Cantor Phil's Reflections on the High Holidays

My personal connections with the High Holidays can be divided into three eras. The early years are tied in with memories of my grandparents, Jack and Freda Swartz, who whisked me off to an Orthodox shul in Malden, Massachusetts. Compared to what I’m used to today, the place was something straight out of Anatevka. The bimah was at the center of the room, the women sat upstairs, the Chazzan cried, shook, “krechsed” and repeated himself through every line of liturgy, a little old man named Maisheleh blew the shofar, and I risked damnation (or so I thought) by peeking as the Kohayn stuck out his arms and “duchened” the congregation as everyone else looked away. There was a sense of wonder to it all, including the amazement I always felt at how my Bobey could feed so much food to so many people out of the miniscule pantry that served as her kitchen. From applesauce to varnishkas, from stuffed elzel to verenikas (and let’s not forget the flommen—the stewed prunes), the goodies kept coming and coming.

Cantor Phil Greenfield flanked by his grandparents a “few” years ago

From my late teens well into adulthood, yontiff became synonymous with a hubbub of activity, most of it logistical and almost none of it spiritual. By this time, you see, I had become a professional cantor engaged for the high holidays. So questions relating to the universe and man’s place in it took a backseat to where was I booked that year, how would I get there, with whom would I be staying, which relatives were coming to see me in action, which of them would I have to pick up, and, most important of all, did the clothes I was planning to wear meet with maternal approval. (They never did.)

From1974 when I came to Johns Hopkins through my arrival at Mishkan Torah in 1981, I was still heading back to Boston for the holidays. As a result, logistical matters became even more complex. Questions like who would take me to BWI, who would pick me up at Logan, who would feed me prior to Erev Rosh Hashanah and Kol Nidrei, who would get me to the synagogue, and who would take me to the airport for the flight home added themselves to the mix.

Sometimes things worked out, sometimes they didn’t. My Uncle Jack, may his soul rest in peace, once turned a 12-minute drive to Logan Airport into an hour-long odyssey that nearly caused me to miss the plane. On my return flight to Maryland after Rosh Hashanah one year, the airline lost my suitcase. They proceeded to lose the same suitcase on the exact same flight a week later when I came back after Yom Kippur. Sigh. Trust me when I say the davining was the easy part

Twenty-eight Years at Mishkan Torah Holiday

The last 28 years, of course, have been spent here at Mishkan Torah and, mercifully, the logistics have given way to more satisfying ways of appreciating this extraordinary time of year. To begin with, the holidays here became part and parcel of the friendships I’ve established with the three rabbis I have served with and, of course, their families. 109 Lakeside became a place to settle in at will for yontiff, sometimes with Carolyn, Joann and Benjamin in tow and sometimes not. How I have treasured my time with them, and with the the Bayars, the Grifes and the Cohens.

As I mull over what the holidays have come to mean to me in middle age, I’m left contemplating an annual succession of separate interludes that never fail to coalesce into something unified and transcendent by the time yontiff is over. The first spiritual jolt for me occurs at the Selichot service, toward the beginning of the late-night davining, when the Chatzi Kaddish is sung in the High Holiday nusach; the first time that compendium of evocative melodies has been put to use in a year.

The most profound surge of humility I feel each year, not surprisingly, comes during the recitation of “Hineni” as I walk down the aisle toward the ark, feeling rather pea-sized in the spiritual sense, but imbued with a feeling of awesome responsibility nevertheless. Of all the musical compliments I receive at our shul, I’m proudest of the ones that allude to that prayer, which my Zaydie always insisted had to be sung “in a crying voice” to elicit its true response. Not long after “Hineni” comes the “Unitane Tokef” prayer, which is another peak experience, especially after the fireworks die down and the stark melody of “V’chol baey olam” leads to the big pause before “B’Rosh Hashanah yikatevun.”

For me, that silence ushering in our contemplation of “who will live and who will die” in the coming year is the holiest sound in our entire liturgy. I’ll be honest—I never thought much of my solo rendition of “Kol Nidrei”. (Maybe some things are best left to the cello!) So what a joy it’s been over the past several years to perform it with Becky and choir providing the level of support that’s finally allowed me to feel some bona fide goosebumps as I sing it. I’ll always be grateful.

A personal ritual comes with the reading of the names at “Yizkor” on the morning of Yom Kippur. As the names of the departed areintoned, I close my eyes and picture my Dad, my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, friends and colleagues who have passed on. I picture them as vividly as I can and try to “say” a little something to honor their memory.

The last spiritual hush that descends on me before the sheer giddiness of being nearly done propels me across the finish line, occurs when the room grows darker and darker during Minchah as day gives way to evening. Sitting there as Jonah is read, I feel the autumnal presence of the holiday in its cyclical, seasonal context. Soon the earth will grow cold. Then winter will be followed by the renewal of spring. And some months after that, we’ll be where we are right now, contemplating yet another yontiff together. Thank you for sharing all this with me, last year, this year, and, I hope, for years to come.

L’Shanah tovah, Cantor Phil