In the coming days Pittsburgh’s shofar blowers will gather across pews and pulpits, and while some may be plagued by irritated lips, the time for those blessed with hot air is now.
“It’s a joy, there’s a certain sense of awe,” said Rabbi Aaron Kagan of his shofar blowing responsibilities.
For the past 20 years, Kagan has sounded the awakening cries at the Kollel Jewish Learning Center in Squirrel Hill.
“I always approach it with a certain level of trepidation,” he explained. “When you blow shofar it’s a time of din [or judgment]. It’s supposed to be the tool that changes the judgment to mercy.”
“I use the call to inspire others and lift them in that moment,” noted Rabbi James Gibson, who has both spiritually led and blown the shofar at Temple Sinai for more than 25 years.
“It’s an important part of the holiday; it’s an important obligation to hear the shofar,” said Molly May, a second-day shofar blower at Congregation Beth Shalom.
“To blow the shofar and bring ourselves to a higher level than before is very spectacular,” said Gibson, who like the aforementioned blowers began tooting a ram’s horn years ago.
“As an interested person, I have done it for 50 years,” he said. “It was just a challenge to see if you could produce a sound, and once you produce a sound, you try to produce a better, a sweeter, a more whole sound, [then] try to do it with the proper intent.”
Others developed the skill as a passed-down tradition.
“My father blew the shofar, and he taught us all how to,” said Kagan.
“My grandmother had one so we always took a turn blowing shofar,” recalled May.
“I first got interested in 1969 during a Ramah seminar in Israel. I was there for the entire summer, going from place to place blowing shofars,” said Stephen Neustein, who schedules the various shofar blowers at Beth Shalom.
For Rabbi Paul Tuchman of Temple B’nai Israel in White Oak, the shofar blowing exercise began 44 years ago with a phone call.
While a second year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Tuchman had a biweekly pulpit at the Naval Weapons Testing Center in China Lake, Calif.
“They didn’t have anyone in the congregation to be a baal tekiah, so they asked me to do it,” he recalled. The only problem was that he had no idea how to blow the shofar.
“When I was a child growing up in a Reform congregation in Tucson, we had a fellow who was the baal tekiah, Lou Posner. Mr. Posner owned a paint shop, and on Rosh Hashanah morning he would blow the shofar for the adults and then come into the children’s service and blow the shofar for us,” said Tuchman.
So Tuchman found Posner’s number, called the shofar blower and explained the predicament.
“This is how you do it,” Posner told Tuchman. “Have you ever taken a balloon, filled it with air and then pulled at the neck of the balloon to let some air out to make a squealing noise?”
“He said, ‘That’s what you do with your lips,’” recalled Tuchman. “He made the noise over the phone, and I made the noise, and that was it.”
Since that day, Tuchman has not experienced any problems with the shofar. Unfortunately, that’s not the case for his fellow officiants.
“One time I blew shofar in college and nothing came out, which was unfortunate,” said May, who at the time was the shofar blower at the University of Michigan Hillel services.
And the cause of the debacle?
“I just lost the embouchure for a second,” she explained.
Neustein can appreciate High Holiday mishaps.
The first time that he blew the shofar in Beth Shalom’s main congregation, he joined “a couple of shofar blowers who were primo shofar blowers,” he said. “One guy played in the Pittsburgh symphony, and the other guy was also good.”
For the final shofar blast at the end of Yom Kippur, the then-rabbi had asked each of the senior shofar blowers to stand on one of the congregation’s balconies, while Neustein sounded the shofar from the bimah. The idea was that the rabbi “wanted to fill the room with sound,” Neustein explained.
“I was feeling a little self-conscious about it, because I wasn’t the main guy, and the Beth Shalom ark is marble and the sounds will echo off of it, [so] I decided when they stop I am going to stop,” he said.
While Neustein initially thought his judgment sound, the problem became, “I can’t hear anything except my own shofar blow. I’m waiting for them to stop, and I am going and going, and it’s up to a minute finally, and what I don’t know is that they stopped 20 seconds beforehand. I remember people thinking, ‘You’re showing off,’ but all I wanted was to stop when they stopped; I couldn’t hear them.”
That final holiday blast has not yet been a problem for Michael Silverman, shofar blower at Beth El Congregation of the South Hills, but the potential is there.
“The one gentleman who stands beside me when I blow the shofar is a doctor,” said Silverman. “He was concerned that if I blew too long, I would pass out from oxygen deprivation.”
But there was a slight other fear, as well, added Silverman. “I’m 6-foot-5 and he’s 5-9, and he was concerned that I would land on him if I didn’t make it through the tekiah gedolah.”
Apart from the laughs that the memories produced, shofar blowing elicits much emotion, said the blowers.
“When [people] come in for the High Holidays they look forward to hearing the shofar, and I guess I try to touch something emotional,” said Silverman.
Some people, “you look at their eyes,” and others “stand there with their eyes closed holding the moment,” explained Gibson.
“It’s sort of a visceral response to the shofar if you do it right,” said Silverman.
Added Kagan, “Being the emissary of the community is a serious responsibility, and it’s not something that I take lightly.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.