Embarrassed by My Mother’s Photo Album

A few weeks ago a visitor in town stepped up to the omud to lead the mincha davening. He looked like a typical product of the yeshiva world — dark suit, beard, black hat. Nothing about him suggested anything out of the ordinary. Then he started to daven.

It’s hard to explain “nusach” — the flowing chant in which we intone our public prayers — to someone who doesn’t have an ear for it. Just as some people have perfect pitch while others can’t tell Brahms from a buzz saw, some people simply can’t recognize, or reproduce, any semblance of the intonation that characterizes davening. And so, as this fellow began to daven aloud, it took less than five seconds for his astonishing lack of nusach to scream out the only possible explanation: BA’AL TSHUVA!

The repetition of the Amidah prayer that afternoon was profoundly embarrassing. Teenagers snickered openly. A few ba’al haBatim smirked and rolled their eyes. Most of us studiously stared into space, afraid of snickering or smirking ourselves if we caught anybody else’s eye. The fellow at the omud continued, with evident kavanah that was undoubtedly more intense than that of 90% of the people in the room, oblivious to the reactions he was eliciting.

On the way out, the gabbai commented quietly to me, “That was the jazz/reggae version of mincha.”

I couldn’t stop myself from replying, “Actually, I think is was the piano lounge nusach.”

I had occasion to chat with the fellow who had davened, a few days later. He seemed a fine gentlemen, a ba’al middos, an individual of some learning, exactly the type of Jew anyone should be pleased to have represent the congregation. But on each subsequent occasion that I heard his garbled nusach, my skin literally crawled.

I suppose part of my reaction came from the almost obsessive particularity that my rebbe instilled in me when it came to nusach. The way we intone the words of davening, as much as the words themselves, is part of our oral tradition dating back at least as far as the Great Assembly at the beginning of the Second Temple period.

Beyond that, however, I have no doubt that this fellow (as well as the smirks and snickers that he drew) remind me of myself when I was learning to daven from the omud. I have no doubt that I garbled the davening more than once in my early days, and I’m sure I still slip up from time to time. This is not a reflection that brings me any kind of pleasure.

Rav Saadya Gaon once explained to his students that his level of divine service today made him embarrassed by the inadequacy of his divine service yesterday. For ba’alei tshuva this can be especially acute, like being reminded of our childish behavior in high school or college, or having to endure the frozen images in our mothers’ picture albums preserving our most embarrassing moments. We like to think that we’ve grown to the point where we have exorcised this part of ourselves and buried it in the past. But if we are honest with ourselves we recognize that there’s more of the child still inside us than we would like to admit.

In some ways this may be a good thing. On the one hand, it may help stop us from taking ourselves too seriously. On the other, it reminds us that we still have to grow and prods us out of out complacency. But we don’t like it. And we don’t like being reminded of it, particularly when we‘re already self-conscious and feel that we really should have progressed further than we have.

This fellow who davened so passionately but so ineptly from the omud, who proclaimed his ba’al tshuva origins so innocently and obliviously to all who could hear him, set me so on edge because he painfully reminded me both how far I still have to go and how, in a sense, I’ve come too far, passing for FFB because I’ve learned the drill so well that I can fool most of the people most of the time. I’m embarrassed that I once davened as inexpertly as he still does, but I’m also embarrassed that I no longer daven with the enthusiasm he still has. And I’m embarrassed as well that I seem to have accepted that it has to be one or the other, and that I’d choose my way over his.

At the end of the day, neither will passion compensate for nusach nor nusach for passion. Content without form is nearly as inadequate as form without content. Let’s remain just a little uncomfortable being ba’alei tshuva, but let’s never allow ourselves to become FFBs.

42 comments on “Embarrassed by My Mother’s Photo Album

  1. To Bec #11 and Charnie #14: Over the years, I’ve had a number of bad experiences at the mikvah. I believe that FFB women have these bad experiences also. I think that these happen because mikvahs hire attendants who are poor widows and/or divorcees in order to give them a decent parnasa, but unfortunately a few of these women lack the necessary sensitivity and/or talents to handle the job. Then women who undergo bad experiences refrain from talking about it or complaining because they don’t want to talk Lashon Hara about an almonah, or worse, get her fired from the job and then cause her yesomim (orphaned) children to go hungry. I don’t know what the solution is, I would have to ask a rav what to do in this difficult situation (most women just sigh and put up with it, figuring it’s only ten minutes a month of unpleasantness).

