This morning, as a sociological adventure and at a friend’s suggestion, I attended the Harvard Conservative Minyan’s Rosh Hashanah morning service. It was certainly very different. The Reform services I’m used to are done largely in English, dominated by responsive readings in which the Rabbi or speaker says one line, and the congregants respond with another. The parts of the service that are conducted in Hebrew are generally accompanied by a translation, also spoken aloud. The Hebrew itself is almost always sung or chanted, at a pace chosen to ensure that everyone can sing along to the music, even if they don’t speak the language. The cantor, who leads the singing, often has a guitar, and the net effect is not so far from a folk music festival. Prayers are generally presented in the shortest available form, since the audience doesn’t understand the text anyway.
In contrast, the Conservative service, at least as performed by these Harvard students, was dominated by Hebrew. There were a few words in English, and of course the sermon itself, but the great majority of the service was rapid-fire Hebrew readings. The readings were Torah, Haftarah, extended, repeated prayers, and everything else. They were a mix of spoken, chanted, and sung, often switching modes for a tiny fraction of a reading, without any delineation in the text, and then switching back. The Hebrew, especially toward the end, was chanted so fast that the pitches could only be hinted at, and read so fast that I could barely track the speaker in the book. These readings were performed solely by the leader, since no group of people could possibly read aloud coherently at that speed. Some of the songs were melodies I knew, and some were not. It was a tremendously confusing experience. Also, the service was over 4 hours long, but the etiquette of Conservative services permits worshipers to come and go at any time.
I have difficulty summarizing the difference between the services. The closest I can come is: Reform optimizes for the common case being a congregation that cannot understand spoken Hebrew, and attempts to satisfy those who do by retaining the key prayers and readings. Conservative optimizes for the common case of a congregation that understands Hebrew, or at least wants to listen to it spoken, and attempts to satisfy those who are not skilled in Hebrew by minimizing any requirement for audience participation in Hebrew. It’s much more complex than that, though, as there is are also differences in the participant/observer balance, the amount of repetition, and a number of other aspects.
Anyway, after the service we wandered around Harvard for a bit, bought some unexpectedly fantastic traditional Rosh Hashanah apples at an unexpected farmers’ market, and then went to the Tashlich service. Tashlich is a simple ceremony in which Jews throw the lint from their pockets into the river, to symbolize throwing away all of the sins and bad memories that have accrued over the previous year. Meta-symbolically, we sometimes throw bread crumbs in lieu of lint, and this year the Harvard Hillel offered rose petals as a more ecologically aware alternative to bread, though I don’t think rose petals are a good symbol of dirty things we’d like to be rid of. This Tashlich was incredibly anarchic, and not very much like the inter-congregational ceremony run by all of the synagogues in Westport.
In the evening I went out to dinner with my grandparents and cousins at Locke-Ober. Locke-Ober is the second-oldest restaurant in Boston, unless that’s Jacob Wirth. It’s a dark, beautiful place that seems a perfect setting for a meeting of corrupt politicians and gilded age titans of industry, and indeed that’s pretty much what it was (the main room was open to men only until the 1970s or later).