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Bar and bat mitzvah planning


for The Brooklyn Paper

Dear Cantor Matt,

My daughter started bat mitzvah lessons recently. Our cantor won’t give her a recording of the haftorah. He says that she can learn it just fine another way. I’ve asked to get a CD but he won’t do it. What’s up with that?

— Can I find it on YouTube?

Dear Can I find it on YouTube?,

This controversy actually harkens back to Mount Sinai. Moses was pretty tired after he climbed the mountain, so when God started giving him a bunch of commandments that he was supposed to learn, he asked God: “Can’t you just email me the file and I’ll open it up when I get back down the mountain?” God agreed and handed Moses two tablets…or iPads.

Sounds kind of silly, right?

But there are actually two schools of thought on the use of recordings for b’nei mitzvah students, and each one has merit. Some cantors will not make a CD or other recording for students, so that each student is required to learn the trope melodies on her own and then apply them to the words. These cantors believe that if given a recording, a student will simply memorize everything — in effect learning that haftorah but not how to sing all haftorahs. In other words, instead of learning important skills, the student is really just acting like a talented parrot.

Additionally, kids who just memorize the whole haftorah are flirting with disaster. It’s really easy to get distracted and forget how to sing a word. If a student just memorized all the pages in order without understanding any of the tropes, then what happens if she gets momentarily distracted or forgets one word? This poor kid has no way to get back on track.

This is one of those big picture/small picture deals. While you and your daughter are predictably and reasonably looking down the road to the bat mitzvah and figuring out the best way to prepare for and succeed on that one day, your cantor is trying to teach her a really important skill that that she can use for a long time after.

Teach a kid a haftorah — she can sing once. Teach a kid the tropes — she can sing any haftorah.

All that being said, I do regularly hand out CDs to my students. When I give them a section of haftorah to work on at home, I look at that the same way as having problems to solve for homework. Therefore, the recording becomes the “answer key.” My students can check what they’re singing and make sure that they’re learning it correctly. At the same time, during lessons, I emphasize the tropes and try to make sure my student is learning them, too.

Why not hang back and let your daughter and cantor work this out between themselves? You might be amazed at her ability to learn something in a new way. If she is continually frustrated, then she should make that clear to your cantor, who I’m sure will do everything possible to help her understand the material. He might even give her a CD later on after she’s put a lot of effort into the tropes.

Regardless, your concern makes you seem like an involved and good mother. And in 20 or so years, your daughter might be asking her daughter’s cantor to download the melody of a haftorah into her kid’s implanted iChip. Or, at the very least, explaining what a CD is to her own children.

Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at cantormatt@mattaxelrod.com.

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