Columns - 2005

    Holy reading high

    A couple of interesting things happened on the first day of Rosh Hashanah.

    First, I decided that if I ever have a daughter who's born around this time of year, her name will be Shauna Tovah.

    You can use it. But I retain the copyright. Just stamp her forehead with an appropriate trademark and we're fine.

    If I have a son born around this time of year, I don't know what I'll name him. But my mother has said many times that she hopes he's just like I was as a child.

    Personally, I'm not sure that good fortune would smile on me with such a well-behaved kid.

    Why? Good fortune chose instead to snicker at me during Rosh Hashanah this year. And I hate Snickers.

    There I sat, nearing the Torah service, dreading the annual parade of inadequately prepared Torah Teens to butcher High Holy Day trope as they spare the clergy from doing the same.

    (Torah Teens is a great name for a teen Torah reading program. Just stamp their foreheads with an appropriate trademark, and warn me when they're reading.)

    See, I am a recovering Torah reader. In all humility, I was good. Name a special trope, I knew it. I've been on staff at several synagogues as the Torah reader. I recognize the great skill and effort involved. But it's like a cinematographer who has trouble going to movies because he sees the tiniest issues that most of us ignore.

    There's a Yiddish term for this: Torah snob. And the Yiddish word for what happened to me that day: Karma.

    I haven't read much in the last few years, for reasons too few to mention. But here I am as the Torah's taken out, and things get higgledy-piggledy (Yiddish for "not kosher").

    A past president comes to me and asks if I know High Holy Day trope. I say sure, but I'm rusty. He says they don't have a reader for the third (longest) aliyah.

    I ask if there's a sermon first to learn during, he says no. I ask if there's a tikkun to learn it from, he says no.

    After finding a phone booth and changing clothes, I started learning from the Machzor. A couple minutes later an old tikkun is pushed in my hands. Good thing, I was getting nowhere. It was so old, the chapters weren't marked. So I found the reading the hard way.

    HHD trope is similar enough to Esther and Aicha, and enough in my past, so the distinctions were hazy. I learned the text, then listened to the first kid for his version of the trope. Not tone deaf. Good.

    Bear in mind that, back in the day, with even ten minutes of prep I could get up there and do a reasonable job on a large reading.

    On this cardio-stimulated morning I was, to my standards, within the ballpark. All were quite grateful. To the rabbi I said, "I haven't done HHD trope in six years... and I still haven't."

    I'm walking back to my seat in the far back corner, where I sit because according to a rabbi I used to work with the front row is reserved for the righteous and pure of heart.

    I'm walking... And nothing's happening. They're stalled. I heard days later that the next kid learned the wrong reading. I'm in the back, and being looked at. I point to myself questioningly. I'm shrugged at and waved to.

    I went up again. I figure I can learn it real quick during the blessing. (In my prime, I actually could have.) But she already did the blessing. Great...

    I went in cold. I went to the zoo. At least by my standards. I was reminded that most people wouldn't know and the rest didn't care since I saved it.

    (I knew that. I always told my bar mitzvah kids to not telegraph when they made a mistake; because 95% of the people wouldn't otherwise know the difference, and the other 5% are me and the rabbi.)

    This time I told the rabbi, "I'll be outside, getting oxygen."

    I start away again, but stop after a few rows. Just in case. I sit. They pause. Again!

    After about a minute, I go up again. Everyone starts laughing. They just had trouble finding the next starting place. Probably my fault, because I don't use the pointer. (I find it distracting, and technically you're not supposed to leave it in there as a placeholder, though everyone does.)

    So I'm humbled, because I used to be better at this. I'm excited, because I remember the high of getting up there and reading, especially to save the day.

    I'm mythical because, after the Torah service, they acknowledged the readers and noted that I read cold. With most people showing up after the Torah service, only a few hundred actually heard it and the rest are left to believe any hyperbole.

    And, as of the day after Rosh Hashanah, I'm on the hook to read for Yom Kippur.

    Doug Brook is a senior technical writer in Silicon Valley who once learned a holiday Torah reading at summer camp in the few minutes that the counselor who learned the wrong reading improvised a Torah sermon... on a reading he hadn't looked at. For more information, past columns, and other writings, visit his website at

    Copyright Doug Brook. All rights reserved.