Thursday, September 13, 2012

Make Some Noise in Synagogue

Prayer shouldn’t be a spectator sport. So why do so many shuls insist that congregants sit in silence?
(Photoillustration Ivy Tashlik; original photos Shutterstock)
The CEO and managing director of the Brooklyn Philharmonic set off a storm of protest in the classical music world this spring when he suggested that concert halls could benefit from less audience decorum and more clapping, laughter, cheers, and other expressions of emotion. Don’t sit still so much at the symphony, Richard Dare urged: Performances of classical music need to be livelier, less hushed, less boring, and audiences can do their part in making that happen.

The idea horrified some musicians and orchestra officials. If people can’t “sit still and be quiet,” said Robert Spano, the music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, “I don’t think classical music is for them.” Dare has clarified his position in subsequent articles, but has not backtracked. “I don’t want bedlam to break out,” he told reporter Daniel J. Wakin for a piece about the controversy published June 8 in the New York Times. “I’m keenly interested in not dismantling the experience we have now,” he explained. But he does want to make that experience “relevant to more people.”

I’m with him all the way. If you substitute “synagogue” for “concert hall” and “prayer services” for “orchestral performances,” you realize that Dare’s proposal is relevant—point after painful point—to the experience that many Jews have in all too many North American synagogues. Since several million Jews are about to spend a great deal of time in synagogue—the High Holidays are almost upon us, to be followed immediately by Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah—I think there is good reason to ask whether something could or should be done to alter the atmosphere in a shul in the ways that Dare wants to change it at the concert hall. I vote yes for two principal reasons -- Chancellor Arnold Eisen, The Jewish Theological Seminary, Tablet

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