Synagogue Field Trip #1: The High Holy Days and Popular Culture

This week, we conducted our first field trip of the Semester. The falling of the second day of Rosh Hashanah at the time of class granted us the opportunity of being the participant observers of synagogue life.

Some students travelled home for the Jewish High Holy Days. Others went on a class-organized field trip to Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, where services were led by rabbis Yoel Kahn and Ruben Zellman. (Future class field trips will allow us to explore local Conservative and Modern-Orthodox synagogues as well, and there is absolutely no hierarchy in how the field trips were scheduled for the Semester, of course).

As your instructor, I particularly enjoyed “being” in the synagogue setting with some of the students in Performing Texts and trying to “take everything in” through students’ eyes and ears.

We will compare notes, and experiences, in class.

While we will focus on the theological aspects of the High Holy Days, as specific occasions of ritual performance, only in the coming weeks, it is probably quite appropriate to introduce them at this time. There is no better way to do it than through the words and music of Leonard Cohen, the Canadian poet, singer and songwriter. His famous song, Who By Fire (released in 1974, in the album New Skin for the Old Ceremony, is directly based upon the High Holy Days liturgy (we heard the piyyut, Unetaneh toqef, sung during services yesterday morning). So, here you have it:

(One can easily find Cohen’s lyrics online, so no links are provided here. Unetaneh tokef is described in your textbook, and in the Encyclopaedia Judaica: links provided in the class Syllabus).

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