In synagogues and other venues throughout the world during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the Jewish community hears and responds to the sound of the shofar.
Long before becoming part of liturgy, the shofar was a staple of ancient Hebrew life. Its call was a rallying cry to rise up against an enemy, to repent and pray in times of drought or other natural disaster, and to announce the anointing and subsequent reign of a new king. The shofar was also blown to announce the new moon. When the first day of Tishri became the religious new year, the shofar became the sacred religious symbol we know today.
In “The Joys of Yiddish,” Leo Rosten writes “the bend in the shofar is supposed to represent how a human heart, in true repentance, bends before the Lord.
“The man who blows the shofar,” he continues, “is required to be of blameless character and conspicuous devotion; he must blow blasts of different timbre, some deep, some high, some quavering.”
There are 100 blasts in a shofar service, beginning with T’kiah and ending with T’kiah G’dolah. T’kiah is an unbroken blow lasting between two and four seconds. Shevarim, three separate blows in quick succession, is a broken T’kiah. Teruah consists of nine short blows. The final blast, T’kiah G’dolah, is an extended T’kiah meant to be held for nine counts or, in some traditions, as long as the shofar player is able to sustain the sound.
In Milwaukee, Jerry and Jim Salinsky, Mitchell Carneol and Ben Keren are among those who have taken on that role. Throughout the year, they engage in different work – and community-related activities. But in their synagogues and shuls on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they are the ones whose blasts through the bend of the shofar help stir the hearts of their fellow worshippers.
About 40 years ago Jerry Salinsky made the decision to try and establish a tradition at what was then Milwaukee’s newest synagogue, Congregation Sinai. Until that point, no single person had stepped up to sound the shofar during the High Holidays.
“So on one of our trips to Israel, I found a shofar, brought it back and started to learn,” he said, “which I did, so I took over at Sinai.”
While Salinsky was learning to play the shofar, his son Jim, who played trumpet, was listening. Jim also began playing his father’s shofar at home, eventually bought one of his own and joined his father in the synagogue. That was about 30 years ago.
“For the first few years we did it together,” Jerry said, “I did it in the front and he did it in the rear and now, for the past few years, we both stand on the bimah and blow from there.”
The duo never practice together, but both begin to prepare approximately three to four weeks before the holiday.
“The neat part,” said Jim, “is that most of the time – not all but most of the time – we’re in sync. I do that by actually listening to him, so a fraction of a second after he starts his note I start mine and usually it works out pretty well.”
Both Salinskys agreed that the one exception is T’kiah G’dolah.
“We used to have some fun with (Jerry) being on the bimah and me on the stage in back, “Jim said,” because people weren’t sure there was an echo until the T’kiah G’dolah, when I would inevitably outlast him. So the running joke was ‘Is he going to beat you this year?’”
Jerry said that from the start of their joint shofar-blowing venture, Jim was always the “more adept” of the two.
“Even when I was younger and I was blowing he would outlast me,” Jerry said, “so now I just put my shofar down and he does it and he can do it for an amazing length of time.”
Mitchell Carneol and Ben Keren, who blow the shofar at Congregation Beth Israel Ner Tamid and Anshe Sfard Kehillat Torah, respectively, also start practicing a month prior to blowing the shofar in their synagogues. But it’s at an earlier point than the Salinskys.
“I usually start the month before Elul and then I blow all through Elul and that gets my embouchure all tuned up,” Carneol said.
In 2003, Carneol’s brother put his name forward when the then-shofar blower, Steve Ovitsky, announced he was leaving the city for a job in Santa Fe. Carneol had never played shofar, but he’d been a brass player in high school. Ovitsky, a French Horn player, met with him before leaving the city.
“He taught me not so much how to play, but how to find a good shofar,” Carneol said. “It’s more about the shofar than the shofar blower. Most people can blow the shofar, but (it’s important) to find a shofar with good sound and the physical characteristics that create the sound and intonation, so he kind of gave me a lesson in what to look for and then he told me where to go to buy the shofar.”
At a shop in Chicago’s West Rogers Park, Carneol spent an afternoon blowing countless shofarot.
