Chanting the Hebrew Bible: A Discussion with Joshua Jacobson
The following interview was first published in the Jewish Publication Society’s newsletter and can also be found on JPS’s website. Joshua R. Jacobson is a professor of music and director of choral activities at Northeastern University, the founder and director of the Zamir Chorale of Boston, and a visiting professor and senior consultant in the School of Jewish Music at Hebrew College. Chanting the Hebrew Bible is now available.
Q. What inspired you to write about chanting the Hebrew Bible?
A. I’ve been chanting Torah since I was a teenager. I thought I understood the system of Torah chant until about twenty-five years ago, when a friend from my synagogue introduced me to the teachings of Michael Pearlman, an Israeli educator who had devised systems to help his students understand the structure and logic of biblical cantillation. Reading the first of his books, I was surprised to discover how ignorant I really was. Indeed, very few people— including nearly all practitioners and teachers of cantillation—understood these basic principles! I was hooked. I read more and more. I saw how understanding the systems could make the reading of Torah and haftarah and megillot so much more meaningful, and so much easier. I became hyper-sensitized to errors made by nearly every Torah reader, even the most proficient. And I knew that I had to share this knowledge with others.
After more than 10 years, I had produced a thousand-page book!
Q. How was your previous book (Chanting the Hebrew Bible – the first edition) received?
A. Very well—it was nominated for a National Jewish Book Award and received positive reviews in The Jerusalem Report and The Forward. But most noteworthy was the feedback I received from my students in Boston and from readers around the country. Nothing like this had been available before for English-language readers, and it turned out to be a valuable resource for both students and teachers of cantillation. I found myself quoted in numerous monographs and articles, and even received a request to serve as advisor for a doctoral student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Q. What new material can readers expect in the expanded edition?
A. There is a new week-by-week guide to the Torah, haftarah and megillot readings for Shabbat and holidays: special melodies and customs, unusual pronunciations, and pitfalls to avoid. The first edition lacked an index; this edition features a general subject index and an index to scriptural passages. I reorganized and condensed the examples and exercises.There is a fascinating comparison chart, showing side-by-side the music for each ta’am in all six (Eastern European) musical systems. I also created a more user-friendly layout with new fonts, including the handsome SBL Hebrew font. And I went through every page of the first edition, correcting its errors.
What’s more, at chantingthehebrewbible.com readers will find musical examples specific to the book, videos, articles, links to other sites that provide information beyond the scope of my book, and other resources—the site is being continuously updated with new material. And the new edition will also be available as an e-book, making it much more portable for students and other learners on the go.