Columns - 2004

    Slinging drash

    By Doug Brook
    Deep South Jewish Voice Columnist

    A rabbi recently invoked an unusual name from the bimah during services. No, not the name of the Big G. Quite the opposite, he invoked the name of this columnist.

    No, it wasn't regarding this column. (Apparently my check didn't clear.) It was regarding one of the many facets of my past that uniquely qualifies me to impart to you as I do at the hind end of every issue.

    I'm a longtime Torah reader. I've lained, if that's how you spell it, since high school. I did it for years. And I'd do it again, if only my synagogue wasn't blessed with a bar mitzvah every week.

    Ironically, I lained at this rabbi's synagogue years before he came around, and he barely knows me. But, as said by the rabbinic sage Harry Crumb, "it's good that my reputation precedes me, otherwise I'd be late for all my appointments."

    That rabbi's synagogue recently started a Torah readers club with all kinds of enticements for teenagers to lain. Among other incentives, they eventually get their own tikkun (a book with Torah text and plain Hebrew next to it; the lifeblood of all readers).

    The rabbi cited me as an example to encourage the teens that laining can be a good side career, as it was for me through high school and college.

    More than once in high school, I substituted a few months when the cantor had laryngitis, or when we were between cantors. Three of my five years in college and graduate school, I was the ba'al koreh (humbly translated, Master of Reading) at a couple different synagogues. I even knew the special tropes (melodies) for the High Holy Day readings, Esther, Lamentations, and the rest. I also taught bnai mitzvah for years.

    As the rabbi said, it's good money; much more than most normal high school or college side jobs. The money was nice, but it wasn't my true motivation.

    I lived for the challenge.

    For those who haven't had a go at it, here's the basics. The Torah (Bible, books 1 through 5, a la parchment scrolls) is written in special caligraphic script. No punctuation marks, no vowels (yes, you read that right). There's special melodies (trope symbols) with one or two of a few dozen different melodies for each word; they're not in the scroll either. Like the one you're reading, sometimes whole columns go without even a paragraph break.

    Some temples read the whole reading each week (typically a couple hundred verses), some read a third or so. You also read for every holiday (several that most of you have never heard of; all eight days of Passover and Hanukkah, first of every month, and more). Temples that support a daily minyan also need you at the crack of dawn on Monday and Thursday mornings, and Saturdays before sundown.

    Anyway, back to the challenge. As you can imagine, this is a skill position. Cantors typically handle this load, sometimes rabbis. Even they don't all find it so easy with everything else they have to do. Though some miraculously know it all by heart.

    It started when I was ten. I'd sit in services, following along, counting the mistakes the bar mitzvah kids made each week. Especially my brother. (Okay, he only had a couple. I can't admit that in public, but then I guess it's okay to say here.) Counting mistakes sounds tacky, and I was told not to, but it was quite educational (in more ways than one).

    At my bar mitzvah I read it all. (Not normal, but not unheard of... just like me.) I read a little here and there. Then there was my next summer at camp.

    One Saturday during services, a counselor told me he spent all week learning the wrong reading. He'd give a drash (a talk about the reading) to stall as long as he could, if I'd go learn the reading. That gave me about twenty minutes. I nailed it. My rabbi from home was there that weekend and heard it.

    From then on, I was reading every week at camp for a few years; sometimes for two services the same morning (running from one end of the camp to the other). And I lained at home too, as mentioned before.

    In graduate school, I would leave the fraternity house before some had gone to bed, driving as the sun rose over icy midwestern roads, to a Monday or Thursday 7:30 a.m. minyan. As I drove, I'd routinely have one hand on the wheel, one eye on the road, and the other eye and hand on a tikkun rapidly cramming for that day's Torah reading.

    If you were in the blue 1993 Camry with Pennsylvania tags at Fifth Avenue and Morewood, I hope this apology isn't too late.

    I wasn't perfect, though one rabbi speculated that I have a photographic memory. Several high school teachers believed the opposite, though I now realize that to use a photographic memory, you need to open the book at least once. I don't know if I ever had a photographic memory but, if I did, these days I'm pretty sure it's out of film.

    Anyway, like any ballplayer, I had good days and bad. I felt horrible about every mistake. But, in all humility, I could cram a reading with the best of them. My worst services were the ones I actually prepared for in advance. It was all short term memory for me. And, considering I often can't remember in the shower if I already washed my hair, and that's the last thing I do, you can see what I mean by "short."

    But nothing beats the rush after finishing the final reading on a good day. It was as good as nailing the winning basket in the tournament we had at Kibbutz Hanaton.

    For those of you who now think I'm a total geek, let's see you hit that winning basket. It was a turnaround jumper near the top of the key at the end of three games in a row. And I averaged almost half the team's points for the tournament.

    And, let me tell you, the Musaf service seems a lot less redundant (and far more relaxing) if you earlier spent the Shacharit service in the back row cramming for the Torah service.

    So I strongly encourage today's teens to go lain; better than doing the naughty thing that sounds similar. It (still talking about laining...) can be spiritually rewarding, good money, intellectually stimulating, or just give you something more to do during services (another noble cause).

    But beware the pitfalls. Once you get too used to laining all the time, you might find services boring without something more than the sermon to get you out of your pew. Or you might find less motivation to go since you're not "getting paid to pray." Hey, it happens. It's like an actor who stops acting and sits in the audience, watching others on his stage.

    But this is a good problem to have. It means you were in the game before, and are more likely to get back in again later in life.

    I don't expect most teens to be into the intellectual challenge like I was. But whatever your motivation, use it. It's rewarding in so many ways.

    And, if all else fails, there's one other perk: I was amazed how much the chicks really went for it.

    Doug Brook is a technical writer in Silicon Valley who isn't kidding about the chicks. Really. Not that I ended up with any of them, but that's their own good fortune; I can be hell to deal with after an Alabama loss. For more information, past columns, other writing, and other current events, visit his website at

    Copyright Doug Brook. All rights reserved.