Are you ready for HHDs?

The first time a singer dives into temple work can be very rewarding, with lush music, a rich history and lovely community.  But if you’re unfamiliar with the culture and traditions that are a central part of the High Holy Days, this primer, provided by our own Shelly Fox, will help:

Star of DavidHigh Holy Day Dos & Don’ts

Many singers are hired every fall to sing at synagogue services for the Jewish High Holy Days, and it’s a good gig to get, as the experience can be very artistically, financially and personally rewarding. Lauri’s List has asked me to provide some guidelines for those of you new to synagogue work:

I am a Jewish classical music singer with many years of experience, both attending and singing in High Holy Day services. Some ideas below will be old news to seasoned pros, and much of this information is common sense, but you’d be surprised what some people don’t think of.  One clarification:  As you read on, bear in mind that for the purposes of this article, I use the terms “synagogue” and “temple” interchangeably.

Service leaders
Synagogue services are led by a rabbi and a cantor. In Judaism, both rabbi and cantor are ordained members of the clergy. Some synagogues have a “cantorial soloist” rather than a cantor. A cantorial soloist is a knowledgeable singer who performs the functions of a cantor, but is not ordained clergy.

Differences from church work
Synagogue or temple music programs are very different from church music programs, and a clear understanding of the differences will help a great deal. To start, where many churches have a choir that sings every week and rehearses regularly with an ever-changing repertoire of church music, most temples don’t have a choir all year. The cantor sings all the music of the service every week. The music that is put together for the hired choir (or combination hired and volunteer) is not always made up of easily readable copies, and is not always well organized or easy to follow. The charts or sheets are often photocopies of photocopies, even a few generations old. Be prepared to read whatever is handed to you.

Skills and language
You’ll need to be a great sightreader. There are never many rehearsals before the services, so it’s important to be able to get it quickly. That means not only being a good sight reader, but also being comfortable with Hebrew transliteration: rather than expecting singers to read Hebrew, most music provides a musical transliteration, which is a representation of Hebrew pronunciation in letters of the English alphabet, similar to the way transliterations are provided in non-Russian editions of Russian music.

Most of the language is easy to pick up – vowels are pronounced as in Latin or Italian. The vowels are pure – no diphthongs. Probably the most tricky Hebrew sound for an American is the ch sound. It is similar to the German ch sound, if a bit more gutteral: with open lips, place the tip of your tongue behind your lower teeth, and blow air through your throat to make a back-of-the-throat “H” sound.  Bear in mind that pronunciation can be a controversial issue: for instance, an Israeli Hebrew speaker would probably handle both the ch and the e sounds differently than many Americans.  Just do whatever the choir director or cantor asks for. There also may be some changes to the printed text, depending on the dialect used in the individual congregation.

Ready for anything
Be able to react on a moment’s notice. Temple services have a much different structure than church services, and if you’re not familiar with the structure, things may seem to happen very quickly. Also, there will probably not be a conductor telling you what’s next, and you may or may not be provided with a printed order of service or bulletin. If you’ll get any cues at all, they’ll come either from the organist or the cantor, who are also focusing on their own music. Always be alert and be ready for what comes next.

Big days
The High Holy Days are Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Rosh Hashanah (literally “Head of the Year”) is the Jewish new year. Unlike the Western new year, it is not a time of merriment and celebration. It is a time of reflection and deep contemplation and prayer. The liturgy asks God that we be written in the Book of Life for another year, with the idea that it is up to God who will live and who will die. It is a time of taking stock of one’s life, one’s existence, ones’s relationships and one’s place in the world.

Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) is the holiest day of the year for Jewish people. There are 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. During those 10 days, a Jew is supposed to ask forgiveness both from God and from people whom one has wronged or mistreated and also forgive those who have wronged them. One is supposed to fast – taking no food or drink – from sundown to sundown on Yom Kippur. Some people wear white to symbolize purity. The day is spent deep in prayer and atoning for one’s sins throughout the year.

We include this religious information because although hired singers are almost never asked to participate in the fast, for instance, it is of utmost importance that we all be respectful of the solemn nature of the holiday. During Yom Kippur, for instance, do not carry water or food with you, as it will be seen as disrespectful to those who are fasting. (See more details below.)  Do not chit chat and appear jovial in front of the congregation. You don’t have to be morose — it’s not a funeral. Just be sensitive to the feel of the room.

Some temples will have robes for you to wear. Others will have a dress code – white and black, all white or just nice clothes. Be conservative in your dress. Depending on the synagogue, it may or may not be ok for women to have bare shoulders, for instance, and pants may be discouraged. Most temples will require men to wear head covering (a yarmulke or skullcap), and will generally have them available for you.  Some congregations may also ask women to wear a head covering, and prayer shawls may also be used.  Make sure you check with the person who hired you, so you know what the guidelines are for that congregation.  If you borrow any of these items, make sure you return them at the end of your contract period.

Yom Kippur services go all day. It’s a marathon, so pace yourself. You will certainly get a break in the afternoon, but be prepared to be there from morning until sundown. You will not be expected to fast. Some temples will provide food for you in a discreet location. Others will expect you to bring your own food. Others will expect you to go out to get food and come back for the afternoon and evening services. Be sensitive to the fact that everyone around you is fasting. Don’t re-enter a room wiping your mouth, or still chewing, picking food out of your teeth, etc.

Attitude is key
Most important, have an open mind and an open heart. Allow yourself to take it all in, and singing for High Holy Day services can be a very moving and rewarding experience.



Rachelle Fox is Jewish herself, and a longtime Lister. She currently serves as cantorial soloist at Temple Israel of Hollywood as well as juggling a busy career as a soloists and chorister, and teaching early music at USC.

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