DLTI post 2: gleanings
Interfaith work and the godblogosphere


Last weekend I returned to leyning, after long absence: I chanted two brief aliyot of Torah during Shabbat mincha services at DLTI. I spent a long time preparing, struggling to make the words and the melody coincide, terrified that when I stood in front of the kahal (community) I would forget every note. When instead the verses flowed smoothly, I was elated...and wanted immediately to do it again.

I'm leading services at my shul tomorrow morning, and I'm planning to leyn those same verses that I chanted last Shabbat afternoon. (At mincha on Shabbat afternoon, we begin reading from the following week's Torah portion, so the lines I learned are appropriate for this Shabbat morning.) Plus this time I'll be doing the aliyah in the middle, too. So today I'm working on learning to chant those middle verses. And I'm wishing I could also chant the translation.

I'm arguably nuts to even consider trying it. Chanting in English requires two different simultaneous processes of translation: first, looking at the Hebrew and remembering what musical notes go with each word (bearing in mind that the musical notation marks, like vowels, don't appear in the scroll.) Then translating the Hebrew into English, and figuring out how to apply the trop markings to the English translation, which inevitably has a different syntax altogether. Often trop markings are meant to highlight a particular word or give it a particular mouth-feel, and retaining that in English can be tricky.

What this is really about, I think, is my desire to straddle two paradigms at once. The more I learn about the ways in which Torah has traditionally been chanted, the more enchanted I am by the melodies, and by this alternate form of musical notation that's so unlike the western stuff I otherwise know. I want to embrace this, to practice it in my own life. But I also don't want to lose the blessings I've found in the interlinear process; reading in a Reform shul has spurred me to focus on understanding what I'm saying, and helping others to understand too, and that's a value I still hold dear.

When done well, bilingual chanting integrates what I value about each of these ways of reading Torah: the preservation of these lilting melodies (which are themselves a form of commentary), and the translation of holy text into a vernacular that congregants understand. Done poorly, it can be jerky, satisfying neither as music nor as intelligible transmission of words and ideas.

As I practice, this afternoon, it's clear to me that my skills here are...patchwork at best. I can render some of the verses easily and cleanly in either language; others trip me up. The verses I've been practicing for weeks now are pretty smooth; the ones I'm just learning today are kicking my ass. Using an academic metaphor, bilingual leyning is a 400-level skill, while I'm still a student in leyning 102.

I'm aware that if I stretch myself too far, I risk breaking the experience for everyone else -- a notion which makes me cringe. So I will probably aspire to chant these three aliyot, and then speak the translation as I normally do...though who knows; maybe I'll manage to chant just the last line in both languages, to give my community a taste for what can be.

Shabbat shalom, all!

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