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Saturday, July 13, 2019

Nusach sefarad: Praying in Israel

Over seven years ago, I came to Israel during my year of saying kaddish for my mother, may her memory be for blessing. I wrote about some of the differences in the prayer service in Israel versus Chutz L'aretz (outside of Israel) as well as my personal experience of leading prayers in Israel

Now I am back again in Israeli as a mourner, saying kaddish for my father, z'l. Even though I go to Israel almost every year, it's still not my normal environment and one thing saying kaddish demands of you is regularity and routine. 

Synagogues in Israel have a different feel than in America. People tend to dress less formally. You see people dressed in shorts, wearing sandals, their shirts not tucked in. Also people pronounce the prayers with an Israeli accent whereas people in the shuls I pray at in New York mostly use the Ashkenazi pronunciation with the letter tof pronounced as an s sound rather than a t sound. 

There is no shortage of synagogues in Israel, so finding one to pray at wasn't a problem. There was one nearby where I was staying, in the town of Modi'in. They synagogue had a number of morning services, including one at 8:15 and 9:00 a.m. The first morning I attended the 8:15 service. As happened the last time I was in Israel saying kaddish, as soon as the Gabbai (prayer leader) saw that I was saying kaddish, he asked if I wanted to daven from the Amud (lead the prayer service). I followed my general practice of not volunteering to lead prayers when outside my regular synagogue, but accepting the invitation to lead prayers when asked. 

The Gabbai, the person generally in charge of running the service, told me I could use either Nusach Ashkenaz or Nusach Seferad. These refer to two different modes of prayer. While they are very similar in the aggregate, they have many small but noticeable differences. For example, there are 19 blessings that make up the silent prayer, and, by my count, 14 of them have differences in their wording. 

They synagogues at which I pray in New York use Nusach Ashkenaz, which is the dominant mode of prayer at traditional synagogues in the States. Nusach Seferad, I believe, is more commonly used in Israel than Nusach Ashkenaz. I know the Nusach Ashkenaz prayer by heart, so using Nusach Seferad was going to be a challenge. But I like challenges. Besides, the prayer book that was on the prayer stand was Nusach Seferad.

Besides the linguistic challenge, there is a spiritual dimension to reciting prayers not in one's normal mode. I had to make sure I slowed down enough to read the words on the printed page instead of simply having them flow from my mouth as usual. I had to concentrate on the words and think about the significance of the differences. It must have been clear to the assembled that at certain points of the prayer I was going slower and stumbling over pronunciation of words. But all in all, I did well and felt a sense of accomplishment of a challenge accepted and overcome.

The next two days, owing to jet lag, I wasn't able to make the 8:15 minyan, so I went to the 9:00. I had assumed that this minyan would consist of retired people ("pensioniers" in Israeli slang) but I was wrong. Instead, it consisted almost entirely of teenagers who were too old to go to summer camp. They were quite happy to have an adult volunteer to lead the services. 

I again led the prayers using Nusach Seferad. Thursday was the most challenging day because it also included the Torah reading. I pretended I knew what I was doing, but mistakenly put the Torah scroll back after the Torah reading, as done in Nusach Ashkenaz, rather than, as I later realized, after the U'va Le'tzion prayer. None of the teenagers said anything. Most of them were probably too sleepy to notice. 

After I completed the prayer service on Thursday morning, something happened which I can't recall ever happening in the year and a half that I have, on a consistent basis, led services. I was putting away my tephilin when one of the teenagers passed by me on his way out and said two words to me: "todah raba" (thank you). Someone had actually thanked me for leading services. Of all the many experiences I've had saying kaddish and leading services, that was one of the most moving. 

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