On Shavuot, why is that calligraphy singing?



LOS ANGELES (JTA) — I hear America singing, except it’s in Hebrew.

Approaching Shavuot, the time of matan Torah, the giving of the Torah, I have heard the song of the new Torah reader in a storefront minyan, and the song of the Jew by choice; the singing of Torah in cyberspace, and the 60-year-old chanting for the first time.

How did this happen?

After generations of relegating Torah reading to professionals, and to those seemingly born into this artful skill, who finally took the “can’t” out of cantillation?

A new wave of Torah readers is coming online, literally. How do they do it?

To begin, open a Hebrew and English edition of a Chumash, the Five Books of Moses — it will help  you navigate through the weekly Torah portions. Below each word are the usual dashes, T shapes and dots — the vowels used by many non-native Hebrew speakers to give each word proper pronunciation.

Look closer still and you will see above and below each word another set of curlicues, dots, curves and zigzags. These marks are the Torah trope — “ta’amei ha-mikra” or “te’amim” — used for the public singing of sacred texts wherever Jews gather to pray.

As a group, the trope form a system of musical notation that can connect us in an intimate way to the Torah — the gift that with Shavuot we are about to celebrate.

Trope, also called niggun, or cantillation, in addition to telling the chanter, the ba’al koreh, how to sing each word, tells them how to punctuate each verse — which words to sing together, which apart and where to place the emphasis.

Arguments have even been made that trope adds meaning to certain key words.

Here’s the really hard thing about trope: They do not appear on the Torah scroll, and must be memorized and then applied to the text.

Torah trope typically is taught to bar mitzvah-age children through CD, cassette and mp3 player accompanied by a printed version, a mnemonic device that shows the musical notes for each trope, arranging them by common combinations and usage.

For most Jews in North America, bar mitzvah time is trope time. Once it’s missed — perhaps you passed on the whole bar mitzvah thing — it’s very difficult for an adult to go back and learn.

Yet you can. I did.

I did not read from the Torah at my bar mitzvah. With too many baby boomers at my suburban temple and not enough teachers, the cantor was happy if we learned the Torah blessings and sweated through a haftarah.

I was nearly 40 when I finally read from the Torah. My prayer community, the Movable Minyan, had just purchased a sefer Torah, and I wanted to be among the first to read from it.

A friend who often read Torah recorded three verses for me on a cassette. Wary of trope, I learned my first reading the way many teens do — by memorizing it.

The morning of my first reading, our minyan had moved into a neighborhood living room. On a simple tabletop, converted to a shulchan, I picked up the silver Torah pointer, the yad, and read for the first time, stumbling when the tape in my head didn’t match the reading, but pulling through to the final “sof pasauk,” the musical cue marking the end of the passage.

I didn’t need someone giving me a Cross pen to know that in those few minutes, about 26 years late, I had chanted myself into a new Jewish adulthood: Hebrew calligraphy was singing, and I could finally hear the words.

Today, years later, after leaning the trope and being able to master a short aliyah or two, I need to ask: If we can Twitter, why can’t we cantor?

The music of our lives is all around us. Why don’t we want to sing it? Tone deafness does not quite cover it. Inability to read music doesn’t either. Gender-based prohibitions, in many settings, are no longer an argument. Is reading Hebrew the barrier?

There is already an intrepid crew of cantors, tutors and knowledgeable lay teachers out there struggling to teach the pre-teen learner: the Hebrew beginner, the tone deaf, the my parents-made-me-comers.

We also need a group just as eager and trained to teach the adult learner: the shul-shy, the preoccupied, the don’t-have-the-timers.

With the rise of the minyan and havurah movements, who will read Torah? How will new readers learn?

Go online. An explosion of sites and products teaches trope in every conceivable way: terrific trainers, tutors, CDs, and mp3s, even powerful learning tools that create individual Torah portion recordings.

Sites that will get you up and chanting are ORT’s Navigating the Bible (http://bible.ort.org) and Ellie Wackerman’s Torah Trope Tutor (www.ellietorah.com/index.html). YouTube even has a video that will give you a taste, graphically and in song, how to chant: www.youtube.com/watch?v=pO6X42cb8aE.

Listen, you can do this. A new song, a shir chadash awaits.

Music is all around us, flying about our heads; simple melodies, memorized, internalized: the five note pattern from “Close Encounters,” the six notes leading up to the word “charge,” at the ballgame, even the Super Mario Brothers theme song.

We have grown accustomed to so many bits and downloads, that learning the few notes of the munach or gershayim tropes should be easy.

To a generation that invented its own text messaging notation, and works emoticons, into their texts, integrating a few musical squiggles into your lives should be a cinch ; -) .

Need an assist? Simply follow the teaching in Pirke Avot and “find yourself a teacher; get yourself a friend.”

At our minyan, movableminyan.org, we have had success in teaching Torah reading by organizing small classes, four to six students, who study with a hired teacher.

Each student pays a portion, and the minyan underwrites the balance. Meeting one evening a week for a short six weeks, the students, adults all — some with good Hebrew skills, some still working hard — are ready to chant at one of our Shabbat morning services.

Some totally zing it, others struggle. Proper names and tricky trope combinations can trip up even the most polished reader. Our experience has been be patient and correct gently. This is the investment that a community must make to continue a tradition that goes back to Ezra, and some say even Moses.

Many new readers have said it’s a life-changing experience. A few have become regular chanters; two women were able to have their bat mitzvahs as a result. All would agree that learning to read Torah, to leyn, has drawn them into the circle of understanding and ownership of the text.

On Shavuot, with the chanting of the Ten Commandments, celebrate a moment when we were handed so much. Teachers, adult learners, hold on to the Tree of Life by singing together.

(Edmon J. Rodman is a Los Angeles writer and designer.)

Recommended from JTA