Unusual Trappings Retain Spirit of Rosh Hashanah

Times Staff Writer

It was the Day of Awe, the day of Sounding of the Horn, the solemn beginning of the Jewish religious year.

A congregation of about 85 listened to the rabbi who stood before them in a black suit with a red velvet yarmulke on his head and a white wool prayer shawl around his shoulders.

He spoke softly, in a matter-of-fact cadence. Then, at one point, he stopped and cast a puzzled expression at the two young women cantors standing to his right. They returned the look.

Then they jumped to the microphone to sing.

“We make a lot of mistakes because we’re not professional,” the rabbi said with unapologetic candor. “Somebody said to me, ‘Hi, rabbi.’ I’m not. I’m a lawyer.”

That produced a few chuckles around the room.

Usually people don’t laugh a lot at a Rosh Hashanah service. It is a serious time when God is said to inscribe all the Jews in the Book of Life and they, through introspection and self-examination, may expunge the bad comments from the inscription.


A Time of Introspection

Because it is a time of introspection, they don’t usually stand up to discuss fine points of Jewish tradition or read their favorite psalms before the congregation. And usually they don’t clap when the rabbi finishes blowing the shofar, the sacred horn.

But they did all that Sunday evening and Monday morning at their rented “temple,” Emerson Unitarian Church in Canoga Park, where a group called the Now Young Singles celebrated Rosh Hashanah, as it has every year for more than a decade.

The group, which traces its origin to the now-defunct Emet Young Jewish Professionals, began the unusual High Holiday services 12 years ago as an alternative to the more rigidly formal and costly services at the Valley’s temples.

The tradition has prospered and today offers the group a warm, intimate ceremony in an atmosphere that can be reverent but never grows stiff.

“We do a lot of participation here,” cantor Lorri Schuster-Weiss announced as the service began Sunday. “So I hope you all brought your vocal chords.”

Guitar Tunes

Weiss’s co-cantor, Wendy Raksin, played tunes on a guitar as the two sang in Hebrew and English.

Many of the songs were quotations from the liturgy set to modern tunes by a member of the group and accompanied by tape recordings made on a music synthesizer.

At first, the congregation was shy about joining in. Weiss and Raksin, both teachers in elementary schools when they are not cantors, coaxed them.

“It’s OK if you don’t know the words,” Weiss said. “Sing la la la. If you sing in a monotone, that’s all right.”

Through the three-hour service, “rabbi” Michael Klein, a partner in a Century City law firm, frequently interrupted the prayers of the conservative ceremony to explain the meaning of the holiday and its rituals.

“Rosh Hashanah means Head of the Year,” he explained at one point. He said it is a time of rebirth, a time of remembering and self-evaluation when Jewish people examine their sins and try to rectify them.

“A special note on the word sin,” he added. “In Hebrew it literally means ‘missing the mark.’ In Jewish tradition, it is not intentional. It is not irrevocable. Rosh Hashanah is a good time to remind ourselves that we can miss the mark but we can get on the right track and hit it the next time.”

During the service, Klein frequently urged anyone in the congregation to lead responsive readings. Usually no one budged.

“OK,” he would say each time, forgivingly. “I’ll lead it.”

At one point, however, a young man came forward to read a poem. And later, when Klein acknowledged that he needed a little help in explaining the significance of markings on the prayer shawl, several people pitched in to tell their interpretations.

Shared Challah, Wine

The Sunday service ended in the basement of the church where the congregation walked, about an hour before midnight, to share an egg bread called challah dipped in honey and small cups of wine, the traditional initiation of the new year.

On Monday morning, the group reconvened for the reading of the Torah, the hand-written scroll of the Old Testament books, and the blowing of the shofar.

“We’re real fortunate, in fact, to have a Torah,” Klein said. “It’s hard to borrow a Torah. And the looks on their faces when you walk out with their Torah . . . .” Everyone laughed.

Two young men from the congregation helped Klein remove the Torah from the Arc of the Covenant. It was about two feet tall, protected by a blue velvet cover embroidered with white tablets and crown and gold Hebraic inscriptions.

Carried Torah Around Room

One of the men carried the Torah around the room. Each person who could reach it touched the Torah with a prayer book and then kissed the book.

Then they removed the cover and opened the scroll. Klein read from Genesis and called several people from the congregation in turn to recite a prayer in Hebrew:

“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.”

When the reading was done, Klein invited everyone to step forward to look at the Torah. Many people never have the chance to see a Torah up close, he said.

Then it was time to sound the horn.

“It’s such a wonderful sound to hear,” Klein said.

He read several passages explaining its purpose. One said it was blown to confuse Satan, another that it was used to summon the Jews to battle and intimidate the enemy.

Most importantly, he said, it “testifies to our Jewish will to survive . . . . We are an ancient people with a long and beautiful tradition. The shofar ties each one of us to that tradition. When we hear the shofar, we are with Moses at Sinai.

“It’s a harsh sound. It’s a beautiful sound. It’s a Jewish sound. It’s our sound,” he said.

Klein raised the shofar, a small, hollow lustrous ram’s horn.

90 Blasts

As tradition dictates, he blew 90 blasts, some short and rapid, some long and loud.

It was an unusual sound, duller and not as loud as a trumpet, but full of mysterious textures.

Midway through, the tone faltered. Klein had to take some deep breaths to get on track.

“Mike, you’re all red,” cantor Raksin said when he was done.

Everyone clapped.