Sunday, January 01, 2012

Liturgical grumbles

Mrs. Yid and I spent a week over the winter holidays (and I have to say, now that we don't have cable it's quite nice not to have to hear about people going into conniptions over the term). The first few nights of Hanukkah coincided with our trip and the in-laws decided they wanted us to feel welcome, so there was some interesting cross-cultural stuff happening. Habakkuk originally wanted to make me a wooden menorah but that fell through, so we wound up making a "beer-norah" out of old bottles and filling them with oil.

Anyway, the point of all this was that since I wanted to be inclusive too, I decided it was time to order more benchers, those little prayer/song books Mrs. Yid and I have come to rely on over the years to help us through Shabbat. USY's B'Kol Echad has been our go-to for a long time, and when I went online to get some more, I was pleasantly surprised to see that after 20-plus years, they had come out with a new edition. I ordered some and have been going through them since they got here. Here's a review:

Pros: The text is clearer and crisper, both in Hebrew and English. There also seems to have been a real effort to consolidate or re-order certain prayers to limit the amount of page-flipping required when you're during the middle of a prayer. Some of the transliteration also seems to have been updated to contemporary standards. The biggest structural change is that Havdalah has been moved to the back of the book, I guess in keeping with the idea that you're going to progress through the book linearly. I was expecting it at the front where it used to be, but it's not a big deal, especially now that I've started using my favorite book accessories to find my place. I like the color of the new cover, but Mrs. Yid doesn't care for the artwork, which she says makes her think of a piano workbook.

Cons: I think the biggest overall issue I have with B'Kol Echad 2.0 is that it isn't sure what it wants to be or who its audience is. The USY director says in his introduction that "For a number of years we knew that BKE was in need of revision. Many of the songs we sing today were not in the original edition, while others were rarely used." That may be true, but all the things that irritated me had to do with prayers, not songs. I think the BKE editors couldn't decide whether they were trying to be more traditional or more accessible, and speaking for myself, the end-result is more frustrating than anything else. Here are some low-lights:

  • Adding bits to Kiddush
2.0's Kiddush now has stage directions: First there's "Vayehi erev vayehi vo-ker," which it faithfully translates as "There was morning, and there was evening." And that's fine. But then further down they have "Savri maranan" popping up repeatedly-- with no translation and no explanation! I had to go onto just to figure out what this is. (Of course, in typical Chabad fashion, their link, while interesting, did not actually answer my question about what the words meant.)

This brings up two issues: First, if you're going to have something on the page, why not translate it? What's the point of having it there if people don't know what it means, even if it's a short snippet? Why not err on the side of being more rather than less accessible?

Second, I can understand liberal Jews taking things out, but what's the rationale behind Conservative Jews putting things in? I assume this is the "more traditional" version of the prayer, so this makes me wonder: had Conservative Jews taken these bits back in the 80s and their re-inclusion is a way of being more frum? Or were they always saying it but the original editors neglected to write the directions in, so this is meant to be more a more explicit for prayer leaders? Was this meant to be a solution to a specific problem, or was it a stylistic choice? There's lots of questions here and zero answers.

  • Deleting bits from Havdalah
This was actually was the catalyst for this post: Mrs. Yid and I were doing havdalah using BKE 2.0 and we got to the end. In my 1.0, there is one last line before Shavua Tov:

"Yom pana k'tzeil tomer, ekra la-Eil alai gomer, Amar shomeir, Atah voker v'gam laila."

And in 2.0, this line is gone. No explanation, no nothing. I've been doing it one way since college and now 2.0 has harshed my havdalah buzz. After havdalah, I compared editions and realized that in 1.0, the line was there, but again, with NO translation! (A similar screw-up had been in 1.0's version of Bashana Haba'A-- three stanzas in Hebrew, four in English.) Then, I did some googling and discovered that this extra line isn't actually in the formal Havdalah prayer at all! AGH!

After looking around the web for a while I finally found the translation and the reference, but still had no idea why it had been tacked onto Havdalah (other than it being about night-time), and whether this was a Conservative thing, a recent thing, etc.-- to say nothing about why the 2.0 committee had decided to take it out. More research led me to discover that the line is actually part of a medieval hymn, Hamavdil, that's traditionally sung after Havdalah, but I don't know why the 1.0 editors opted to just take one verse from that hymn and sandwich it into the actual prayer.

