The Eleventh Plague

Why is this service different than all other services?

We, like many overcommitted Harvard students, are admittedly High Holidays Jews. We shuffle into synagogue for reform services (in Memorial Church, no less) twice a year, to atone for the other 50 weeks of spiritual laziness. Fortunately, the two most sacred holidays of the Jewish year fall during shopping period, leaving us ample time to get our annual fix of religion. Hillel has two chances a year to draw in the silent majority of reform Jews, the biggest Jewish contingent at Harvard but the one with the fewest regular participants at Hillel. During Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, Hillel has an annual opportunity to convince us that the Harvard Jewish community can replicate the cozy Jewish environment that we left back home. For the past few years, we’ve entered services hopefully, looking forward to hearing once again the nostalgic tunes of our Jewish past.

Hillel’s noble effort at a welcoming ceremony is undercut each year by the cantor’s hijacking of the traditional tunes we know by heart. In their place, he substitutes unfamiliar and operatic renditions, ostensibly of the specific High Holiday melodies. Now, we’re the first to admit that our Hebrew is far from fluent: much of the Gates of Repentance prayerbook remains a mystery to us. We glance around quizzically at our more devout brethren during services—what is the thing when they bend their knees and bob their heads? But we can recall a select few prayers from our B’Nai Mitzvot and the other five services our parents made us attend. In counting the pages remaining until the closing song, we make note of the approaching sections in which we can participate—oases of recognition as we wander through the desert of an inscrutable Middle Eastern language. Yet lo and behold, when the time comes, we are forced into silence. Why is this service different than all other services?

As we open our mouths, preparing to show off our devoutness by belting out the melodious notes of prayers like Mi Chamocha, we are abruptly struck mute. We gaze up with fallen faces as the cantor, oblivious to our suffering, continues with his self-indulgent aria. At the few moments we had hoped to participate in what is supposed to be an inclusive, student-centered service, we feel marginalized in our own minyan. Looking around, we noticed the crestfallen looks of many peers. For a people who have lived on the margins for two millennia, we hope to at least be included in our own service.

We know that the reform minion had no control of these melodies, and aside from the mel-odious prayers, the service was enjoyable (and the participants were top notch, if we do say so ourselves). Hillel tried hard to rein in the renegade cantor, convincing him to chant less in the High Holidays themes and more in the familiar everyday melodies.

And thankfully, this rent-a-cantor will not plague us again next year. But in the meanwhile, we’ll be heading home for the holidays, seeking familiar songs, family traditions and noodle kugel.


Katharine A. Kaplan ’06, a Crimson news editor, is a history concentrator in Mather House. Stephen M. Marks ’06, a Crimson news editor, is an economics concentrator in Dunster House. Jessica E. Schumer ’06, the Crimson’s photo chair, is a social studies concentrator in Mather House.