By the time the High Holidays are over, Jeremy Cooper needs to go to the chiropractor.
Blowing shofar at Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley daily for the month of Elul and for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Cooper is used to the feeling of clenching his shoulders and neck muscles, having tired arms from keeping them outstretched to support the horn.
For Cooper, the physical fatigue that follows the end of Yom Kippur is encouraging; it means he’s been “doing it right.”
“It’s hard to keep your hand up there, holding a seven-pound instrument for two or three minutes!” Cooper said.
Other area shofar blowers share Cooper’s experience. The process of blowing shofar for the High Holidays is taxing, both physically and mentally. Preparation begins months in advance.
“I probably spend about a half an hour a day practicing … starting probably a month before Elul,” said Susan Weiss, one of the shofar blowers at Germantown Jewish Centre.
Weiss has been blowing shofar for about seven years, encouraged to begin the practice after meeting with GJC Rabbi Adam Zeff about how to become more involved in services. Growing up in an Orthodox synagogue, Weiss, like other women, did not learn to read Hebrew. She only saw men blowing shofar on the bimah.
With the help of GJC member Phill Goldberg, who has been blowing shofar for more than 50 years, Weiss learned the ropes. She met with a trumpet player, who taught her the correct ambuture, or mouth positioning. She tried to learn circular breathing, the strategy many horn players employ to inhale as they are blowing into their instruments, but it proved difficult for her.
“I almost drowned doing it,” Weiss said.
Weiss even kept a trumpet mouthpiece on her desk at home, which she picked up frequently over the summer to practice. Her status as a “gym rat” helped keep her lung capacity strong.
On the High Holy Days themselves, strategies among shofar blowers differ. While some prefer to blow on the instrument with the sides of their mouths, Weiss prefers to use the front of her lips.
Goldberg stays well hydrated and sucks lemon drops during services, making sure his mouth doesn’t dry out. During the Truah call, he “tuts” his tongue on the back of his teeth to create seven distinctive staccato notes.
Even beyond the physical preparation that goes into shofar blowing, the experience itself is mentally effortful.
Ilene Burak, one of the shofar blowers at the Reconstructionist Mishkan Shalom, grew up playing instruments but has found that only so much of her musical background translates to the experience of blowing shofar.
Burak believes that because of the limited tones a shofar can produce, much of blowing the horn is a matter of interpretation. While some shofar blowers prefer to end each note sharply, with the pitch lilting up, Burak’s notes end in a gradual “weep.”
However, personal touches take a back seat to mastering the 100 shofar calls during a Rosh Hashanah service. Burak still focuses on each call, particularly the staccato Truahs.
“Being a musical person, if there were notes and rests, it would be easier than an internal metronome,”
The most important preparation, shofar blowers agreed, has little to do with remembering calls or practicing ambuture. Cooper said that what separates a shofar blower is their kavanah, their intention.
In Jewish tradition, one Rosh Hashanah mitzvah is to hear the shofar being blown; it is not a mitzvah to blow the shofar. Cooper can tell the difference between a shofar blower who is standing on the bimah to help others fulfill the mitzvah meaningfully versus those who are blowing shofar for the performance and attention.
“It’s knowing why you’re doing it, who you’re doing it for,” Cooper said. “You understand the significance, the gravity, the mitzvah that you are helping everyone in the kahal (community council) to perform.”
Hearing the shofar, according to Cooper, should drive people to complete teshuvah, repentance; the vibrations of the horn resonate deeply throughout a space. The sound sometimes moves Cooper to tears.
The emotional resonance of the instrument is shared by the shofar blowers. The preparation for the physical act of blowing shofar helps give way to an opportunity to be emotionally present during the High Holiday services, an opportunity to facilitate communal and personal spiritual reflection.
“I pick something each year to focus on,” Goldberg said. “And then when I’m blowing the shofar, it’s as if I am expelling my sins from the year and taking in a new breath, taking in a new spirit.”