  2. Since somebody decided to pick up this thread after 4-1/2 dormant years, I’d like to contribute my two shekels.

    It is said of Aharon ha-Cohen that he did every mitzvah with the same enthusiasm as the first time. Aharon approached his Divine Service each day with the same “brenn” and zeal, never just going through the motions.

    A good example for us BT’s, to always remember our newfound enthusiasm for mitzvos, even thirty years down the road as frum Jews.

  3. Pshhh shkoiach! Wow, so true. I really resonated with that one. Last line was the best!

  4. Rabbi Goldson, I always advise my clients of the lemon persuasion : “when life gives you lemons , make lemon drops and be sure to serve in rose colored martini glasses ” ….(1 1/2 ounces citron vodka 3/4 ounce lemon juice 1 teaspoon sugar) …… this way if you dont sell any, and your left standing on a muddy sidewalk with a full table of unsold drinks and a cardboard sign wilting from spent effort and blind faith, you can drink your way to a blissful state of ignorance and still be left with a rose colored looking glasses for simulated optimism. And you won’t notice the muddy sidewalk anymore, it may actually begin looking more like the green grass usually rampant on “other sides”……….

  5. Rabbi Goldson ,
    I’ve been baking spam pies and spam muffins and using them as food for thought nourishment & bake sales , for as long as I can remember. I’m practically part spam myself, and may branch out into spam flavored jellies and jams for the holidays. So really no need for the humble pie serving ,taste great though….

  6. Rabbi Goldson , thats what happens when you take the sporadic sidetracking spam sayings in life way too seriously ;-)
    One begins basing profound and ironic thoughts/ comments /suggestions and life mission statements on fickle,” inarticulate” fluffy kind of comments or concepts that usually disappear into the nebulous cloudy comment moderating sphere for incomprehensible comments and other fun spam.

    Sometimes though real life spam sayings / spam happenings /comments and especially spam friendships are harder to differentiate and there usually isnt an administrator around to remove the spam.

    So you can also consider this a sounding board or learning board lesson on why its always good to remember that when life gives one spam , to resist the urge to make spam pies or spam muffins to use as food for thought nourishment.Cuz when when the spam disappears one will just be left with fluff that has no rhyme or reason or flavor and no pies or muffins either. (Something that would be an even greater issue on Yom Kippure considering the no food situation and the spam thoughts that constantly comment when trying to pray..) .

  7. The removal of that comment was definitely Misasek. It happens when you have to remove between 50-100 spam comments a day. Our apologies and we’ll try to be more careful in the future.

  8. Note to editors:

    When you excised the (admittedly) inarticulate comment that had been #31, you removed the context that made my reply profound and ironic, thereby rendering it merely silly and mostly incomprehensible.

    However, in the spirit of the season, I forgive you. (-:

    A guten Shabbos and a guten Yontif.

  9. Ah, the inchoate, inexpressible, irrepressible cry of the neshoma seeking to translate the passion of the spirit into physical and sensible articulation.

    May HaShem help all of us find the words to give voice to the frustrated spiritual yearning that drives each of us to reconnect with his Creator in this season of tshuva.

    A g’mar chasimah tova and a gut gebentched year to all.

  10. Just wanted to quickly comment on this line: “Content without form is nearly as inadequate as form without content.”

    Rebbe Menachem Mendle of Kotsk said, “Action without conviction is a lie.” Perhaps it is a lie worth telling, so that we may come to see-or hear- it’s truth (naaseh, v’nishmah), but that does not excuse the emptiness of quick, thoughtless davening where we focus more on form than content (not that you are saying otherwise). The type of experience you are describing is one of the larger reasons I ended up in a settlement in Judea instead of the Mir Yeshivah in Yerushalayim. This is not just an issue of identity for individuals who ended up in the Haredi world, but a large issue of how the Haredi world relates to Baalei-Teshuvah, and why many of us find Torah-True ideals more truly and earnestly lived in other communities…

    I applaud you for writing this article. May your call for the community to live to a higher standard of yiddishkeit inspire many to rise to another level.

