Saturday, January 31, 2009


Last Wednesday, a week after my own practicum, I was happily given the opportunity to sing in the choir for a practicum honoring Avodat HaKodesh--The Sacred Service--by Jewish composer Ernest Bloch. In 1933, using the text of The Union Prayer Book in it's liturgical order, Bloch created a piece for cantor, choir and orchestra that was intended for use in the Reform synagogue. To date, it is the only piece of it's magnitude to mainstream into both the secular and Jewish musical realms, and many parts of it are used in synagogues even today. It is an incredible work, one in which I've come to appreciate more and more as I've worked with it.

As I listened to Mary and Lev sing the cantorial parts, I realized just how special it is to be able to sing this piece and carry it on into my own cantorial career. Pieces like this are rarely appreciated in the synagogues these days, which is a very sad thing. Other religions carry their musical traditions with them in high reguard; Handel's Messiah is one example (who doesn't love the Hallelujah Chorus?) This is the only piece of Jewish music to reach this level of artistic and musical value, and while I so easily found prayer within it, I realize that so many Jews are unable to appreciate it for what it's really worth within a service.

As cantors, it is hard for us to uphold this appreciation while our rabbis and congregations are demanding the current trend of folk-inspired congregational melodies. We must walk a fine line between keeping ourselves musically and spiritually fulfilled and keeping our congregants happy and prayerful. As much as I hate to admit it, the folk songs get boring, and the musical talents we've worked so hard to develop are often wasted within them. Our challenge, as cantors, is to bring back the real MUSIC of our movement while simultaneously responding to the trends within Jewish music. It's not an easy battle, and oftentimes, we lose due to the pressures and demands of keeping everyone satisfied.

Bloch's Sacred Service is a piece that I'm just beginning to understand and appreciate, but already I realize that it's something we must keep active within our movement. This glorious piece of music, with it's exciting harmonics and beyond gorgeous melodic lines CAN NOT go to waste. As a future cantor, I am starting to think about ways to use this service within a real congregation, even one which prefers folk songs to the other music available. I'm certain it can be done (and it IS done within congregations that can afford to buy the rights and perform it) and I'm excited to figure out ways to incorporate it--in all it's majesty--into my cantorate.

My hope is that one day, every Jew will listen to this piece and appreciate it--even a fraction as much as I do.

Before that, however, I must learn to sing the cantorial part. That in and of itself is a HUGE challenge.

BTW, if you're interested, it's available on iTunes. I highly recommend it :-)

Friday, January 30, 2009

A Week With the Dadster

Last week was probably one of the most exhausting but fun weeks of my life. In one week, Barak Obama became President of the United States, I gave my very first practicum at HUC, my dad came to visit, I ate a sandwich at Carnegie Deli (this is no small feat), saw Mamma-Mia on Broadway, saw Blue Man Group, ventured into previously unchartered NY territories, ate too many desserts, wandered around some very small parts of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and then some. It was crazy and wonderful and, as I mentioned, completely exhausting.

On Tuesday, a few hours after President Obama was sworn in (yay!!!) I recieved a special visitor: my dad. After months of planning, he'd arrived, and we spent the evening catching up over some Crock Pot chili (who knew I'd actually use my Crock Pot?) and dessert at the amazing bakery on the next block. Since it was a.) freezing outside and b.) the night before my very first practicum, we decided to keep things chill. I showed dad around the neighborhood a bit and then we came back and went to sleep (well, he went to sleep--I sang through my music and organized it a bit, freaked out for a few minutes, and then finally fell asleep.)

The next morning, I was out the door at 6:45 to get to school to warm up before my 8:15 class. After anxiously sitting through my 1 hour and 45 minute nusach class--which I normally love--I was rarin' to go. After 45 more minutes of my crazy pre-performance neurotic behavior (asking lots of silly questions, going over and over tricky musical spots, checking my hair and lipstick 20 times, drinking too much water) it was finally time to sing. My 3rd year colleague, Cheryl--who was also giving a practicum that day--came over to reassure me and remind me to PRAY. It was the best thing anyone could have done for me at that time. I settled my music and prayerbook on the lecturn, turned around to face the congregation, and began. I fumbled a little through my spoken introduction (I hate public speaking) but eventually found my groove as I began singing.

As a whole, I am happy with how the practicum went. The entire thing was sung too quickly, I think out of nerves and adrenaline, and I wish I would have taken more time in several spots. Luckily, my singing was consistent and my tone was appropriate for the text-based nusach I sang. Certain points were the tiniest bit pitchy, though I was always able to get back on track. I'm happy to say that Cheryl did as well as I did, if not better, and it was a successful morning of practica.

