An Enchanting Lesson

By Holly Lebowitz Rossi

Published June 04, 2004, issue of June 04, 2004.
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It was a disconcerting thought, a wake-up call that interrupted my reverie as I thought fondly back on four years of teaching second-grade Hebrew school. I realized with a start that the students I’d taught my first year were becoming bar and bat mitzvah this year. They had learned the trope, the system of diacritical markings in the biblical text that guides a Torah reader in the proper melody for chanting, or cantillation. But along with the usual passage-of-time anxiety that came with the thought of those kids becoming Jewish adults was the unavoidable realization that they officially had surpassed their teacher in their learning. You see, I had never learned trope.

It had bothered me — not when I became bat mitzvah and was relieved beyond belief to have a tape to guide me with the melody of my Torah portion, but more recently. During last fall’s High Holy Days, my rabbi had spoken in his sermon about a man who had rescued a Torah scroll from Eastern Europe when he fled Nazi terror. The rabbi spoke movingly about the man’s feelings as he watched his granddaughter read for her bat mitzvah from that very Torah scroll. What would have been the purpose of my rescuing the Torah, the man had said, if future generations would be unable to read from it? It was the skill, as much as the object, that would preserve Jewish life in his eyes. The twinge of responsibility stirred within me, and I decided to get serious.

Between college Hebrew classes and, more recently, my teaching stint, I knew my Hebrew skills were strong enough. But the trope system — with all its dots and dashes, angles and circles — to me seemed an entirely new language. It made me dizzy to look at a page of Torah marked with trope. Would this ever make sense?

I approached the rabbi of the Conservative congregation where I had taught with a plea for advice or, dare I hope, lessons. I felt guilty confessing to her my lack of knowledge, as if it uncovered me as a fraud — a Hebrew teacher whose students now could teach her a thing or two. The fact that I had participated as a Torah reader at a few recent family bar and bat mitzvahs, memorizing my portions meticulously for fear of being thrown off my gait by the gabbai, was of small comfort to me. I felt as if I had studied for and passed the final exam for a course that I never had actually attended.

To my delight, the rabbi offered to give me lessons in trope at her office at Harvard Divinity School. Walking to our Tuesday morning sessions, I watched the ground go from brown to green, observing spring unfolding even as my reconnection with Hebrew and Torah was peering up from its long winter’s rest.

The first thing I had to do was buy a Bible that had the Hebrew text fully marked with vowels and trope. Gazing at the text, I wondered again if by some miracle I ever could comprehend all those markings. The rabbi gave me a music sheet with all the symbols and their corresponding melodies written on it. Already I felt better, though a bit mystified: Every sound you need to know to chant the entire Torah fits on one sheet of paper?

During our first lesson, we discussed the philosophy of what we would be doing. The rabbi explained that there are two schools of thought regarding trope: One says that it is simply a system of singing that makes it easier to read the words of Torah; the other says that it is laden with symbolism, telling us when we need to pay attention to a particular word or phrase. I told her that my experience with Judaism always had been that nothing turns out to be “simply a system” of anything. There is meaning to be found in every detail; I felt sure of that.

By the end of the second lesson, I had learned three trope “sequences” — groups of sounds that always go together. I was relieved that I was getting these lessons from someone who had taught them to sixth graders for years, if nothing else just for the metaphors I could understand in my intimidated state. One explanation was that these marks “hang out” with these other marks. This mark sounds like a bird. When these two marks appear together, one sounds like Maria from “West Side Story.” Okay, maybe the sixth graders wouldn’t get that one, but I’ll take it.

Then, incredibly, I read the first verse of Genesis successfully. The rabbi said shehecheyanu.

I began to find that I was able to open my Bible to any random place and figure out most of the marks. I still needed my music sheet at my side, and I got tangled up plenty of times, but by the end of the fourth lesson, the rabbi told me that I could now chant 90% of the Torah.

That week, when I practiced reading an entire chapter of Exodus, skipping only a few verses that had marks I hadn’t yet learned, it dawned on me that this process is not supposed to be intimidating. It is supposed to be accessible, a skill that any Jew can learn at any time. Otherwise, the Torah would be preserved only by an elite group of rabbis and left unavailable to the likes of me. But I now saw it as an open book. I found myself reading the English translations of what I was reading in Hebrew, picking out the words I recognized, actually delving into the meaning of the text as I studied its sounds. Demystifying the trope system, it turned out, opened the Torah afresh for me.

I am not finished learning trope yet. There is one more sequence I have to tackle, and then it’s just a matter of practicing and keeping the skills fresh. I even may venture into a synagogue to do that. Meanwhile, at the end of my most recent lesson, I exclaimed to the rabbi, “It’s a miracle!” when I read a long segment and made only a few minor mistakes.

Some miracle, said the rabbi with a smile. I was someone who had Hebrew reading skills from school, could (sort of) read music and could (sort of) carry a tune. Plus I practiced a lot. I looked at her for a moment, thought of that grandfather’s hope for his Torah, and reiterated, “I know, it’s a miracle!”

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