Nusach Carlebach 1 - Nusach Ramah 0

I am trying to post at least once or twice a month. Here is something that has been percolating for the last two or three years:

According to scholars David Elezar and Rela Geffen, a uniquely Conservative movement prayer style developed at Camp Ramah. Referred to as Nusach Ramah, it is a variation of traditional Ashkenazi Nusach that spread from camps to Conservative synagogues, Havurot (at least in the earlier days), and elsewhere. As a whole, it is relatively traditional. Scholars (see below) note that the liturgical traditions learned at camps are often incorrect. An attempt to influence this is the appointment of Cantor-in-Residence at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin (this has spread to other camps).

I worked at Camp Ramah New England (CRNE or Ramah Palmer) during the early to late 90's (I still go for a month every summer but as a staff spouse and volunteer teacher/Safran). In '95 or '96, Shaul Magid was asked to lead Friday night davening during staff week. After Shlomo Carlebach's death in 1994 (which is how I picked 1995 or 1996 as the year above), his nusach for Kabbalat Shabbat became popular on college campuses and at many new minyanim. I joined a number of other counselors and staff in encouraging Shaul (who had lived on Moshav Mavo Modiin with Shlomo for a few years) to change the Friday night nusach. While many people enjoyed the staff week davening, the campers weren't included. The first Shabbat--I believe it was Shabbat Machon--they reverted to Nusach Ramah (to the disappointment of many staff). At the time, I did not understand the importance of Nusach Ramah as a unique American nusach. Towards the end of the 1990's, I was Rosh Tefilla at CRNE. At that time, the nusach for Kabbalat Shabbat was Nusach Ramah (sometimes with some modifications from Nusach Carlebach).

When we started returning to Ramah after moving to Northampton in 2002 (the first summer Deborah commuted so it makes it 2003), I was surprised to hear Nusach Carlebach at the first Kabbalat Shabbat. It was not upsetting--it is my personal favorite-- but something seemed to be missing. There are many benefits to using Nusach Carlebach. It is now favored on college campuses, at many traditional and liberal synagogues, and most independent Minyanim. Many campers and counselors are used to it. It is also full of energy and spirit (we rarely used to dance during Kabbalat Shabbat when using Nusach Ramah--now joyous dancing breaks out a few times). But I feel the loss of part of what made Ramah special--its own nusach that influenced generations of davenners who now live across the US and in Israel. It might even be considered educationally appropriate to have them daven the way they will at home (or at least what they will encounter on campus once they leave home).

Nusach is a musical, liturgical tradition that best reflects the character, make-up, and history of a community. One of the sad thing about the development of liberal Judaism in America has been its relative obliteration of regional variations in nusach (ie. Litvak vs. Ukrainian, Sefardic vs. Ashkenazic). A century ago, one could walk into a synagogue in America (or any Western European city) and easily tell where the davenners came from (putting aside the name which was often a give-away). Now, we Nusach Carlebach has taken over--its "taste" is so powerful that it has taken over the nusach melting pot. Nusach Ramah is part of what made the camps different. It represented their importance to contemporary Judaism. Does the loss of the distinct Kabbalat Shabbat part of Nusach Ramah reflect the deminished role of Conservative Judaism or just the rise of a powerful new force in nusach (or a force destroying nusach depending on view of the appropriateness of Nusach Carlebach).

Rabbi Bruce

Note: Many refer to Nusach Carlebach as Nusach Reb Shlomo.

Two asides related to the two nuscha'ot mentioned above: If you do a Google search for Nusach Carlebach you return many sites upset at its effect on traditional nusach. Even though nusach for Shabat Minchah was not the subject of my post, I learned (at CRNE) that the nusach is the same as that of the jingle for Post Crispy Critters cereal. During my research, I turned up a blog post on the Zemirot database that includes a link to the Crispy Critters commercial. The melody and even the rhythm are not the same! (I found an additonal site that uses Crispy Critters to teach Shabbat Minchah with what is perhaps a link to a different commercial.) Crispy Critters was a product spin-off from King Leonardo and His Short Subjects tv show from the 1960's. It was reissued by Post in the late 80's without the famous jingle.


Observations on Practices of "Nusach" in America, Boaz Tarsi, Asian Music, Vol. 33, No. 2 (Spring - Summer, 2002), pp. 175-219 Published by: University of Texas Press

Here is more about Camp Ramah from the late Daniel Elazar (it mentions nusach a few times).

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