At the lunch review, the student body and faculty had many good things to say. Many people were impressed with the prayerfulness of my davening (yay!) though the faculty didn't like a few of the pieces I'd chosen. That, however, was much more my coaches' fault than my own. Overall, the peanut gallery was pleased and weren't afraid to tell me so. Yay!

One of the proudest moments of the day was when Shira, a 5th year cantorial student, complemented our class as a whole. She said that she was entirely impressed by our musicality, saying that she wasn't sure SHE could have done what we'd done when she was a 2nd year. I agreed with her completely--we really are a great group of women, and all of us have done well this year. Not that I'm biased, or anything ;)

For those interested, I do have a recording...let me know if you want one.

Cantor Fishbein in action

Dad and I after the practicum. I can't tell you how nice it was to have him there for support--and to show off my mad Nusach skills, of course :)

After the practicum, I was a bad student and cut classes the rest of the day (I only missed one hebrew class, don't panic.) Dad and I walked down Broadway, stopping at The Strand (an amazing used bookstore) and Max Brenner's (an Israeli chocolatier, where we each got a hot chocolate for the road.) We hopped on the train and came back to the apartment where we quickly changed clothes before heading to Times Square for a fun night on the town. We ran around a bit looking for a good show to see that night, and discovered that Mamma-Mia! had $30 student tickets! With my student ID, I was able to get 2 student-priced tickets for fantastic seats. We were SO excited. From there, we went to the Carnegie Deli, where we devoured one of their HUGE sandwiches. We walked around a bit, venturing over to Rockefeller Center, before heading to the show, which was fantastic. It was a great end to a great day.

Dad in a state of shock at the size of this monster sandwich.

Rockefeller Center Ice Rink

Thursday I had a normal day of classes and work, so dad was on his own. He managed to keep himself busy and joined me at HUC for tefillah and lunch. That night, we stayed in and ordered pizza and I made him watch Grey's and Private Practice with me. I think he was bored, but I was happy for sure :)

The next day, we ventured out early to go to Ground Zero. We weren't sure what exactly we were going to see, but we ended up going on a group tour sponsered by the WTC Tribute Society. It was a heart-wrenching tour led by a firefighter who'd helped to rescue victims. As hard as it was to listen to her story and relive the tragic events of 7 years ago, I'm so thankful for the opportunity to have done it. Being in Columbia, Missouri at the time, there is no way I could have possibly understood the impact this event had on New Yorkers and the people who were directly involved.

Ground Zero

After a quick lunch, we hopped on the train to go to The Dakota and Strawberry Fields. After quick stops at both, we walked through Central Park to get to the Met, where we wandered around the musical instrument room and the European paintings exhibit. I LOVE the Met, mostly because I have absolutely no artistic talents whatsoever, so I highly appreciate beautiful artwork.

Strawberry Fields...forever. A tribute to John Lennon

Old harpsichords in the musical instrument room at The Met

From there, we decided to go see if Blue Man Group had tickets left for that night's show. Dad had seen a special on TV and was dying to check them out, so we did. Luckily, they also had student tickets, so we got ourselves tickets for the 10pm show. We had some time to kill, so we ventured to St Marks Place, which is a trendy, funky area of NYC. Many NYU students hang out around there, so it's very colorful and fun. We found an AMAZING BBQ place, and I treated my dad to a birthday dinner (his birthday was the following day.) We walked around for a bit and still had some time to kill, so we decided to get some dessert coffees at Think Coffee, one of my favorite hangouts around HUC. Their nonfat mochas=TO DIE FOR.

When we finally made it to the show, I have to admit that I wasn't that excited. I'd heard about Blue Man Group from a trip to Vegas a few years ago, but didn't really have any desire to see them. I was completely blown away by the show! It was so creative and fun and different, and both of us had a great time. I highly, highly recommend the show to anyone going to Vegas or NYC. After the show, my dad was SO EXCITED to meet the cast members and take pictures with them.

Dad and I with a very Blue Man...and yes, he's real

By the time we got home, it was well after midnight and both of us were completely wiped out. The next day, dad was scheduled to leave around 4, so we hung out in Astoria (after much debating about where to go to for a good brunch.) We went to one of my fave places in the neighborhood, with good coffee and great breakfast specials (what else do you need in life?) We walked around the neighborhood a bit, chilled at the apartment, and then dad was on his way.

I was sad to see him leave, as we had a really fantastic time together. Hopefully he'll be back for another visit soon!

