all. In many ways, it’s actually a return to a centuries old synagogue practice whereby choristers (m’shor’rim) would stand near the hazzan to sing spontaneous harmonized responses.”

Yes, I had heard of m’shor’rim (and seen them on Youtube), but Weisenberg is not really endorsing a return this late medieval set-up. We are not talking about a handful of grown men with a sprinkling of young boys here. We are talking about a much larger group of adult layfolk, men and women, clustered around the sh’liah tsibbur at a floor-level, centralized prayer amud (he stresses the importance of not having prayer led from a frontal, raised bimah) for the duration of the service—who would support the prayer-leader’s singing, and simultaneously take their cues from him/her—and most importantly, encourage lustier singing/davening from the rest of the congregation. At least that’s the best I can figure it out from Weisenberg’s self-described “manifesto.”

Here too, there is a caveat for anyone teaching the “spontaneous singing choir” a congregational melody in preparation for an actual service. Weisenberg’s well-taken advice is to avoid introducing harmonies until people have mastered the tune by singing it together in unison some 30 times. Once they really know it, harmonies will develop on their own.

The centralized-amud concept also raises certain logistical questions and may require some reconstruction of our sanctuaries. (In my home shul we do have a floor-level amud, but there is no room there for such a large singing-group crowding around it for most of the service). It is also difficult to understand the logistics of this arrangement. Do all the “spontaneous choir” members remain standing the whole time the hazzan is davening? Are we meant to hear the sh’liah tsibbur’s voice above the crowd as the distinct leader, or are all these folks, in a sense, “leading”? Once the congregation is able to carry a particular melody, can the hazzan harmonize with them?

These are just some of the questions that are bound to arise in readers’ minds as they try to imagine putting Weisenberg’s ideas into practice. It is beyond question today that increased participation and enthusiasm by members of the congregation during a service is the sine qua non of their engagement in prayer; it will also enhance their ease with the language of t’fillah. But what about the “ease” of the prayer leader? Will the hazzan feel comfortable with so many people hemming him/her in so closely, awaiting their cue for the next congregational melody? How will the rest of the congregation feel if they cannot see—and possibly be unable to hear—him/her? Might the harmonies so overwhelm the melody line that some daveners would not be able to recognize what the basic tune of the prayer is?

Certainly a field trip to Joey’s kahal in Brooklyn, or to Hadar in Manhattan, might help one to understand how all this works. Most of our congregants have not yet attained the same level of Jewish knowledge and engagement as Joey Weisenberg’s regular worshipers or students. It strikes me that just as he came to his methods in an organic way while leading/teaching worship, so too, his readers might have to discover through their own process of trial and error exactly which of his suggestions will work most effectively for them—and perhaps along the way develop additional methods of their own. I vividly remember Craig Taubman’s visit to the CA convention in Los Angeles a number of years ago. He did not have his whole band; it was just Craig and his guitar, and still he had the whole room in the palm of his hand, singing with fervor. Afterwards one of the cantors asked him, “But what do I do about the fact that I am not you?” Taubman answered: “You are not supposed to be Craig Taubman. You have to be the you that God meant you to be!”

Indeed, those who share Joey’s goal of taking their people’s “singing energy to the next level” will ultimately have to find their own ways to achieve it. With a willingness to experiment (and with support from the rabbi and synagogue lay leadership), perhaps Weisenberg’s recipes will work better than most of us can imagine. Yet, it might also be prudent to gradually feel our way in developing a “spontaneous Jewish choir” as we discover what seems “right” to the rest of the congregation whose leadership in prayer is our responsibility. (It is worth noting that at Kane Street this more intensely participatory approach to davening was first developed in an alternate minyan before gradually entering the main service.)

Weisenberg includes many other “recipes for success” in his slim book, including tips for how to learn and retain a new melody and how to teach it to others. His suggestions for a novice ba’al t’fillah in how to lead services are excellent, and chapters on “Politics and Diplomacy” and “Expanding the Musical Culture of the Community” are indispensable for our brave new world.

I greatly enjoyed listening to the companion CD of Joey’s Nigunim, (the author’s spelling; all melodies composed by him as well), but I suspect that for many congregants, this kind of music would only be an acquired taste. Weisenberg’s melodies gravitate towards the plaintive; even his faster ones share this quality. In that sense they resemble meditative hasidic d’veikut niggunim, particularly those of Lubavitch. I happen to be a fan of this musical genre, but I don’t think the same is true for the American Jewish mainstream. Nonetheless, whether we choose to enrich our davening with Joey’s melodies, with Debbie Friedman’s, Solomon Sulzer’s, or Mizrahi piyyutim tunes, the aim is to bring enthusiastic congregational involvement to our t’fillah b’tsibbur.

Joey Weisenberg is doing his part in pointing the way—but he needs our help. And we need his. Buy the book. Read it. Listen to the CD. Then, with your mitpall’lim, take the plunge. Join the good fight to transform our synagogues into arenas of engagement and commitment, aided by the power of music to elevate our prayer as—more and more—we become “singing communities.”

Shoshana Brown received her cantorial s’mikhah from the Alliance for Jewish Renewal in 2011. Her article, “Nothing New under the Sun: What’s Still Wrong with our Synagogues?,” appeared in JSM 2008; and her interview, “The Amidah and Atsilut: A Dialogue with Zalman Schachter-Shalomi,” appeared in JSM 2009. She has served as hazzan or Jewish music teacher at Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative and Unaffiliated congregations, and currently resides in Huntington, New York.