  11. Jacob-
    The poeple who were laughing are the ones who I wanted to say were immature. The Gabbai should know his crowd and know who to put up there. Even though the people were immature it is also the fault of the person davening. He should not have gone up there if he knew he could not do it properly.
    Regarding nusach, it drives me crazy when someone davens on Shabbos and does not know the proper Nusach and I feel that they should not be asked to daven and I also feel they should not agree to daven. When Nusach is done properly it is very powerful. The truth is however is that many FFB’s do not know proper Nusach as well as BT’s and it is each individual and Gabbais job to make sure only the right people should daven. That is why we have halachas as to who should be a Shliach Tzibbor

  12. To add an anecdote

    After concluding shiva for my mother, the rav of my shul knew I had to start davening at the amud which is the minhag (custom) for all chiyuvim (those obligated to say kaddish for example) to daven at the amud.

    At the conclusion of my initial attempt, he took me aside and recommended two people I should talk to regarding improvement of nusach.

    Looking back, his approach was probably a little too blunt (especially considering that I had just gotten up from shiva) for my tastes but his advice worked and davening improved.

    This taught me that if intentions are sincere, then critiques of this nature should be said even if the recipient may not fully appreciate it at first.

    It’s a lot better then spending the rest of one’s life in ignorance.

  13. Two comments made by Aaron (#5) appear contradictory

    In one comment
    “I just don’t understand why the frum community is so immature and disrespectful.”


    “I also want to question why someone would go up and lead mincha if they are not fully confident and not knowing how to daven properly. Who asked him to daven?”

    Regarding the first comment, who was being immature? Those who were snickering at the man’s davening?

    If so, then if someone in the same shul asked him to daven then perhaps the gabbai wanted to give the man an opportunity for some hands-on learning and wasn’t the type to laugh at someone behind his back. That in itself isn’t disrespectful at all, it’s just the opposite.

    You wanted to know why someone who wasn’t confident would daven at the amud? On the contrary, although his nusach was apparently mistaken he appeared quite confident. As another poster said, perhaps a certain lack of self-awareness is the problem and he’s possibly oblivious to his lack of davening skills.

    The point here is that perhaps one shouldn’t make blanket condemnations about entire communities since there could be more to the story than just someone who’s not possibly up to par and in davening and others who possibly aren’t up to par in midos.

    The Chofetz Chaim’s sefer on the laws of Lashon Harah cites a Chazal parphrased here that one who judges favorably will be judged favorably.

    That’s something I need to work on for Elul.

  14. As a semi-professional singer/ba’al tefillah, this post and comments are enlightening.
    Steve Brizel makes a crucial point that nusach is not song – it is music composed to fit the theme and spiritual intent of the words we use to communicate with Hashem. Therefore, the qualifications of a ba’al tefillah (as per the Shulhan Arukh) are stratified by placing more importance on the chazan’s knowledge of Torah and the halakhot of prayer than on sheer musical ability. In other words, a learned man who can just “carry a tune” would be preferrable to a trained opera singer who can read Hebrew.
    I’ve been davening for the amud since I was a bar mitzvah. I grew up in a heimish Orthodox shul, the son of two BT’s. I have a very good ear, and my knowledge of “proper” nusach came from hearing the same people, whether qualified or not, lead the same tefillot for almost 20 years. When I was 18, the rabbi asked if I would lead musaf on one of the days of Rosh HaShana. I protested, saying that I was nervous (even though I was comfortable as a stage performer). He insisted, and my first instinct, as a musician, was to brush up on the nusach as much as I could. I did so, and the tefillah went off without a hitch – I was comfortable with all the words, the tunes, and I understood the gravity of the various parts of the amidah.
    But it was really the first time I ever paid attention to the each word I was saying. And that was very scary.
    Since that year, I’ve tried to read as much as I had the courage to read and learn about the tefillot – but as the original post said, I was so embarrassed that for so many years I had been leading a kehillah under what I thought were false pretenses.
    While I might be considered by some to be a Modern Orthodox FFB, I’ve felt like a BT for many years (a whole separate topic.) The point of all this is, that I played the part very well, and at least got it half right – everyone attending services that I’ve led has always told me how inspiring my davening was – how comfortable I seemed with the tunes and the words.
    It may seem that the up-and-coming BT has so much to learn – reading Hebrew, becoming familiar with the language and laws of prayer, and the asymmetric melodies on top of it all – and must deal with the “embarrassment” of past failures and present inadequacies. The truth is, I believe, that the “FFB” who can get through Shaharit without a siddur likely has a greater personal challenge, and would do well to take notes from the fervent kavannah of a BT.

