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The art and skill of shofar-blowing, a mile above sea level

By Sarah Wolberg

Sounding the shofar on the High Holidays is a major honor.

Shofar sounders at Colorado synagogues practice for weeks before Rosh Hashanah to prepare for the rigor of blasting a shofar in front of hundreds of service-goers.

Colorado’s veteran shofar blowers include Gerald Sloat at Har HaShem, Betsy Kessler at Bonai Shalom, and Allan Markman, Marshall Tobin and Rabbi Raymond Zwerin at Temple Sinai.

Dr. Yitzchak Teitelbaum, EDOS

Dr. Yitzchak Teitelbam has been blowing the shofar since 1987. He taught himself. He hadn’t blown the shofar for a shul before, but had been dabbling at it since he was a youngster.

It took him several months to teach himself — and what a job he did.

His shofar sounds have a unique tonal quality. It is haunting, steady, not punctuated by the sharp rises and falls in timber or decibels that are typical. His haunting sound is of a rounder, softer and deeper timber than many others, which tend be sharp, uneven, unpredictable.

Is that what Dr. Teitelbaum himself hears?

“What you hear and what I hear are not exactly the same thing,” he says. “I’m hearing bone conduction, and you’re hearing air conduction. It’s sort of like our own voices, which don’t sound the same to us as they sound when you hear a recording of them.

“Spiritually, I actually struggle a little with whether I’m worthy to be sounding the shofar. I think it’s a huge responsibility to facility the congregation observing this mitzvah that is central to Rosh Hashanah.

“I question whether I’m really worthy of being the person who does it.”

Dr. Teitelbaum prepares about two to three weeks before Rosh Hashanah, about 15 to 20 minutes a day.

He practices breathing and the timing of the sounds (that the tekiah be at least a long as what comes after it).

“I’m working on the lip,” he says. “What needs practice is the lip, so that it has the stamina to withstand 100 blasts. It takes a few days to get into it.”

After a 25hour fast on Yom Kippur, how does he blow the shofar once again? “You use a little bit of saliva,” he says. “I use what little I have — and all I need is one tekiah. If I had to sound 100 blasts then, I assure you it couldn’t happen.”

Gerald Sloat, Har HaShem

Attorney Gerald Sloat has sounded the shofar for over 50 years, most recently at Har HaShem and the Boulder JCC.

He first sounded the shofar at age 12 in a synagogue in his hometown of Cedarhurst on Long Island. Having played the French horn in elementary school, Sloat was able to take those principles and apply them to the more difficult shofar.

“As kids goofing off in band class, we always used to take the mouthpieces off our brass instruments and blow directly into the tubes. It’s the same technique and sound used in sounding the shofar,” Sloat said.

Sloat continued to sound the shofar at several synagogues through his college years.

In 1971, he moved to Boulder and joined a small congregation with no rabbi.

“The guy who usually sounded the shofar there huffed and puffed and barely got a sound out,” Sloat said. “So the next year, I told him I knew how to do it and he said, ‘Oh yes, please do!’”

Sloat begins practicing one month before the High Holidays, starting with a few minutes daily and working his way up to build endurance.

“After work, I have to lock myself in a room and start practicing,” he said.

Sloat owns multiple shofars, purchased from the Source for Everything Jewish and from stores in Miami.

His shofars are made of horns taken from the kudu, an African plains animal.

While Sloat does not find any of the shofar sounds particularly hard, fatigue can lead to poor sound quality.

“It’s hard at Yom Kippur because you’re tired, you’re hungry, your mouth is dry, and you don’t get any practice notes beforehand, like you do at Rosh Hashanah,” he said.

“Tekiah gedolah is the hardest call to get right.

“You want a long sound with a strong end; you don’t just want to run out of breath or fade out. If you do it right, you can hear it echoing around the walls.”

Betsy Kessler, Bonai Shalom

Betsy Kessler, an educational sign language interpreter and part-time massage therapist, has sounded the shofar at Bonai Shalom in Boulder since 2004.

She first picked up the shofar after her father took the position of shofar sounder at Bonai Shalom upon moving to Colorado in 1991. Kessler’s father sounded the shofar at Bonai Shalom for over 10 years.

However, when Kessler and her mother gave her father a Yemenite shofar, longer than the ram’s horn he was used to, “he was really excited, but couldn’t make a sound out of it,” Kessler said.

Kessler, who had played low brass instruments from fifth grade through high school, picked up the shofar to see what she could do.

“It just came naturally to me,” she said. Kessler began sounding the shofar with her father during Bonai Shalom’s Rosh Hashanah services. Later, she took over as shofar sounder.

She practices daily starting two or three months before the High Holidays, using the kudu horn shofar she had originally given to her father.

Kessler agrees with Sloat that while the individual sounds are not difficult, they become increasingly so while sounding them in succession during a long service.

“The tekiah gedolah is not particularly hard on its own, but becomes increasingly difficult after the first set of 27 calls,” Kessler said. “It is also very difficult to get a good sound at the end of Yom Kippur when you have no food or water in your system and don’t have any warm-up calls.”

Kessler’s favorite call is the teruah because of the attention-getting sound of the short blasts.

Allan Markman, Temple Sinai

Allan Markman, a retired financial adviser, has sounded the shofar at Temple Sinai for over 30 years. He noticed that Sinai was looking for another shofar sounder and spoke to Rabbi Zwerin about his knowledge of the subject.

He begins practicing a week before the High Holidays to get his chops in shape.

Of his four shofars, all from Israel, three are the long horns of an African animal and one is a short ram’s horn.

Marshall Tobin, Temple Sinai

Marshall Tobin, a pharmacist at Pencol Compounding Pharmacy, has sounded the shofar at Temple Sinai for over 10 years.

A lifelong trumpet player, Tobin has strong sound quality. When his daughter brought him a shofar from Israel in the mid-1990s, Tobin found his brass training made him a natural at sounding the shofar. He now owns one ram’s horn shofar and one kudu.

Though Tobin begins practicing a month before the High Holidays, he has a healthy perspective about the career of a shofar sounder.

“It’s seasonal work; you don’t get called out too often,” he said.

Copyright © 2010 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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