“I narrowed it down to three, settled on one and I’ve had it ever since,” he said. “It’s a great, beautiful shofar.”
Six weeks before Elul, Carneol begins practicing a few times a week. Since beginning his stint as the main shofar blower, he’s taught a few teens in the congregation, including David Zetley, who’s since left for college, and Micah Packman, a sophomore at Nicolet High School. He and Packman share shofar blowing responsibilities during the month of Elul at morning minyan.
The experience, he said, has helped him to connect on a deeper level with his own religious practice.
“Simply, in general, it’s ‘Wake up and do a mitzvah,’” he said. “It was a spiritual path back and that’s why I love it so much and love doing it. Every year I try to wake up a little more and do a few more mitvzot, maybe go to minyan a little bit more, go to Shabbat services a little bit more and try to think about doing a little bit more. That’s what it’s really all about, to wake up and do mitzvot. That’s what life is about and that’s my shofar journey and I feel blessed that I’m able to do it.”
Ben Keren has been blowing the shofar regularly at Anshei Sfard Kehillat Torah for 30 years, although he began blowing the shofar in 1976, when he became a baal tshuvah.
Growing up on Milwaukee’s west side in a non-religious Jewish family, he was bar mitzvah age when heard the shofar for the first time. After that, he would walk to Congregation Beth Yehuda on Center Street during Rosh Hashanah, sit by himself in the back of the shul and listen to the shofar.
“If you asked me how I knew they blew it then, I have no idea, but that’s the only time I would go,” he said.
In 1973, Keren made aliyah. Someone at the secular kibbutz on the Lebanese border where he was living had a shofar, and Keren began practicing.
“I had no idea that there were very mystical and strict and consistent Jewish laws for how you have to blow the shofar and no idea how to do it properly,” he said, “but since I had played the French Horn growing up I never had any problem blowing the shofar.”
He also, at the time, had no idea that in Ancient Israel, just before Shabbat, that the shofar was blown at three different time intervals – the first so people working in distant fields could start making their way back to be on time for Shabbat, the second for shopkeepers to close their doors and the third just as Shabbat was beginning. Nonetheless, on Friday afternoons, Keren would ascend the highest hill on top of the kibbutz and blow the shofar.
“When I became religious,” he said, “some of the rabbis had heard that I could play the shofar and heard how powerfully I could play it and from then on I was always the shofar blower.”
Keren has lost count of how many shofarot he’s had over the years – he’s given some to his sons and the grandchildren he’s taught to blow, and he has two on which he relies.
“One is deep and powerful and the other is a skinnier one that can do many more sounds,” he said. “The big one I looked all over Israel for and have never found a more powerful one. It’s a small, thick shofar that I think I got in Jerusalem or the Golan Heights. I tested out at least 100 or 200 before I found this one and it’s the one I usually use.”
In preparation for the holidays, Keren always practices in front of the rabbi – “just to make sure we’re on the same page,” he said. “There are very specific laws of exactly how you blow a shofar, and we do some kavanot – things you read and study to get yourself in the proper frame of mind to do it.”
Each blast has to be done properly and held for a specific amount of time, Keren said, and he generally uses the larger shofar. For T’kiah G’dolah, Keren sometimes switches to his smaller shofar. The air goes through the larger one quickly, but the smaller one requires less, allowing him to hold the note for as long as a minute or more.
But, he said, “it’s not a talent show. It’s to help people reach into their souls to do tshuvah and repent and think about what life’s about.”
Then, he recounted the story of an internationally known rabbi who was blowing the shofar as part of the holiday service. The rabbi was struggling to get the calls right, and the process took 15 minutes.
“Instead of being irritated about how not naturally talented this person was at blowing the shofar that he was going to do it right no matter how hard it was for him was a tremendous life lesson,” Keren said.
“It hit me like a sledgehammer that this is about doing tshuvah. It’s a long, painful process that you have to keep doing over and over all the time,” he said, “and that’s exactly what his shofar blowing was and it was the most beautiful because of the meaning behind the tremendous effort he had to put into it.”