  15. I used to think the highest compliment was when an FFB said, “I had no idea you were a Ba’al Teshuva.” Thanks for clarifying that we should not lose our enthusiasm in the process. Chazak v’amatz.

  16. There are people in our shul from time to time who have “chiyuvim” because of mourning or a yahrzeit. If they feel they can’t handle being a Shaliach Tzibbur, they decline. If they decline on several occasions, the gabbai knows not to bother them again.

    On jollier occasions such as Simchat Torah or Purim, gabbaim should still be careful not to invite people to the amud who will (knowingly or unknowingly) embarrass themselves.

  17. What surprises me is this person’s lack of self-awareness. Self-awareness is a prerequisite to growth. A friend should do him a favour and gently let him know. If that is not possible, he should not be permitted to daven from the omud.

    Charnie (post #10) referred to his “need” to daven from the omud because he might be a mourner. This is a misconception, in that, first, this does not require the congregation to indulge him and, second, he should still not go up if he is simply not up to the job. The Maharil, the pillar of much of minhag Ashkenaz, illustrated the importance of nusach by describing how a certain chazan suffered a premature death because he departed from the local customary tune. No-one would countenance the appointment of an incompetent shochet just because he was a nice guy – this is no different.

  18. In some shuls, the gabbaim don’t have enough qualified people to choose from. That’s reason enough for those shuls to offer adult courses in nusach.

    As a rule, professional cantors or well-trained amateur cantors do the most justice to the Yomim Noraim services. With these services, proper pacing is especially necessary:

    1. So most congregants present will have enough time to daven all their parts of the service, and
    2. So the service will finish on time. What is on time can vary; some congregations may need to plan for more time.

    The worst thing is for a cantor to hog all the available time and make the congregants have to zip through their parts.

    The second worst thing is for the cantor to zip through and/or mumble parts of his own recitation to free up time for more elaborate arias.

    The third worst thing is using tunes at odds with the proper mood of the subject matter.

  19. I come from a Conservative background and when I first became frum I often volunteered and was allowed to daven from the amud. Now, seven years later, I would not volunteer to do so, because I don’t think I daven well enough to be a shaliach tzibur (representing the prayers of the congregation before Hashem). I don’t think that someone who is new to orthodoxy should volunteer or jump at the chance to daven from the amud. The ettiquite is that a person should refuse the first time he is asked to be shalicach tzibur, and then accept if the gabbi persists. A man should not volunteer unless he is a professional chazan.

  20. Bec (#11), excellent points. And might I add that we should never delude ourselves into thinking that in some way FFB’s are “better” then us. Just because someone may have had certain educational and/or cultural advantages, doesn’t make them a “better” Jew. The wife of someone who’s an active participant here once commented to me about how her child’s teacher said they wished they had more children of BT’s in their class because of the enthusiasm that the child had picked up from the parents. After all, isn’t there a great difference in approach when someone takes on something of their own volition vs. just being born that way? This is not to say that there aren’t many enthusiastic, sincere, learned/learning FFB’s out there… we all have the zuchus to know many such people who undoubtedly have provided guidance and inspiration to us along the way. But it isn’t a given, ie, an automatic birthright.

  21. “A Newcomer” asked above (#12) about other nusach recording sources. Cantor Kleinlerer has issued nusach recordings for Shabbat, Selichot, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Here is one web site offering these (many others do, too):

    Some web sites have various nusach tunes available for download, but you can’t assume these are all authentic.

    Also note that “authentic” nusach tunes for certain tefillot or services can vary, depending on many factors, such as where in Europe the cantor or tune came from.

