At the shul where I serve, we don't usually read the haftarah, the reading from the Prophets that in more traditional synagogues is paired with the weekly Torah reading. This decision was made years ago, largely for reasons of attention span and time. People don't want services to be "too long," and generally don't have much patience for lengthy chanted texts in a language that's not the vernacular.
The downside of this is that my community almost never hears the beautiful melodies of haftarah trope. The only time I typically chant haftarah is on Rosh Hashanah, and on that day I always chant the traditional blessings before and after the haftarah, too. But in place of the traditional haftarah text I chant a contemporary poetic rendering of the reading for that day, in English, set in that melodic mode.
Chanting English language poetry in haftarah trope is something I learned from my teacher Hazzan Jack Kessler. He's crafted some beautiful settings of contemporary poetry for use in this way -- and not only contemporary poetry, but also other prophetic texts. I've been blessed to hear him chant the Declaration of Independence in haftarah trope when I've been with my ALEPH rabbinical school community on the Shabbat nearest to the Fourth of July.
I love this practice for at least two reasons. I love the fact that it keeps the plaintive lilt of this melodic system in our hearts and minds -- especially since this is a melodic system that would otherwise be lost in communities like mine where we don't chant the classical haftarah most of the time. The system of the טעמי המקרא / ta'amei hamikra (the markings on the text that denote snatches of melody, a.k.a. trope) is a fascinating one, and I love the way the trope markings serve to give the text phrasing and nuance. I also love how this practice offers an opportunity to lift up texts, contemporary and otherwise, that serve a prophetic function. As a lover of poetry, I am always delighted by opportunities to uplift poems that might speak to people where they are.
One of this year's b'nei mitzvah students at my shul expressed an interest in haftarah. We looked at the haftarah reading for her Torah portion, and found it not particularly engaging. So I told her about this practice I learned from Hazzan Jack, and invited her to consider whether there is a contemporary poem that speaks to her. I reminded her that she's heard me chant contemporary poems in haftarah trope before -- a setting of the story of Chanah on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, a Marge Piercy poem on the second day. She did some digging, and came back to me with one of my poems from 70 faces (Phoenicia, 2011) -- the one that goes with her Torah portion. I've set it to haftarah trope, and will work with her on learning it.
Setting one of my own poems in this melodic system was a moving experience for me. It gave me occasion to reflect on how I phrase the poem when I read it aloud, and how I want the trope marks to "set" the poem musically. And it made me realize that there's no reason for me to limit my English-language haftarah poetry chanting to once a year. I could make a more regular practice of chanting a relevant poem, in the place in the flow of the service where the haftarah goes. I would have to abbreviate somewhere else, of course, in order not to run overtime. Perhaps I'll chant a haftarah poem on weeks when I don't write a d'var Torah, or will shorten p'sukei d'zimrah (the introductory poems and psalms of praise) on weeks when I have a haftarah poem to share. But I love these melodies, and would love to weave them into the consciousness of the community I serve.
I'm grateful to my b'nei mitzvah student for making this request, which has re-enlivened my desire to renew and reclaim this piece of the tradition in a way that my community can access and enjoy.
- A setting of a poem by David Rosenberg in haftarah trope, from Hazzan Jack Kessler, published in Kol ALEPH
- An article he wrote about this practice, published in Kerem Magazine Volume 14 / 2014-5775 - English Leyning: Bringing New Meaning to the Torah Service[pdf]. At the end of the article there's a scan of his setting of texts from the Reverend Martin Luther King z"l for use on the Shabbat of MLK weekend.