BTW, at my practicum discussion Cantor Faith Steinsnyder mentioned that she couldn't wait to read the blog about the practicum.'s a shoutout to you, Faith! Glad to have you onboard as one of my faithful readers :-)

Monday, January 19, 2009

Best. Job. Ever.

Temple Beth-El covered in snow...amazingly full of warmth on the inside despite it's snowy facade!

This is a bench. Except that it looks--however morbidly--like a coffin of snow.

Hardcore icicles outside of my host's house...remember the Grey's Anatomy episode where Christina gets impaled by the icicle? Yeah, that's pretty much all I could think about when I saw this :)

I apologize in advance for the excessive cheesiness of this post. If it weren't completely true, however, I wouldn't post it.

I've just returned from a wonderful visit to my congregation in South Bend. It'd been a long time since my last visit in November, and while I was looking forward to seeing my amazing Beth-El family, I was not looking forward to facing the arctic temperatures and snow. I even considered canceling for the weekend, as I was afraid to head up there and face the cold just a few days before my first practicum.

Thank God I didn't cancel.

I can't tell you how wonderful it was to be there this weekend, from touchdown in SB on Friday afternoon to takeoff on Sunday. It was an really, really good weekend. I learn every single time I'm there, which is great, but I think the true benefits of being a student cantor in a congregation come from the reminders of WHY we chose this profession. Singing on the bimah, next to a fantastic mentor and in front of the most incredible congregation I could ask for, helped me so much to forget my crazy HUC schedule and practicum and homework and just concentrate on using my gifts to benefit a group of Jewish people who always welcome me with open arms.

How does it get any better than that?

Well, it does. I realized this weekend just how lucky I am to be the student cantor where I am. From day one, when I was still in Israel, temple members reached out to me in the form of emails, expressing their excitement. My first weekend, I was greeted with such enthusiasm that I nearly became overwhelmed. In consecutive visits, I've become a member of the Beth-El family, and I've fallen completely in love with this amazing group of people.

Whenever I visit South Bend, I am reminded of what it means to be a mensch, the nicest kind of person. I learn time and time again the meaning of how to be a real Jew, how to treat others with kindness and live the words of Torah. Never have I had to eat a meal by myself in South Bend. Never have I had to worry about where I will stay or if my privacy or time will be respected due to home stays. Never have I felt like a burden to this community. Whenever I am there I am embraced with open arms and inspired to work harder to be a better cantor, a better person and a better Jew.

Members of my congregation often comment on how happy and joyful I look when I'm on the bimah. Unlike some bimot that I've sung upon, I don't have to work to be this way. It is a true pleasure to be in this place and to be praying with these people. I'm learning just how wonderful it is to be able to share my love of Judaism with people who are shining examples of what real Jews are.

Keep shining--TBE--and know how thankful I am to be your student cantor. It is a pleasure to pray with you all.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

What's Going on With ME

I feel like I've been so busy lately thinking about recent events at my temple that I haven't given myself any time to process the last semester and the semester to come. While I have full appreciation for the difficulties going on in St Louis right now, I want to switch gears back into my life as a cantorial student at HUC.

Fall semester ended very well. I passed all of my classes (I saw the proof of straight P's on my electronic grade card.) I feel very, very good about all of my singing classes from last semester, and am excited to continue most of them into this semester.

The most exciting thing on my plate right now? PRACTICUM. Every year, SSM students are required to give a 20-25 minute musical presentation in front of the entire SSM student and faculty body. These presentations are usually taken from the context of a service, be it Shabbat, High Holy Day, other festival, or weekday. Sometimes, the presentations are in the form of a concert, focusing on a period or composer of Jewish music. Afterwards, the students and faculty gather for a bagel lunch where the performer is complemented and critiqued.

My practicum is one week from today, and I'll be presenting a traditional-style (meaning something that would be done in a conservative or orthodox Jewish community) Shabbat morning program. This is BY FAR the scariest thing I have ever had to do at HUC; it makes the services I led last year seem embarrassingly easy. Growing up where I did, I didn't have a lot of access to traditional chazzanut. It's still new to my ears and tongue, and I'll be singing in front of people who've devoted their lives to this music, people who have a lot to say about the job I'll do.

Keep your fingers crossed that I don't totally blow it next Wednesday.

This practicum will be special not only because it's my first practicum (I'll give 4 by the time I'm done.) My dad is coming from St Louis to hear it and hang out with his favorite daughter. I'm excited to spend some quality time with him and even more excited to show him what it is that I do every day at HUC. I'm sure we'll also have the opportunity to see and do some fun stuff in NYC, and eat some good food :)

There are lots of other exciting things going on this semester, but since practicum is taking over my mind, I'll talk about them as the semester wears on. For now, I'll leave you with a list of goals for the Spring semester.