  22. Bec, this is a good point. There are no easy solutions for this kind of snobbery. The situation has been discussed at length in many parts of this blog and I’m sure it will continue to be. All we can do is make our sensitivities known and, if applicable, raise our children to be more open-minded. I’m sorry about what happened to you at the mikvah. I’m glad you are back.

  23. “Content without form is nearly as inadequate as form without content.”
    Great line and interesting posting and perspective, Rabbi Goldson. I do, however, slightly agree with Rabbi Seif (comment #4).

    The line “Let’s remain just a little uncomfortable being ba’alei tshuva, but let’s never allow ourselves to become FFBs,” as a BT rubs me the wrong way. Parhaps it’s better just to be slightly uncomfortable with our level of yiddishkeit (for the BT and the FFB alike?

    Rav Yisrael Salanter is quoted as saying:

  24. Bob, (post #3) wow, this is the type of program I’ve been looking for. I’m trying to learn the various prayers, but it’s hard for me because I’m hard-of-hearing, so have a lot of problem understanding/following a lot of the pronounciation of the various prayers in shul. You said “tapes are available from Chadish Media and elsewhere.” Do you have a few other examples of ‘elsewhere’? I’d like to do some comparisons (what is covered, media, price, etc.).


  25. forget nusach for a second.
    as a bt in progress, i just have to say that it’s so hard to fit in sometimes. bt’s do things differently but honestly. we try so hard, and when the ffb community snickers because we might not know as much, it can be a major turn-off.
    years ago, i had a horrible experience at a mikvah, where a mikvah lady yelled, yes, yelled, at me because i was having trouble with the bracha. i had only gone to mikvah a few times at that point, and it was still new to me, and i was still getting used to the whole ritual, and because of that one episode, i actually stopped going, and then gradually stopped practicing for many years. it wasn’t until recently that i came back to odoxy.
    what the ffb community needs to do, instead of snickering and criticizing, is to give support (yes, i realize that many odox communities are very supportive) and constantly remind themselves that there are jews out here who struggle just to remember the things that most ffb’s learned in kindergarden.

  26. One of the things I remember disliking intensely about the Conservative synagogue I used to attend with my father was the operatic cantor. Perhaps that was because I’ve never cared for opera.

    This young man might well know he’ll never make a living as a vocalist, but he bravely faced the music anyway. Perhaps he was saying kaddish, therefore necessitating his need to daven from the omud?

    No matter what the case, he should be commended. By the whole alphabet – BT, FFB, or whatever.

  27. WADR, I think that the author and the respondents are missing a key point-Nussach HaTefillah is not just a tune. Every Nusach-weekdays, Rosh Chodesh, Shabbos, Shalosh Regalim and Yamim Noraim-whether during the davening or even for Yamim Noraim during Krias HaTorah relates to the kedushas hayom or lack thereof.Clearly, the nusachos of Shabbos, Yamim Noraim and Shalosh Regalim relate to the Kedushas Hayom of those days.Even the Mussaf of Rosh Chodesh has a nussach that is supposed to make one think of the purposes of the Karban Musaf.

    I think that one who distorts the traditional nusachos for what can be called ” feel good’ nusach or a nigun that fails to express the perush hamilos in a proper form is engaged in a show. One can really question whether such a person should be a Shaliach Tzibbur, if his nusach is a very radical departure from the nusach that is known to the tzibbur and thus raising the issue of whether his tefilos are halachically “mrutzeh lkahal” or acceptable to the tzibbur.

    OTOH, some shuls have a “Yahrtzeit of the week” daven on Shabbos whose lack of knowledge of basic nussach and perush hamilos is deplorably lacking. R Y Salanter was well known for not davening on a Yahrtzeit because of his belief in avoiding a machlokes on this issue. Those of us who think that a new fangled nusach will enhance one’s kavanah should really think twice before volunteering to impose their notions of nusach hatefilos on a kehilah that has well established nusachos, niggunim, etc. Their well meant actions could also lead to a machlokes in an area of halacha where a Shliach Tzibbur is supposed to be “mrutzeh lkahal” as opposed to imposing his own ideas , etc via chazakah upon the tzibbur.

