Two years ago this week by the Jewish calendar I lost one of my favorite teachers. Not someone who taught me Tanach or Gemara or Hebrew language, but someone who taught me nusach ha’tefillah and the valuable skills to be a proper ba’al tefillah that I have utilized for more than 40 years.
Lippman Bodoff, of blessed memory, died on 7 Kislev 5775 (November 27, 2014) at age 84. A tall and imposing figure, he was a close friend of my parents, as we lived in the same community in West Hempstead, New York, in the late 1960s and 1970s. He was a lawyer by profession but he loved being a ba’al tefillah and regularly led services at the Young Israel of West Hempstead.
When it came time for planning my bar mitzvah, it was only natural that my parents asked Lippman to teach me to read my parshah and to daven Mussaf. The lessons were grueling for a 12 year old. Lippman always demanded excellence but in the end it paid off, as I read my parshah mistake-free and davened from the amud with confidence. Tragically, Lippman was not able to hear it – on his way home with his family from the Catskills on the Friday afternoon of my bar mitzvah weekend, he was involved in a very serious car accident in which his young daughter was killed.
After my bar mitzvah, I regularly leined from the Torah at the shul’s teen minyan. And while I was certainly adept at being a ba’al koreh, it was being a ba’al tefillah that I really loved. Fortunately, I was given the opportunity to sharpen those skills as a teenager, too.
I particularly loved the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur nusach – and was privileged to hear Lippman majestically lead the Mussaf, Kol Nidre, and Neilah services in West Hempstead for many years. While most of my friends couldn’t wait for the Yamim Noraim services to end and took breaks outside the sanctuary as often as possible during the days of penitence and prayer, I was mesmerized by Lippman’s davening. I followed every note and carefully listened to the nusach and the tunes so that each year the liturgy became more and more familiar to me.
When I was in college it occurred to me there were shuls that would actually pay someone to lead the High Holiday services. So I applied for a position in Spring Valley, New York –and I guess I’d accumulated enough skills by listening to Lippman because I was offered the job after my interview.
Now that I had my first High Holiday job, I knew I had better familiarize myself with the nusach, so I asked Lippman to make me a tape of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services. I listened to those two tapes virtually every night that summer. I think I still have those 40-year old cassettes somewhere in a box in our basement.
I have led services somewhere on the High Holidays without interruption since that first year of davening in Spring Valley, always staying true to the original nusach and tunes that appeared on those tapes.
What was special about Lippman as a ba’al tefillah? He certainly had a beautiful tenor voice, but there are plenty of ba’alei tefillah who possess good voices.
Lippman stood out from the pack for two important reasons:
First, he was always faithful to the nusach. That’s not to say he wouldn’t use a familiar tune for a piyyut on occasion, but he was careful to make sure the proper nusach was followed throughout the davening while also being cognizant of the need to address the congregation’s desire for a pleasant service.
In Lippman’s words, “A Shacharit or Mussaf service on a Shabbat, Yom Tov, or High Holiday must always seek to inspire, to guide, to teach, and to explain what is going on in the liturgy, through music. This must be done without creating tircha d’tzibbur. To achieve these objectives, there is a need for good nusach and good music throughout that is right for the mood and theme of the day.”
Second, he always stressed that in order to transmit the proper message and feeling to the congregation, you must fully understand the words you are saying. This comes into play in two ways: 1) phrasing the words properly so the meaning does not get lost, and 2) matching the music chosen to the meaning of the words. I’ve tried to adopt this philosophy whenever I lead services.
Over the years I have received many compliments from congregants about my davening, but the one that was most meaningful to me was when a young woman approached me after services and told me that she did not read or understand Hebrew – but that by listening to my davening she felt she knew what the words meant. Lippman would have said I succeeded that day.
After I got married and moved to Stamford, Connecticut 34 years ago, I began leading the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services in the community I now call home, which I have done every year since. For many years I called Lippman after the Yom Kippur fast and we would compare notes about our davening and wish each other a happy and healthy New Year. Occasionally he would share a new tune he inserted into the davening, which I would make sure to try out the following year. He was always trying to improve – another important trait he possessed.
He eventually moved to Glen Rock, New Jersey and led High Holiday services at the shul there for many years. Later in his life, the very taxing job of being a ba’al tefillah during the Yamim Noraim became too difficult for him and he was forced to give up the task. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for him to hear someone else lead the services.
And then, on a cold November night two years ago, I got a call from my mom. My mentor, who had taught me so much, had passed away. I felt very sad that I had not called him after Yom Kippur that year – and that I would unfortunately no longer be able to see or speak to him again.
Each year before Rosh Hashanah I think of Lippman – and the wonderful gifts he provided me. I may have been blessed with some God-given talents to lead services, but I know it was he who initially brought out and then constantly reinforced those talents.
I hope to be able to use Lippman’s nusach and melodies for many years to come. But if and when the time comes when I do have to give it up, I will do so with peace and comfort, knowing that our son Yosef – who is a fine ba’al tefillah in his own right and who has learned all of Lippman’s Yamim Noraim melodies from me – will carry on the tradition and legacy Lippman left to both of us.