By Laura Porter
WESTBOROUGH – At the end of every Hebrew chant, there is a period of silence, and it is during that silence that “you experience physically, emotionally, the effects of the chant that you just did with the group,” says Eva Friedner, leader of EnCHANTment CIRCLE, the monthly chanting group at Congregation B’nai Shalom in Westborough.
“You can hear and feel the vibrations in the room,” she continues. “You can feel the energy that the group has created. The silence is really the strongest part of the chant.”
She is not talking about chanting the Torah portion or prayers during Shabbat. Rather, she is explaining the musical spiritual practice of Hebrew chant, which she sometimes refers to as “musical meditation.”
In essence, the practice takes a line or two from a sacred text that “really defines the intention, the kavanah of that prayer, and puts it to music,” says Friedner, a resident of Milford and longtime B’nai Shalom member. “It is a way of connecting with the One (God, or however you interpret the concept of God) in a very deep way.”
Indeed, chant encourages and creates connection on a number of levels.
Rabbi Shefa Gold, a teacher, composer, performer and writer who has written hundreds of chants, describes chant on her website as “the bridge between the inner life and the outer expression; between the solitary practice and the shared beauty of fellowship. When we chant we are using the whole body as the instrument with which to feel the meaning of the sacred phrase.”
In its contemporary form, Hebrew chant emerged from the Jewish Renewal approach to Judaism, which is part of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Founded by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z” l (known as Reb Zalman), who departed from the Orthodoxy in which he was raised because of its rules and restrictions, Jewish Renewal emphasizes spirituality, social justice, halacha, eco-kashrut, kabbalah and the interpretation of ancient practice in a modern, accessible context.
It is also deeply egalitarian and ecumenical, says Friedner.
“Jewish Renewal is about being open to anybody who is interested, whatever their sexual preference, their religious preference. You have people who are Renewal members who are ultra-Orthodox all the way to atheist.”
In its embrace of spirituality, Jewish chanting encourages the close examination of small parts of existing texts in a way that is rarely possible in a traditional service, no matter what the denomination.
“Somehow, from my point of view and others’ points of view, services have become very rote,” says Friedner. “One wonders, if you’re doing the prayers a hundred miles an hour, are you really connected with the universe, are you really connecting with God, if you want to call it that?”
This, she says, is where chanting comes in.
“Chant is one of the many ways that we look at prayer, and we try to focus on the intention of the prayer through chant.”
Friedner was born in Prague, the child of Holocaust survivors. In 1948, she and her family left Czechoslovakia when it became Communist; they spent three years waiting for American visas in Paris, where her younger brother was born. They came to New York in the 1950s, where Eva’s two sisters were born, and she grew up in Queens and taught elementary school in New York City. She also received a Master’s degree in English as a Second Language.
She and her husband, Amos, who is from Israel, had young children when they moved to Central Massachusetts for his job. Once here, she went on to earn a second Master’s degree in Speech and Language Pathology; she worked as a speech and language pathologist in the Milford school system and subsequently ran her own practice until she retired.
In the late 1990s, Friedner discovered chant at Eilat Chayyim, a Jewish Renewal retreat center in Accord, New York, where she took workshops with Rabbi Shefa Gold.
In 2004, she was part of the first cohort of chant leaders whom Rabbi Gold trained through Kol Zimra, a two-year professional development program. There have now been nine such cohorts, and trained chant leaders from all over the country have started chant circles in their own communities.
Friedner acknowledges that chanting is accepted more easily in some places than others, and that it is often difficult to get people to depart from “the way your grandfather did it.”
Yet those who do open up find “newly discovered old stuff that has somehow gone by the wayside when we formalized our services and the ways of being Jewish.”
She says chanting has been part and parcel of Jewish tradition from the very beginning.
“Look back to Moses and Miriam,” she says. “Miriam played the timbrel and drums after they crossed the Red Sea. That‘s part of Renewal. Chanting is very similar to that spirit and that energy that happened way back when.”
At B’nai Shalom, Eva has been facilitating EnCHANTment CIRCLE since 2004. The group meets on the last Tuesday of every month from 7:30-9 p.m. Some members have been coming for years, others are relatively new. Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz, who also leads a monthly Spiritual Journey group, attends whenever her schedule permits.
In addition, for several years Friedner has offered a chant circle on Yom Kippur afternoon during a break between services. Last year, the group combined hiking and chanting, spending part of the day in nature.
Many of her chants come from Rabbi Shefa Gold, though she has also written two of her own as well as several Niggunim, or melodies. There are chants to serve every purpose or need, she says.
“If you need a chant for inner growth, there’s a chant. If you want to reach out and try to solve whatever your issues are, there’s a chant.
If you want healing, there’s a chant.”
EnCHANTment CIRCLE typically does about five chants during their monthly sessions. The chants are transliterated and the melodies easy to pick up.
To begin, the group sits in a circle, first discussing the kavanah of the chant they are about to do, what they are focusing on and why this chant is appropriate on this particular day.
During the course of each chant, the group becomes more and more comfortable with it, focusing on the intention rather than the words, and “it causes a magical transformation in the personal soul and body,” says Friedner.
“You come in with the heavy burdens of your daily life, and you leave feeling much lighter and more centered.”
Those feelings last, she says, especially for those who continue to chant on their own.
“I chant in the car all the time,” she says. “Sometimes I even miss my exit, which is not so great!”
EnCHANTment CIRCLE meets from 7:30-9 p.m. on the last Tuesday of every month at Congregation B’nai Shalom, 117 East Main St. (Route 30 East) in Westborough. Upcoming sessions will take place on Aug. 29. The October session will be held on the fourth Tuesday, Oct. 24
A special Yom Kippur chant circle will be held at 2 p.m. Check the B’nai Shalom calendar and/or website at www.cbnaishalom.org. For more information, contact her at email@example.com.