-To give the best practicum I can possibly give
-To begin preparing for comps early enough to actually pass them
-To volunteer at least once a month at the HUC soup kitchen
-To sing a successful service in South Bend, despite the airplanes and distance and exhaustion
-To find a fulfilling and decent paying summer job
-To go to the gym at least 3 times a week
-To keep up with my history reading
-To continue to love the music I am learning
-To make my bed on a regular basis...don't tell my Aunt Diane, but I might have started to slack in that department once the semester got crazy...
-To study something just for fun, whether it be Feldenkrais, photography, Torah, cooking, whatever
-To find reasons to laugh at least 3 times a day

Saturday, January 10, 2009

How I Really Feel

I have a confession to make:

I've spent the last 5 days on a cruise ship to the Caribbean with my family. No, I'm not joking. And yes, I hardly talked about it to anyone, especially temple people, while I was home in St Louis.

It wasn't because I wasn't excited about going. It was because it just felt wrong to brag about it in light of recent events. The last thing I wanted to do was rub it in anyone's face while they were tackling the huge changes going on at the temple right now.

For my silence, I am sorry.

I've spent the last 3 weeks going over and over the decision that my synagogue has made in my mind. I've talked to my cantor several times, to 2 board members, to the senior rabbi. If I've learned anything, it's that the whole decision--from top to bottom--SUCKS. Obviously, it's harder for some than it is for others; the people in charge of making this decision still have their jobs while my cantor doesn't--but I haven't found anyone at my synagogue who is truly pleased with this choice. I've also learned that the infrastructure of synagogue politics is hugely complicated; sometimes, a synagogue does have to operate like a major cooperation to stay afloat.

The nice thing about being on a cruise ship is the ability to let the ocean waves help you forget about life. Right before I left, when everyone assumed I was going back to NYC, I had just about had it when it came to talking about this situation. It made my time at home a sad and stressful one, and I walked onto the ship last week in a state of emotional exhaustion. The first day of the cruise, as we were floating our way to Ocho Rios, all I could do was take a step back and examine my own emotional roller coaster this decision has put me on. It's been a crazy journey of shock, anger, sadness, understanding, compassion, love and so, so much more.

Like the ocean, my emotions have come in waves, sometimes returning with a vengeance. Right now, as I sit in my cold apartment awaiting the snow storm that will hit once Shabbat arrives, I am once again very angry. Angry at my rabbi for not really listening to me when I spoke to him last week. Angry at the congregation for waiting 2 months before giving my cantor her well-deserved farewell service (and for a certain someone telling me the service was being given only for her sake.) Angry at the board for thinking that a musical rabbi could handle the musical and spiritual demands placed on the cantor. Angry that board and staff members are showing "compassion" to my cantor without doing much to save her job or get her back on her feet.

In so many ways, this decision feels like a death, and I (as well as the others who feel as I do) am still in the grieving process. Anyone grieving a loss goes through a similiar cycle of emotions as I am going through right now. I don't feel bad for being angry right now. Why should I? As a future cantor and member of my synagogue, I have every right to feel angry at the people who made this decision. I have every right to feel as though a huge part of my spiritual experience has been ripped away from me, and that a singing rabbi could never, ever replace it. My spiritual home can never be the same, and all because of irresponsible budgeting and a bad economy.

And more than anything else, I feel guilty. I feel guilty for being here, studying what I love, when the person who led me to be here is out of work. I feel guilty for writing on this blog about my upcoming semester and practicum when I know full well it will be hard for her to read it. I don't want to rub my success in her face; she deserves nothing but thanks for doing her job so beautifully that she inspired one of her congregants to be just like her. I feel guilty that I told her I can not sing at the synagogue again without her blessing (though it's completely how I feel), as it does put a huge amount of responsibility on her shoulders. I feel guilty that I didn't know about this decision before that couldn't do anything to help. I feel guilty that I haven't done enough to help her through this incredibly tough time. I feel guilty that I don't know what more I can do to help her when I want so badly to have the solution.

And I feel guilty for indulging in a vacation--albeit a very INexpensive one--when my family could have used that money to give back to the temple.

Reading through this with tears streaming down my face, I realize I may have said too much. My intentions are not to hurt or offend anyone; it's important to me that all of you who read this know how I really feel and know how much I am hurting for myself, my congregation, and my cantor.

As I've been saying for the last 3 weeks, this whole situation really, really sucks.

Right now, I wish so badly that none of it had ever happened.