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Hey, Cantor! An Elul Q&A with Cantor David Berger

Hey, Cantor! An Elul Q&A with Cantor David Berger

We asked clergy across North America which music, books, art, movies and more help them get into a reflective state of mind as they gear up for the High Holidays. Here’s what Cantor David Berger from Congregation Tikvat Jacob in Manhattan Beach, CA, had to say. Any favorite musicians you tend to listen to during Elul?

Cantor Berger: I’m pretty different from year to year, but this year I keep coming back to Steve Reich’s You Are (Variations). It is sort like a musical mandala, with texts and rhythms cycling around and around – it almost forces me into a kind of meditation. There are four movements, each of them with only one phrase of lyrics.

The first, “You Are Wherever Your Thoughts Are” (a quote from Rebbe Nachman of Brelsev) is a classic Elul exploration. I listen and I wonder where “am” I right now, and where have I been this year?

The second, “Shiviti Hashem L’negdi,” which translates to “I place God before me,” from Psalm 16, reminds me where my thoughts should be turning as I head towards the High Holidays.

The third, “Explanations Come to an End Somewhere” (a quote by Ludwig Wittgenstein) is one of the hardest parts of my Elul cheshbon hanefesh (accounting of the soul) that I have to accept. I can explain away lots of missed opportunities, or times that I feel short – but none of those explanations represent a real ultimate truth.

Finally, the piece ends with a quote from Pirkei Avot, “Emor M’at Va’aseih Harbeih” – “Say little, and do much.” Break the endless cycle of promises, resolutions, and excuses – and go out and do something.

This is not easy listening – but Elul isn't supposed to be easy. You can listen to some samples of the music.

What about writers? Any novelists, poets, or columnists you are drawn to this time of year? Any favorite (non-canonical) Elul book?

I re-read Martin Buber’s short (like 50 small pages) The Way of Man According to Hassidic Teaching every year for at least the past 15 years. I haven’t done it yet this year – but I’m excited to see that a new translation came out, which I hear is wonderful. I stumbled on this tiny book when writing a paper about existentialism in high school and have been obsessed ever since. At its core, this book aims to help us remember to make conscious decisions about the way we lead our lives. It is easy, for me, to let myself drift into situations that become ever farther from the self I want to be. When I read (and re-read) this book I feel myself starting the course-corrections that will steer me back onto the right track.

You can buy the new translation (in digital form only) from Jewish Lights Publishing.

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