On Kol Nidre, we sing for our lives. At the minyan where I pray, as a lay "shaliach tzibur," or service leader, I was asked to lead the singing this year, and I was starting to wonder if I was up to it.
I wasn’t asked to lead the actual Kol Nidre prayer at my Movable Minyan -- someone else was given that honor -- but to chant the Maariv evening service that includes several key passages, such as the Ya'aleh, the medieval piyyut, or liturgical poem, that anticipates and prepares the congregation for the coming day from dawn to dusk of solemn introspection.
At prayer environment communities like the Movable Minyan, the former Jewish consumer is turned into a producer. I didn’t want to blow it.
For Kol Nidre, it’s one thing to sit as a congregant for the service, which as the sun begins to set usually finds me rushing to get to the shul on time. It’s quite another to stand before a group of friends, who also are beginning a day of fasting, to remember the nusach, melody, and come to it with kavanah, intention, as well as the proper Hebrew pronunciation.
I needed to consult with someone who had done it all before. So I took a drive out to the cemetery.
Hillside Memorial Park in Los Angeles is the final resting place for the famous show business son of a cantor who in film had his own issues with showing up and leading Kol Nidre -- Al Jolson.
In the historic first talkie, “The Jazz Singer,” Jolson’s cantor father wants him to follow in his footsteps, but Jakie Rabinowitz instead turns to Broadway. In the 1927 film’s classic scene, after canceling a performance, Jakie returns to the synagogue to sing Kol Nidre with the spirit of his dying father at his side.
Melodramatic perhaps, but here was an act of "teshuvah," returning, to which I wanted to get closer.
So I was off to Hillside -- the final resting place of, among others, Eddie Cantor, Allan Sherman and Dinah Shore -- to commune with the “Sweet singer of Israel,” as it says inside the tiled ceiling of the 75-foot-high white marble canopy resting atop six stone pillars that stand over Jolson’s tomb.
To ascend to the memorial, I had climbed a green hill that is waterscaped with five tiers of cascading pools flowing down its side. At its top, beneath the canopy, is a marble sarcophagus that is simply marked “Al Jolson.” To one side is a bronze sculpture of the stage, nightclub, radio and movie star classically in "The Jazz Singer” pose, down on one knee.
Sitting on a stone bench nearby, looking out at the seagulls that were landing in the pools, I wondered what it all meant. Did I need to put my heart into my singing? Go down on one knee? Certainly in the Vidui, with prayers like Ashamnu and Al Chait, there is a lot of pleading for forgiveness.
Communing with Jolson, I rephrased his classic movie line, “You ain’t heard nothing yet,” to "I hadn’t heard enough" -- that to change up my act, I also needed to consult with someone who could help me sort this all out.
Cantor Joel Stern is not a Hollywood kind of guy at all. He enjoys performing well, just like any singer in this entertainment-driven city, but his approach isn’t theatrical. I know; I've heard him chant.
Stern works days as a business analyst and writer for an educational software company. But in the evenings and on off days he tutors others to lead services and read Torah. And on the High Holidays he is the cantor at Metivta, a center for contemplative Judaism in Los Angeles.
“Get familiar with the nusach -- so familiar you don’t need to think about it,” Stern advised me after I told him my volunteer assignment.
“You certainly need to be able to sing on pitch,” he added, thankfully not asking me to sing.
Stern also recommended that I become proficient with the text.
“It’s not about you. It’s really about connecting with God," he said. "If you’re not connected, no one else will be either.
“You need to become centered and calm. You really want to get into a quiet place before you go on.”
More practically, he advised that before singing, “no acids or caffeine.”
Stern also instructed how I should stand.
“Don’t turn away from the congregation," he said. “It helps to see their faces, receive an encouraging smile. There’s warmth.”
"What about if I mess up? I asked.
“You’re going to make mistakes; you need to move on," he replied. "You’re doing the best you can with the utmost sincerity. And that’s what counts.
“Leading services is about moments,” about getting people to a place they could not have reached on their own, he told me. “When you get one it’s incredible.”
As to kavanah, Stern underscored that “Unless you are davening with a full heart, it’s just a performance.”
That sounded even more heartfelt than getting down on one knee.
(Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)