Friday, November 16, 2012

Just what do you think you are doing?

In Spider and Jeanne Robinson’s transcendent (literally) trilogy The Stardancers, a modern dancer and her choreographer/cameraman decide that dancing in zero gravity is what they want to do. They sit down with Harry Stein, an engineer, to invite him to build a space station for them, and he asks the question, “What do you want it to do?”

In the opening article in the current issue of Liturgy Joshua A. Edelman approaches an unusual instance of liturgical action from the same point of view: what is it doing.

In his article “The Debbie Friedman Problem: Performing Tradition, Memory, and Modernity in Progressive Jewish Liturgy, “ Edelman explores the opening move of a dozens of memorial service which were held in the winter of 2011 following the sudden and unexpected death of an extremely popular and beloved composer of Jewish liturgical music, Debbie Friedman.

Edelman gives a great deal of background so that readers can understand the nature of Friedman’s music, the controversy which it generated as it moved from Jewish summer camps into liturgical use in synagogue worship, and the differences in style and in function between Friedman’s music and the more traditional liturgical music which it came to replace in some congregations.

Following this background, the phenomenon of Friedman’s many memorial services is explored from the standpoint of performance studies, with particular attention paid to the fact that most of the services began not with the more tradition recitation of Kaddish, but with the ceremony of havdalah.

This is a song of departure, not arrival. That might be exactly the point. This prayer seems to sit in the space of mourning vacated by the absent Kaddish. It is an acknowledgement of loss, of departure, but one that is light and cyclical; the Sabbath bride has left, but this is temporary: six days more and she will come again.

A performance studies approach, however, suggests something else that may be even more basic. Performance studies has long been interested in the importance and function of framing actions placed around a performative event. In these terms, opening the concert with the havdalah prayer serves to de-consecrate the space. Havdalah marks what follows as khol, ordinary or workaday, and not kodesh, holy. This was intentional; what followed did not look like formal rituals. They took a firmly casual tone that would be out of place in most Jewish worship, even at its most liberal. Progressive Jews have unquestionably embraced Friedman’s musical techniques for building, connecting, and nurturing communities, and they turned to these techniques to memorialize her. But there still seems to be a resistance to raise these techniques to the level of ‘‘proper’’ liturgical worship.

Liturgical elements do not exist in a vacuum, nor do they bear a one-to-one correspondence with meaning. They do different things in different situations. How have you experience occasions of liturgical elements functioning differently when moved into differing contexts?

 Joshua A. Edelman is Fellow in Research and Enterprise in the Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London, United Kingdom.

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