Dayenu in Church
Harold J. Miller
There are not many Jews down here in Devon, but there sems to be a growing interest in Judaism. Christian groups are more aware now that their religion stems from ours. They want to know more. This Passover/Easter, the vicar of Crediton parish church decided to offer his congregants a communal Seder, and I was the Jew he asked to lead it.
I was a bit dubious about my competence at first. But I reasoned that I am 60 years old, and must have participated in more than a hundred seders. I had led my own family seders for the last 30 years, and been involved in more than a dozen communal ones at my last synagogue. And as a child we certainly had orthodox seders on both nights.
Really, I was only worried about the songs. I suffer from that kind of tone-deafness that makes people edge away. Part of my brain knows the tune, but it's not in close touch with the part of my brain that sends the sounds out of my mouth.
However, the songs aren't really so important at Pesach; they come at the end, and there wouldn't be too much time left. As far as I could see, the only part of the main service that needed to be sung is Dayenu, and then really only the chorus. I could manage that.
So I agreed. I could cope with the other aspects. I even had a recipe for charoset, whlch I gave to the vicar, together with all the instructions about where to get matzot and Israeli wlne, how to make salt water and shell hard-boiied eggs, and all the paraphernalia well known to every Jewish family but exciting novelties for the Christians of Crediton.
As for the Haggada, I was lucky to obtain a supply of a splendid little booklet prepared by the Board of deputies and borrowed from the local Council of Christian and Jews, designed for just such occaslons. It even had the music for Dayenu in it. "My curate will be able to play that," said the vicar. So I forgot about the singing, and did little else before the big occasion other than work out a neat introductory speech to explain the context and set the atmosphere for the evening.
The seder was held in a magnificent upper room reached via an ancient stone staircase from the church vestry. There were over thirty people present, sat round a huge E-shaped arrangement of tables, with me in the centre of the long side. Just before we started, the curate appoached me. "Could you give me some idea of the tempo for this song?" he asked.
My face, I guess, said, "Tempo…? I swallowed, and bravely mumbled a snatch of the opening verse in Hebrew as it came into my head, then switched quickly to the chorus. I really wasn't aware at what tempo I was singlng. But he seemed satisfied. "That's fine," he said. "Now, how often am I to play it?"
I looked at the Haggada. "There are nine verses," I said, "with the chorus after each." He nodded, and disappeared.
Yes, nine verses. In English. The authors of this booklet had cleverly done a translation that could be sung to the regular tune, just leaving the chorus in Hebrew. A very good idea, though it was only then I realised that I hadn't actually read them through. Still, I read English pretty well (if not Hebrew); and anyway, there was no time now, since the room was rapidly filling, and several people were coming over to greet me and introduce themselves.
All went well from the start, with everyone excited but respectful, eager to learn and participate, and I felt calm and in control. We approached Dayenu surprisingly quickly. I turned towards the vicar. "We had intended to sing the next part," I said to him and the room in general, "with the curate accompanying us. But I don't see any sign of him."
"He's right beneath you," came the unnerving reply. "This room is directly above the church organ. Just bang your heel on the floor when you want him to start."
I think I had assumed there would be a helpful figure strumming a guitar by my elbow, keeping me and the congregation in tune. It took me a little while to appreciate the reality.
The situation was impossible. Here was I, tone-deaf, about to lead three dozen worthy Christians in nine verses (nine - Oh, my!) of a song quite unknown to them, and the words of which not even I had ever read before, to the accompaniment of an organist out of sight a floor below, who knew even less about how it should sound than I did.
What's more, it was I who was to pull the lever that would send me to my doom! As soon as I kicked the floor, the farce would start. Into my head came a wild comparison with getting married: you break the glass with your foot, your fate is sealed, and there's uproar!
Well, you can't draw back when you're under the chupah; and I certainly couldn't get out from behind that huge table. Not with thirty-six pairs of eyes looking at me expectantly, trusting me, happy with the competent way I was managing.
So I directed everyone's attention to the start of the first verse ln the booklet (don't let them look at me!), swallowed, and kicked the floor.
Once we had started, of course, we couldn't stop. Nine verses it was, and nine choruses. It felt like a nightmare ride on a switchback roller-coaster. Sometimes I thought it sounded like Dayenu ought to sound, but mostly I had the aural equivalent of a red mist before me and couldn't tell the singing from the throb of my heart-beat.
After the final da-da-yenu, they all clapped. Then we all turned the page and continued with the Seder. The terror subsided. Amazingly, we had got through it. Not brilliantly, but - dayenu - it was sufficient.
The meal was wonderful, the wine excellent, and they all seemed delighted with their experience of Passover. By the way, the songs at the end also had translations that could be sung, including Echad mi yodea to the tune of Green Grow the Rushes O.
I didn't push my luck.