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Blowing In the Jewish New Year

Many temples sound in Rosh Hashana with the shofar, an instrument made from a ram horn.

October 03, 2005|Patricia Ward Biederman | Times Staff Writer

The air will be filled Tuesday morning with the ancient, timeless bleating of the shofar, the twisted ram's horn that trumpets Rosh Hashana, which starts tonight at sundown. This Jewish New Year -- 5766 -- promises to ring with more shofars than ever.

Just as honey's sweetness is the traditional taste of the Jewish New Year, the shofar is its voice, a sound that Rabbi Stephen Robbins, of Temple N'vay Shalom in Los Angeles, describes as both earthy and spiritual. In many synagogues, 100 blasts of the shofar are sounded on each of the two days of Rosh Hashana. A single long wail marks the end of the service for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

The shofar, Robbins said, "represents our crying out to God to accept our prayers and our repentance for our destructive behaviors during the year."

Traditionally, blowing the shofar has been the privilege and responsibility of one honored member of the congregation. Sounding the sacred horn 100 times is not for the faint of heart, and congregations often wait breathlessly to see if the increasingly red-faced blower of the shofar is up to the task.

As a result, few people have tried to master the difficult instrument -- until recently. Today, more and more people are learning how to blow the primitive, soulful horn. And more rabbis are inviting congregants to bring their shofars from home to sound at the close of holiday services.

Makom Ohr Shalom, a Jewish renewal congregation in the San Fernando Valley, is going one step further. This year, it launched a One Hundred Shofar project for the High Holidays. On both days of Rosh Hashana, 100 individuals are expected to sound their shofars at the same time. To prepare, participants have been studying with Michael Chusid, a member of the congregation and teacher of shofar.

Chusid will also blow the shofar alone during services.

Rabbi Haim Ovadia, rabbi at Kahal Joseph, a Sephardic traditional synagogue in West Los Angeles, said he sees more interest in shofar in recent years among both adults and children.

And he is not surprised that more people are seeking a hands-on experience with the ancient instrument, sometimes fashioned from an antelope horn.

"I think people are looking for new channels to express their Judaism and their spirituality," he said. "Shofar is a kind of primal call that seems to take people back to a place of childlike purity and openness."

As a result, shofars are selling briskly at shops specializing in Judaica, where small, simple horns start at about $30 and large shofars, decorated with silver and precious stones, can cost hundreds of dollars. At Audrey's, the shop at the Skirball Cultural Center, buyer Barbara Lang said shofars have become favorite bar mitzvah gifts, less popular for bat mitzvahs.

Learning to blow the shofar allows congregants to experience, in a personal, visceral way, the process of awakening, self-examination, repentance and renewal that the High Holidays provide, Robbins said.

"The sound is so earthy and raggedy, it gives voice to the pain we feel inside," he said.

As the High Holidays approached, a dozen members of Ahavat Torah Congregation met last week at the beachfront home of their rabbi, Miriam Hamrell, in Marina del Rey, to learn more about shofar.

Their teacher was Chusid, a 52-year-old Encino resident, who said he has taught hundreds of people since he discovered, five years ago, that sharing the sacred horn's joys and mysteries was his calling. Last week, he sounded the shofar at an early holiday service for Jewish inmates at a local prison.

Although he emphasizes that blowing the shofar is a religious practice, not a performance, Chusid has the skill, the control and the soul of an artist.

While his students listened, Chusid produced a series of eloquent sounds on his simple shofar -- rapid toots, protracted sobs and an impossibly long, heartbreaking moan that sounded like a keening human voice. But he was not always so skillful. His first attempt, when he was about 8, was disastrous, he recalled. His neighbor had the honor of blowing the shofar at Chusid's synagogue, and the boy asked if he could try.

"I huffed and I puffed and I blew until my sinuses hurt, but no sound came out," said Chusid, whose computer screensaver shows a curving ram's horn.

Hamrell said she wanted members of her congregation to deepen their understanding of shofar. "It's a sound like no other," she said. The raw, ancient sound, she said, "gets the person vibrating."

Chusid is writing a book on the shofar. It includes tips as well as meditations on the spiritual implications. Make yourself comfortable, he advises. At the rabbi's home, Chusid slipped out of his shoes and blew the shofar in his bare feet. One invaluable reminder: Don't forget to inhale -- deeply.

Shofar practice is built into Jewish tradition, Chusid said. For centuries, the shofar has been blown each morning during the month before the High Holy Days, except on the Sabbath.

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