Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Music & Mishkan T’filah

As one of three cantors on the Editorial Committee of Mishkan T’filah (the new Reform Movement prayerbook) from 1999 to 2005 I was involved in many decisions about the content and form of this new sidur. There were hours of discussions around controversial issues such as, “should the Hebrew prayers be transliterated?” - the vote was yes - or “should the traditional second paragraph of V’ahavta (which deals with God’s retribution) be included?” - the vote was no. On some issues, such as proposing to change the phrase in G’vurot from “m’chayei hakol” (gives life to all, the Reform wording) to “m’chayei meitim” (gives life to the dead, the traditional version), the vote was so evenly split that both phrases were included, the traditional wording in parentheses.

Everyone who prays from Mishkan T’filah should be able to see their own reflection in its pages. As cantors, we were responsible for ensuring that Mishkan T’filah could work with a wide variety of worship and musical styles. In some congregations everyone sings everything, while in other congregations only the cantor or choir sings much of the service. We quickly realized that this sidur could not include such directions as, “rise,” “bow,” or “silently,” nor could it force the singing of any particular prayer in either Hebrew or English. It is up to the leader of each service, taking into consideration any prevailing local customs, to determine which prayers will be included and how they will be performed. Although some of the pages, spreading out to the left and right, may look confusing at first, there is a very careful logic to the placement of each prayer. Having additional readings or songs on the left-hand page allows for variation in the service from week to week. If anyone is bored praying from Mishkan T’filah, it will not be because of the prayerbook!

Mishkan T’filah is a sidur that facilitates singing. The Hebrew and English transliteration is easy to read, the headings and rubrics are clearly marked, and sections of a prayer that are usually sung are subtly separated by a line break or indentation making it easy to locate the text. Most important, cantors and music leaders now have more musical choices and possibilities than ever before. This is nowhere more evident than in the large selection of songs in the back of the sidur.

With the invaluable help of Cantor Benji Ellen Schiller I had major responsibility for putting the song section together. Deciding which songs were in and which were out took many hours of meetings, emails and phone calls. The material had to be collected, checked, translated, categorized, typeset, re-checked, formatted, indexed, and proofread. There are close to 300 songs in Mishkan T’filah, many of which have never appeared in a sidur. Some of these are notable, if not historic: Debbie Friedman’s version of Mi Shebeirach and her “Miriam’s Song”; an entire section of contemporary songs from Israel; several songs in Yiddish (and one in Ladino), plus songs for every Jewish holiday.

There were a few songs I proposed that didn’t make the final cut. The one I was saddest about losing was “This Land Is Your Land.” One can fight only so many battles, but, looking back, I wish I had fought harder. Whenever I look at page 680, after “God Bless America,” I see a big white space on the page, and I sigh. It could have gone right there.


rbarenblat said...

Welcome to the blogosphere! How nice to see you here.

We've started using MT at my shul; recently I led my first service from it. There are a lot of things I really like about it. (Also some I'm not thrilled about, but that's inevitable; I perennially want to be davening out of six siddurim at once. This one's got great poetry, that one's got the second paragraph of the Shema, this other one has the prettiest layout...)

Anonymous said...

The siddur is an ancient artifact- a tradition. the anshe kenset hagedola distributed the first sidurim as a answer to the people's request 'how do we pray.' Obviously it's been added to since the time of the Bet Hamikdash but to think some am haarotizm sit around in bend and break it to fit their whimsical social mores is perverse to me. I'm not a hateful person- but your sidur is destructive to the Jewish people, open door 'conversions' are destructive to the Jewish people. Unfortunately, the faltering reform movement is self destructive.