JWR Schticks and groans

Jewish World Review August 3, 2001 / 14 Menachem-Av, 5761

The community that prays
together, sways together

By Norman Lebrecht

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THOSE who are new to synagogue life may enlist here for a preliminary workout. Be aware that our devotions are no longer static. A good worshipper is expected to get rhythm, to go with the flow. The community that prays together, sways together.

Shockelling -- like such secular barbarities as wearing baseball caps and watching Big Brother -- has become a tribal convention. Those who wish to acquire the essential moves without attending the full Royal Ballet course should start here. There are three grades of Shockelling proficiency.

The basic, known as J for junior or perhaps juniper, involves a gentle forward and rear motion of the upper body, as it if were a leafy branch blown by an English summer's breeze, or the arm of a metronome set at a lazy 40. Bend the knees and incline the head slightly for certain Artscroll-designated blessings. Got that?

You are now ready to move on to the intermediate position, known as P for piston. This consists of a hip-driven headlong propulsion, back and forth, forth and back, like an industrial automaton in an Eisenstein film. Practised shockellers will stop the motion in mid-thrust, throw their heads back and raise their palms outwards to the ceiling. Be warned that this can cause complications in the unfit, often leading to an early hip replacement. Do not try this at home.

The third level of Shockelling is known as E for ecstatic --- or, in ballet circles, as the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It obeys no rhythmic laws and flails unpredictably in every direction, without apparent provocation or purpose. Only the most advanced students should attempt this dangerous variation, which has been known to result in pew violence and protracted litigation.

All three styles -- J, E and P -- can be observed in most shuls (synagogues) and all shtiebls (Chassidic-style synagogues). The letters are thought to possess a mystical Kabbalistic affinity with the Wellhausen hypothesis of scriptural authorship. Be that as it may, traditionalists have argued that Shockelling is heretical.

They should read the good book. The Torah makes explicit reference to Shockelling during the delivery of the Ten Commandments, when 'the people saw, and they moved, and they stood well back' (Exodus, XX, 15). There is a Sabbath celebrating shekalim -- an early Hebrew corruption of the verb -- a fortnight before Purim. An authority on Yiddish usages in the Second Temple advises me that 'to shockel' is akin to the German schaukeln: to rock, to sway, to play on a playground swing.

Resistance to Shockelling is fiercest among German and Iberian Jews, who have been known to send a beadle around to advise an energetic worshipper, with the warden's compliments, to cut the calisthenics or quit the synagogue. If Moses could sit stock still through a daylong battle with the Amalekites, they maintain, it is not too much to expect a Jew to stand immobile through the recitation of 19 blessings. They have a point but, let's face it, they've lost the war.

The world has moved on, and in ceaseless motion. Until the middle of the 20th century, no classical actor ever moved more than an eyelash to convey love or loss. Shakespeare thoughtfully provided couches for his heroines to recline upon when dying a thousand deaths, comfortably, with their feet up. Nowadays, no actress can hope to play Juliet or Desdemona without ripping off her garments and performing triple somersaults.

Great conductors used to wield a big stick and move its tip no more than half an inch one way or other to procure a louder or faster response from the orchestra. It was said of Arthur Nikisch, the Hungarian wizard, that had he ever raised his arm to shoulder height the roof would have caved in. Today's conductors swivel their hips and leap to the skies, more to impress the audience than the orchestra.

Those of us who are obliged to appear on television are forever being pestered by directors to move about a bit more, wave our arms, speak profoundly while crouched in uncomfortable positions. Walk here, jump there. Pity Simon Schama. Every time he makes a telling point about Tudor society, his head almost jerks off its moorings.

Inertness is off-menu. If a presenter won't dance like a circus elephant, the cameraman will wave his instrument up, down and at contorted angles to disturb whatever peace a viewer might have needed to absorb an intelligent idea. But then television doesn't do ideas any more. It does helter-skelter, non-stop motion.

So why should Jews lag behind? If humanity can only communicate with itself through a blur of action, it must surely make even greater exertions to address its Creator. In a speeded-up world, prayer is going get livelier and more gyrational until every worshipper shimmies like a lulav and swings like a cat on a New Orleans roof.

Shockelling is great, Shockelling is good for you. Shockelling saves time by combining spiritual and physical recreation, two in one. Shockelling may be enhanced by vocal exhalations. There is no precise Jewish equivalent of "right on, brother" but extending the last syllable of a fervent word, "ay-ay-ay," achieves a similar atmospheric effect.

Regular Shockelling has no known side-effects. It is recommended by rabbis and practised by doctors. Shockelling follows the same moves wherever you go, from Melbourne to Manchester. It is spreading upwards to ladies' galleries. It is the post-modern dance craze of the praying classes, the antidote to transcendental meditation. All that it lacks is the still, small voice.

JWR contributor Norman Lebrecht is the author of 11 books, which have been widely translated. They include, Mahler Remembered,   The Maestro Myth,   The Companion to 20th Century Music, and Who Killed Classical Music? His Wednesday column in the Daily Telegraph (London) has been described as 'required reading' for the arts world. It is said to be the most widely-read cultural commentary on the Internet. Lebrecht.live, his monthly forum on BBC Radio 3, attracts fiery participants from Argentina to Estonia. Comment by clicking here.


© 2001, Norman Lebrecht. This column originally appeared in The London Jewish Chronicle