The Unfinal

Dear Class,

Next Tuesday, December 11, our Final Examination will be held at The Magnes from 3 to 6 pm.

Attendance is mandatory. No exceptions.

You can bring ANYTHING you wish to the Final. Laptops, smartphones, tablets, books, notes, post-it’s, puppets, musical instruments, other instruments… Really, anything that you think will help you.

We are hopefully going to make good use of the time that UC Berkeley has given us for this occasion. As we already discussed in class, the examination will take place in the form of a user-generated, multi-tasking workshop. Thus, the definition of “unfinal” for our collaborative work. (More on this here).

A draft of the schedule is available HERE for your review and INPUT (see below). The unfinal will only be as good as the content we inject into it.

The “unfinal” will be comprised of three parts:

1. 10 Questions: A short test.
During the last week, each student “nominated” 3 sources listed in the Syllabus through a shared Google document. This resulted in a selection of 5 sources upon which the 10 questions in the test will be based.
(Disclaimer: I also cast my vote, but by the point I did, the selection was already pretty much a done deal…).
It was interesting for me to see how the collective mind of the class selected a group of readings that truly reflect the inter-disciplinary perspective fostered during the semester.
The sources nominated are:

  1. Our textbook–the evergreen study of Jewish Liturgy and Its Development by Abraham Zvi Idelsohn (published 80 years ago this year…)–which situates liturgical structures, texts, performance practices and music in the complex context of synagogue life; the chapters selected focus on the Sabbath (Chapters 10-11), which, as we have seen in class, serves as a condensed time of ritual performance, and the Jewish Life Cycle (Chapter 13).
  2. Our “ghost-textbook”: the entry on “Jewish Music” in Grove Music Online (sections I: Introduction, and III: Liturgical and Paraliturgical).
  3. Our other “ghost-textbook”: the Encyclopaedia Judaica, a solid summary of major scholarship in Jewish Studies, and an excellent go-to source to clarify the contours of virtually all topics in this field; the selection was for the entries on Piyyut and Kaddish. 
  4. Laura S. Lieber’s essay on “The Rhetoric of Participation: Experiential Elements of Early Hebrew Liturgical Poetry” (The Journal of Religion 90/2 (April 2010): 119-147 — JSTOR): a study of piyyut (Hebrew liturgical poetry), its literary origins and practices, and the context of its performance within synagogue liturgy.
  5. Naomi Feuchtwanger-Sarig’s essay, ‘May He Grow to the Torah…’: The Iconography of Torah  Reading and Bar Mitzvah on Ashkenazi Torah Binders, in Langer and Fine eds. Liturgy in the Life of the Synagogue, 2005: 161-176, available on bSpace): a study of ritual objects that reflect the Jewish Life Cycle, and of the interaction between iconography and ritual performance.

As we can all see, history, ethnography, music, literature and material culture all all well-represented in this selection. Architecture is probably the only major topic missing from the “unfinal,” although it received a lot of attention in our class discussions. The unfinal selections thus ended up reflecting the initial assumptions of the seminar, as stated in our Syllabus at the beginning of the Semester:

A core aspect of Jewish life and creativity in the global Diaspora, liturgy involves the interaction of texts, sounds, objects, architectural spaces and body language within the performative space of the synagogue. These elements and their related sources are often studied as separate cultural entities, according to distinct methodologies. A multi-disciplinary perspective on liturgy and ritual must instead integrate the study of language and literary texts with musicology and ethnomusicology, the study of visual and material cultures, anthropology and the investigation of everyday life.

The multi-disciplinary aspect of our research will be the topic of the 10 questions, based on the 5 sources listed above, that students in the Performing Texts seminar will be confronted with in our user-generated “unfinal.”

I expect that we will devote the first our of the Final Examination to this task.

2. Fieldwork: A Conversation
Fieldwork has been a crucial component of our work throughout the Semester. We visited three synagogues in Berkeley (Congregation Beth El on the occasion of Rosh Hashannah; Congregation Netivot Shalom on Sukkot; and Congregation Beth Israel on Simchat Torah) observing individual and group dynamics; architectural spaces; dress codes; prayer books; body language; music sources and performance styles; ritual objects and more… Each visit was followed by class discussions, and all of our experiences were compared and confronted with our sources. We also discussed the issue of field work in the synagogue, and studied its historic roots in the research on Jewish music and Jewish cultural antiquity since the early modern times. Last but not least, we listened to archival field recordings, and investigated a variety of social media platforms (including YouTube, Facebook and more) as ethnographic sources.
We are thus quite well-equipped to welcome to our class Yonatan Cohen, Rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley.

Yonatan Cohen is the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel, a Modern Orthodox community in Berkeley, California. He joined the shul in 2006 after receiving ordination from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT), the Modern Orthodox Rabbinical School in Manhattan, NY. He was born in Israel and grew up in Montreal, Canada. R. Cohen completed a B.A. in Philosophy at McGill University, and studied at Kollel Torah Mitzion, the Metivta and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. In 2008-2010 Congregation Beth Israel together with R. Cohen were awarded a prestigious grant from the Legacy Heritage Innovation Project for Congregational Education. R. Cohen served on the Board of Directors of Hillel, UC Berkeley. He serves on the founding advisory board of the Merkvah Torah Institute as well as on the founding board of Kevah ( R. Cohen is also a fellow at the Rabbinic Leadership Institute of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He is on Tumblr at

Yonatan Cohen’s visit to our class will be the perfect occasion to continue, and conclude, our conversation about Jewish liturgical performance. The congregation he serves was the last one on our field trip schedule, and the celebration of Simchat Torah we observed there was particularly dense with performative elements. Here are some reminders:

  • Multiple prayer books used by congregants
  • Division of the ritual architectural space between male and female congregants (gender dynamics)
  • Dress codes
  • Musical materials: we all noticed the use of the melody of Somewhere Over the Rainbow in the recitation of the Hallel…
  • Generational dynamics: younger and older congregants; adult and children; and their respective body languages, musical materials, etc.
  • Use of ritual objects: we noticed the “banging” of the hand of the prayer leader on the machzor, to mark the tempo of the musical performance; and of course we all saw the dancing with Torah scrolls during the haqafot
  • Food

We will thus continue our field-work in a student-led interview session with Yonatan Cohen. The conversation, which will be video-recorded, can point to a variety of directions, including both what we observed in our field trip(s) as well as general issues relating to what we discussed in class. The Semester brought us many different questions relating to identity (and its ritual performance), to rabbinic sources governing the ritual, to the relationship between congregations and rabbinic authorities, the role of prayer leaders (the hazzan, the quasi-hazzan, etc., as delineated by Heilman’s study of synagogue life), and more…

I have created an ONLINE CANVAS, where students in the class are invited to contribute. Please visit the canvas, and add your suggested topic for the conversation with Yonatan Cohen.

I expect our field work session to last for approximately one hour (until 5pm).

3. Summary, Final Words, & Farewell

You can post suggestions, single words, one-liners, links, and more, to the shared canvas for the “unfinal.”

There will be food. 🙂


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