  • Some things haven't changed-- and not for the better
As in BKE 1.0, there are both a complete and abridged version of Birkat HaMazon. However, as in 1.0, there is still no explanation of what you're skipping when you opt for the abridged over the original. Since they've kept the odd narrative convention of sticking in "some people add" in various places, I don't understand why they didn't take the whole Grace After Meals and just indicate which parts are, per their interpretation, optional.

Regarding most of my critiques, the editors would probably say that most Conservative Jews are familiar enough with these prayers that they don't need extensive explanations, or even everything to be translated. They've got a standard minhag and this fits in with that. Fair enough, but given that the national trend is for Jews to be less Jewishly educated, and that the bencher (like the new Conservative machzor) is supposed to be totally transliterated-- at least partially, one would assume, to help reach out to a wider audience-- I don't understand the logic behind going with less, rather than more, information. If I'm trying to use your books as a resource, I'd much rather you make it easier for me to use and know what I'm doing.

Final thoughts

Thinking it over, I guess I've been spoiled by my newest Judaica, particularly Siddur Eit Ratzon, which assumes that its audience is curious but not necessarily super-knowledgable about liturgy, and therefore has lots of information explaining the prayers and the editor's decisions. The assorted liberal chumashim I've been using for parsha study, particularly the RA's Etz Hayim, have also been pretty good with that. For lack of a better term, they feel very "open source."

I think there's an growing interest about liturgy among engaged American Jews, which is at least partially why there's an increased demand for transliterated materials (again, see the Conservative machzor). It's not just about being able to "follow along," but also to engage with the text.  I compare it to an engineer wanting to take a machine apart to see how it works. Ironically there seems to be some awareness of this trend in 2.0 through its use of citations showing where various prayers or quotations come from-- but this seems to misunderstand what people actually want or need. I'm much less interested in the precise textual citation for the blessing over children than I am in knowing what I'm saying and why when I say Kiddush, Havdalah, or Birkat HaMazon. This is like if instead of letting me open the machine to see the insides you point out the label that says it was made in Taiwan. Not helpful. When the RA published its machzor-- at the same time as this bencher, incidentally-- it went to great pains to say that they were trying to reach a wider audience. It's disappointing that its new bencher seems to be missing that vision and is structured as if its only readers are going to be kids at Camp Ramah.

On the one hand, it's nice to be familiar(ish) enough with Hebrew liturgy that this is even an issue for me, considering how foreign and inaccessible Hebrew prayer was when I first started going to shul. But now that I know enough to be curious about Shabbat prayers and want to learn more about them, I'm struggling with finding tools that will let me open the liturgy up to better understand it. I don't think I want to go with "the most traditional version" of something every time but if my only other options are to skip things entirely (Reform) or abridge things without really knowing what I'm doing or why (Conservative), I don't see how I'm ever supposed to become educated enough to make my own decisions about prayer. BKE 2.0 is fine, but the more I notice various inconsistencies, the more I suspect I may need to look for some better benchers.

How about it, readers? Any book suggestions? Am I over-thinking this too much?


Sholom said...

It's the opening line of a liturgical poem, Hamavdil.. my educated guess is that it was written by a medieval Iberian grammarian-poet or somesuch. The acrostic phrase is Yitz'hak Hakatan.

My guess is corroborated by the wiki.

Friar Yid said...

Thanks Sholom! Do you know anything about the history of using the first line of Hamadvil as part of Havdalah? I haven't been able to find any reference of people doing it.

I wonder whether this a long-running tradition that the Conservative movement decided to include at one point and then drop, or if it was an innovation at the time and by getting rid of it they've returned to the more standard practice.

I'm feeling kind of bummed now that I realize I've been doing Havdalah "wrong" for several years. (Especially because I rather like the rhyme scheme.)

Curse thee, nonexistent Jewish education!

Friar Yid said...

Edit: Readers (really?) will be happy (really?) to know that as of writing this post I have ordered four different new benchers as well as R. Hayim Halevy Donin's book, To Pray as a Jew. Let it never be said that I have too few books about Judaism.

We'll see which ones we like best. Maybe I'll even do a little write-up here.

If anyone out there in the Judeosphere can think of any other Judaica that might strike our fancy, give a holler. (I think there's still some room in the closet!)