Sunday, January 10, 2010

Learning Jewish Liturgy Online

Daniel Sieradski, of, is a very smart, very engaged, and sometimes controversial figure in the Jewish community. Personally, I place him very high on my list of people I really want to chat with over beer and plan the revolution. Which revolution will vary by the mood we're in. There are about a dozen or so that I can think of.

Dan can think of even more. In fact, he's thought of so many he's going open source with the whole idea of revolution. He recently started a website called "31 days, 31 ideas" where he lays out the blueprints for 31 revolutions that he feels need to happen. Each is, at it's heart, a simple idea. But each, if implemented well, could have a significant positive impact on the Jewish community. Each is a technical tool conceived of to solve a significant social/religious problem. To give you a taste of what he's thinking about, here are the titles of three of his ideas (he's published 9 so far):
  • Pop-Up Parsha: "I love the Sunlight Foundation, the D.C.-based philanthropic foundation which provides support to hackers working on software projects that increase transparency and accountability in government. My ultimate wish is to see the creation of something similar for the Jewish community — a laboratory that develops solutions that increase, if not the transparency of our communal institutions, the transparency and accessibility of our tradition itself.
  • The Open Source Beit Midrash: Yesterday, I spoke about the need to create a repository of sacred Jewish texts encoded in XML, a format that would enable software developers to take the creation of Jewish educational Web applications to the next level. Today, I’m going to show you an application I’ve been dreaming about in various incarnations for about five years, The Open Source Beit Midrash, which will only be possible when such a repository comes into existence.
  • Niggun Please: Jewish Liturgical Music Database: Yesterday I talked about a tool, the Jewish Book Builder, that would help individuals and communities create their own prayerbooks and looked at some current implementations of that idea, including the Open Siddur Project. In my post, I described “a future in which creating customized siddurim, bentshers, haggadot, chumashim and all manner of liturgical and scriptural books is as commonplace as making a mixtape (or an MP3 playlist, as it were)." Today’s project is actually about further personalizing the prayer experience by providing a means for Jews to explore and learn the music of tefillah (Jewish prayer) by making for themselves downloadable audio playlists, and for the Jewish community to compile collectively the sum knowledge of their musical heritage by contributing to an open database of niggunim (liturgical melodies).
Ok, so go figure that last one got me all worked up. What a fantastic idea. If you care about liturgical music at all, go read the whole concept. It deals head on with two separate but related issues...the ability to pray in a group, which is central to Jewish practice, and the ability to learn new prayers in order to do the former. Jewish communities do not all use the same melodies, even if they are using the same prayerbook. When prayerbooks vary, or when the community does a lot of supplementing of the prayerbook, the differences between communites goes up dramatically. To someone entering the community, or even just visiting, this can be a substantial and alienating barrier even when the people in the community are welcoming and supportive. I've experienced it many times. In fact, every time I've moved (which I won't count here).

I don't have the time or energy right now to build the system that Dan is advocating, but I'm going to think more about it. Maybe someday I'll take the plunge. For the moment I wanted to share it and to pass along a few temporary stop-gaps. The first couple Dan mentions in his post, the rest are my contributions. All are websites that provide audio recordings of prayers that can be used to help us expand our knowledge, our ability to pray in groups, and our ability to join with new groups as the circumstances require.

From Dan...

1. - "the work of a Conservative rabbi who recorded himself singing Friday night services and posted the audio online"

2. Kol Zimrah Resources - "created by Shir Yaakov Feinstein-Feit for congregants of the independent minyan he had co-founded in New York"

3. Sing! the audio weblog for niggunum

4.’s niggun database

5.’s audio collection, "which contains a vast number of popular Chabad niggunim"

6. An Invitation to Piyut, a massive Israeli database of liturgical music

7. The Zemirot Database, "a project of a group of young Conservative Jews who, in 2007, took the initiative unto themselves to create a project very similar to the one"

Here are some of my additions...

7. and Both websites are maintained by the Hava Nashira community, which supports the pop-liturgical / songleader community. Both sites have audio recordings, often supplied by the composer / performer, of a wide variety of prayers & songs. TotShabbat, as the name implies, focuses on kids services.

8. While better for pop & folk songs, and better on lyrics than audio recordings, HebrewSongs does have a number of liturgical pieces available and is worth checking out.

9. A skilled cantor has recorded a huge array of Shabbat, weekday, festival and holiday nusach. Each recording is well indexed and easily findable.

10 Project Z'mirot One of my personal favorites, "Project Z'mirot allows Jews from around the globe to share their favorite Ruach songs and melodies, and to learn new songs from others. "

11. Zemirot Project (not to be confused with Project Z'mirot or the Zemirot Database). A smaller collection of Shabbat and festival prayers, with page references to the NCSY bencher.

12. Sephardic Pizmonim Project Similar to the Invitation to Piyut site you mentioned. Huge archive of recorded Sepharidc pizmonim, including prayers, cantillations, maqams, and pizmonim.

13. Sephardic Hazzanut Project Similar to Virtual Cantor, but focusing on Sephardic nusach. The recordings are from a single Sephardic cantor working his way through "all the parashiot and Shahrit of Shabbat for all the main seven maqamot."

14. And finally, of course, You Tube. There are few popular Shabbat or festival prayers that haven't been video taped and uploaded at some point.

None of this should suggest that learning by yourself is the best answer. Learning with others is always preferable, but sometimes it's not just not possible or timely. So check out these resources. And, if you interested in taking on Dan's challenge of implementing a Jewish liturgy database, give Dan a yell.

No comments: