Columns - 2008

    Performance Enhancers II - Back For More

    by Doug Brook
    Deep South Jewish Voice columnist

    One of our greatest traditions, one of our most defining pastimes, has become tainted. Possibly irrevocably.

    This summer, at least four times a week the few remaining faithful and loyal believers, those actually still willing to attend, won't be able to help but question the purity and credibility of what they witness.

    How did it come to this? Experts, scholars, and self-appointed pundits all debate the root cause. But it's fair to say that two factors are incontrovertible contributors: impatience, and poor fundamentals training.

    It's a faster-paced world every year. Even the government is starting to legislate artificially putting more time into each day (see last year's shift of Daylight Savings Time dates). People want to accomplish more in less time. They don't want to spend time preparing as much as is really needed.

    On those coattails comes an overall lack of interest in fundamentals. Not only do people not take the time to teach or learn the fundamentals in a lasting manner, but those who do learn some fundemental skills to build from often lack the discipline to stick to the fundamentals when they get up in front of the crowd.

    Let's be clear, though. Not everyone cuts these, or any, corners. There are still people out there who do it right, do it as they're supposed to, and leave it all out on the field. But their integrity is nonetheless called into question, just by association.

    Nobody can be good or exceptional anymore without drawing suspicion, thanks to those who sneak by with performance enhancement. Conversely, many have been heralded as exceptional regardless of whether they earned it or just plain cheated.

    And while it might help improve everything in the long run, the innocent will be presumed guilty for the foreseeable future, and possibly forever, thanks to the recent release of The Menschel Report.

    This years-long study dug deep into the core of Torah Reading as performed today across the country. The Report, named for the types of people it's trying to protect and promote, doesn't paint a pretty picture.

    Torah readers everywhere are using performance enhancers in services at alarming rates. There are many types of enhancers, most of which go unobserved by the casual observer.

    Instead of being prompted if needed, some readers look back and forth from the scroll to a nearby book. An alarmingly increasing number of readers even have a book held over the scroll so they can read the book more than the scroll.

    Some teachers let students simply memorize their readings instead of learning what they're doing. Others place (or even tape) a copy of the reading, with vowels and trope, into the scroll.

    At least earlier enhancers had the dignity of subtlety. But more recent enhancers are more obvious yet result in the same accolades regardless of how much the skill involved is diminished. The Report finds the supporters culpable in this way, contributing to the environment of acceptance.

    With more synagogues in more cities, the talent pool is getting diluted, which doesn't help.

    Torah reading is an invaluable, rare service. It's necessary, the central part of the service. Having a good reading is crucial. But while enhancers might seem to help people do a better reading, it's often a needless crutch exercised by people who with just a little more effort could do without.

    Either they don't realize how close they are, or they don't want to bother with more effort. But the Report clearly states that rarely does a reader using enhancers read even as well as, let alone better than, someone not using enhancers who's not even having a good day.

    While it's in some way a question of giving credit where it's truly due, the real long-term issue is one of legacy. If our children see us cheating, see how accepted it is, and are taught with such a lowered bar as the standard, what are we doing to them? What will the art and skill of Torah reading be in fifty years? In a hundred?

    Young Jews typically think only about the children they'll have someday. They typically don't think at all about their future grandchildren until their children approach that age. Nobody ever thinks about their grandchildren's grandchildren except as abstracted, impersonal "future generations." People who'll never hear our names, but who'll be stuck with the legacy we leave.

    Doug Brook is a writer in Silicon Valley who has never, and never will, use performance enhancers. For more information, past columns, other writings, and more, visit his website at

    Copyright Doug Brook. All rights reserved.