I've read some people's comments on their experience of Yom Kippur services this year. Most have said how inspiring their services were, how great the rabbi's sermon was, etc. My experience as a cantor, as the shallich tzibbur for most of the services, was not all beauty and enlightenment. It was not "tzom kal." It was a roller coaster ride of emotions and physical discomfort, of fear and pride. It was a struggle between myself, God and the congregation.
This was my 15th year leading Yom Kippur services: 9 as an invested cantor, 4 as a student cantor, and 2 as a lay person. I know the nusach well and little of my preparation was about the appropriate melodies to use. Each year I try to learn a new extended recitative, and I began working on that in July. I've been singing continuously through the summer, so my voice was in pretty good shape; I starting doing some extra training at the end of August. But this year, I wanted to involve more kids in the service, and I wanted to do some Torah reading. Getting the post-b'nei mitzvah involved started at the beginning of August with phone calls (to each of the 30 students), preparation of text and sound files, and sending out emails. That continued through September right up until Yom Kippur. Shortly before Yom Kippur, DJ and I worked on a song for the Yizkor service.
Those were the mechanics of preparing. The real struggle was the emotional and mental battle pressurized by food and water deprivation. There is a little more pressure on me this year since I am acutely aware that this is the final year of my contract. I've had a couple of great years here, but I know that, as in most pursuits, it's all about what you've done lately. So I'm thinking, do I play it safe and make sure I don't do anything that would alienate the rabbi, president or the congregation, or do I reach for that special moment, that higher note, that more interesting twist - that might fail? Kol Nidre is not an easy service. It is not a service in which you simply need to chant the text, follow the pages, sing the songs everyone knows. There are places where the leader can make a difference and there are decisions regarding the melodies to choose between tradition and congregational engagement. It's also a deceptively long service, over 2 hours, mostly continuous singing, all by the cantor.
Yom Kippur is not necessarily a day of trepidation or sadness, but it has always been a somber day for me. Not a happy day. A day of wondering how to live. It's been a lonely year, a year separated from family, and a year in which I've worked hard at my job and contemplating the quality of my life. How can I do the right things, and enjoy doing them? How can I connect with people in a deeper way? How can I maintain friendships in my life? How can I contribute to making the world a better place, outside of my job? And I was thirsty, all through the day. When I was leading the service, I was concentrating on every word and by the end of the day that became difficult. When concentration wanes, pronunciation suffers and I trip on my words a bit. By the end of Ne'ilah I'm struggling to maintain the nusach and I find myself falling into easy chanting patterns. I want the day to be over. When I'm not leading, I struggle to avoid judging the person who is leading: why aren't they using the traditional nusach? Why did they chant that word that way? No - be compassionate, think about what you're reading. And I'm still thirsty.
Through Ne'ilah I notice that my voice is holding out pretty well. I won't be hitting too many high notes, but I'm still able to deliver a tune. But then it's over, and we start havdalah. Havdalah definitely signals a separation: the lights go out, the candle is lit, and the kids come in with their glow-sticks. It is other-worldly and warm. Afterwards, families join together and we sing the Priestly Blessing. And all of the emotion of the day, the realization that I've made it through, the sadness of regrets and the joy of being part of this big community - tears came, I couldn't sing.
I went home and had some guacamole and beer and contemplated the day. Everything went well. I think most of the congregants found the service to meet their expectations. But I know that I won't hear about the negatives for a while, and when I do, it'll be when least expected. Yes, I've grown cynical in 15 years. Most often what I get from the day is ... relief, that it's over. Sunday I feel the effects of running a marathon: I'm tired, my legs hurt, I just want to watch some football. I start thinking about Sukkot. And I wonder, how will I be able to do this again next year? And a little bit of excitement creeps in...