My Heart Opened: First Encounters With Reb Zalman
I’ve been a shul goer most of my life. Before I could read, when my father was the executive director of Temple Anshe Chesed in New York and I went to their kindergarden, he would take me into the sanctuary on Friday afternoons when everyone had gone home and I would go through the entire Torah service in front of the ark. And every Shabbat, we sang the full Ashkenazic version of Birkat haMazon / Grace After Meals, which I also memorized before I could read. What made this easier than perhaps it looks to adults was that both the shuls I went to and my family used the same melodies for the same prayers all the time. While this makes them familiar and easier to memorize, it also flattens out their affect and narrows the emotional range which the words can communicate. Birkat haMazon, no matter the day or the meal, always began with the familiar table thumping melody, useful as a social connector perhaps but less so as a conveyor of gratitude to the Source of Blessing.
I was also a troubled child. My mother died when I was nine and, with the exception of two helpful talks I had with Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan when I was twelve, there had been no one to help me process my loss and connect it in a meaningful way with God. Though I was a yeshivah student through high school, I wasn’t able to see a relationship between the Judaism I was being taught and the Divine. I have come to see how the still immediate impact of the Shoah intensified this difficulty, since my teachers also were wrestling with the same questions on a much larger level, but their silence wasn’t something I could understand at the time.
In 1962 and 1963, I was an older camper at Camp Ramah in Connecticut. In both of the summers, a “religious environmentalist” visited the camp, a Lubavitcher rabbi by the name of Zalman Schachter. For the most part, I stayed away from him as he took kids to town to buy material to make their own tallitot and then tie the tzitzit themselves or teaching them what were the essentials of a shacharit/morning service so that they could put on their t’fillin, davven, and still make the school bus on time. As a good yeshivah boy, I thought these were gimmicks for beginners and not for someone who studied talmud daily. But I couldn’t avoid him when he shared a different kind of melody for the first blessing of Birkat haMazon with the entire camp at Shabbat evening dinner and so I learned an alternative to the table thumper which stayed with me.
It was only recently that I finally asked him whose melody it was and he told me it was his own! I’m pleased to share it with you once again and hope that we will be able to sing it together sometime soon.
I started the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in the Fall of 1968, a member of its first class. That same fall, a college friend doing graduate work at Brandeis invited me to Boston to experience Havurat Shalom, the “community seminary” Rabbi Arthur Green (later to become my teacher and the second to sign my semichah) had formed. On that Shabbat morning, the prayer leader was Reb Zalman and I remember that he sang El Adon to the tune of “Donna Donna.” Though I subsequently learned several other melodies for the same poem, I wasn’t able to duplicate what Reb Zalman had done until a few years ago and now I share it with you as well. [By the way, in two cases I've followed the version of the words found in Nusach S'fard and S'faradi. See you if you can pick them out.]
For the second time, I learned that to change the melody is to expose the words to new levels of meaning. Slower melodies allow for words recited by monotonous rote to be caressed and be opened to open the heart. Later that same year, I again opened my heart, this time to my beloved Hanna Tiferet and, through her, to Reb Shlomo Carlebach, through whom, several years later, I became reconciled with the God who permitted my mother to die (another story for another time).
In the winter of 1971-72, searching for the spiritual path that would give meaning to the first two decades of my life, I remembered these melodies and found myself drawn to Reb Zalman who became and always will be my rebbe and whose chasid I am.
The “moral” of this story is a simple one: take the time to learn more than one melody for any of the prayers you most love so that they can speak to you in more than one emotional state. For those of you who lead others in prayer, a storehouse of melodies will also serve you well in being sensitive to what others are bringing to the service and helping move them.