  28. I’ve heard chassidic and mitnagdic cantors who had their standard nusach down cold, but they and their tefillot were anything but cold. Different strokes…

  29. Before starting to become frum, I was a trained singer. From Rock and Pop to Madrigals and Arias. Even in public high school, I was known for my deep and resonant voice. In musical theatre I needed no microphone.

    I started becoming frum in college, and after marrying and beginning our family, we moved to Baltimore. There, when they heard my voice, they pushed me (a bit, I didn’t need a lot of pushing) to be the shaliach tzibbur.

    I used the nusach that I knew (mostly NCSY stuff), and would innovate occasionally. For the Yomim Noraim, I listened to tapes, and did what I could. My style has always been loud, fast, and energetic.

    Early on, one of the elder chassidim at the shul repromanded me for not knowing the “proper” nusach. Yet, I had been getting compliments (especially from the Rav’s mother-in-law) about how much they enjoyed what I did. So, being a good, little chasid, I asked the Rav of the shul.

    He told me to *ignore* anyone who told me not to use “non-standard” nuschot. There are plenty of times when we get the standard, yeshivish nusach, which, although pretty, can be lethargic. He complimented on my energy, and my “updating” of standard chassidic nigunim.

    I appreciate the standard nusach, and can, if I put my mind to it, duplicate it. But, davening is supposed to be avodah sh’b’lev, and when I duplicate the standard nusach, it becomes a performance, not prayer.

  30. Gershon,

    You’re right, of course. I was using the terms generically. As one of my Roshei Yeshiva once said to me, “I like to think of myself as a baal tshuva, but the truth is I’ve become an FFB.”

  31. I just don’t understand why the frum community is so immature and disrespectful. Many in the frum world feel that if you don’t look or act like them, you are not one of them. An example of this is the Black Hat. Many Rabbi’s will continue to try and mikarev you since you appear not frum because you don’t wear a hat. I actually had a roomate who bought a hat because he was sick and tired of being approached as someone who does not know anything. I also want to question why someone would go up and lead mincha if they are not fully confident and not knowing how to daven properly. Who asked him to daven? I could understand if this happened in a Chabad someplace but in a regular everyday shul I am suprised this happened at all.

  32. “Let’s remain just a little uncomfortable being ba’alei tshuva, but let’s never allow ourselves to become FFBs.”

    There are many FFBs who have lots of enthusiasm and sincerity in their Yiddishkeit. Really. I’d rather put it this way: “Let’s always strive to perfect the form while never forgetting about our early days and the innocent fervor that we had.”

  33. I agree that the form is important, too.

    A BT who wants to be available as a Shaliach Tzibbur, or even as a participating congregant, owes it to himself to learn as much of the nusach as he can. Those yeshivot or other learning institutions who want to propel BT’s into the religious mainstream also have a responsibility in this area.

    The worst way is to learn it from someone else, FFB or BT, who doesn’t know it either, so just absorbing what is heard in shul is often not the answer. As a last resort, tapes are available from Chadish Media and elsewhere.
    See http://www.chadishmedia.com/

    As an aside, I don’t buy the “greatest hits” approach in the Kedusha on Shabbat or in piyyutim on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Nor am I thrilled by arias. I’m moved a lot more by the nusach and more traditional tunes.

    Finally, if you know you’re really tone deaf, it’s easy and no disgrace to politely turn down the gabbai’s request that you lead the service.

  34. I think it’s amazing that this guy has the courage to get up in front of a congregation and daven before them, especially in light of the criticism that everyone obviously is pouring upon him. What an amazing display of how much he has learned and how far he has come – he should be applauded by the congregation, how many of them would have the same courage and have come as far as he has? I think it’s sad that his davening is looked at for what it’s lacking rather than what it offers – a true, heartfelt call to Hashem.

  35. Who needs therapy with a probing and eloquent essay like this? You’ve unearthed an issue that’s certainly at the core of my identity discomfort. But until there’s a revolution in acceptance within the FFB world–and in action, not merely words–BTs will have to submerge their BT-ness in order to assimilate. How wonderful it would be if we could be judged by who we truly are, rather than by how much we fit into the FFB world!

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