Reading Parshah T’tza’veh, about the continued preparation of the Mishkan — the place of worship — and of the Kohanim — priests — who officiated there, I was reminded of my visit to the Bukharian Synagogue (Beth Gavriel) in Forest Hills, NY, for a Shabbat service, with special interest to hear what they did musically. The primary reason for going to a service at a synagogue is to hear Torah read and to daven — to pray. But it’s possible to notice the differences between one set of customs and another, without it becoming an “anthropology outing.”
Bukharian Jews began following nusach Sfard in the 18th century, from what I’ve read, so I can have much less of an idea what a Bukharian service might have been like 500 years ago, than what an Ashkenazic service might have been like.
They don’t sing in unison with the clarity of a Reform or Conservative or Modern Orthodox congregation. It’s more like what you might hear in a Hasidic, Muslim or Hindu service: there are a lot of voices, and there’s certainly a melody in there somewhere. What comes through is less precise or formal, but more “folky,” more of people kind of letting themselves go. There was even some ululating, that sounded like it was coming from the men’s section, rather than the women’s. I couldn’t see who was doing it, but it was certainly “high.”
I also went to watch some of the differences in their minhagim, but they weren’t as different as I might have anticipated. They carried the sefer Torah from the aron in the Sfardic manner, in a rounded carrying case (called a “tik” ) that’s opened on the bimah, from which the sefer Torah is read while in an upright position (rather than being laid flat on the shulchan, as in most Ashkenazic synagogues, including Reform). When the particular aliyah had been read, the ba’al koreh draped a light cloth loosely over the sefer-Torah itself, which he then removed when he was about to begin the next section.
The bimah was in the center of the room, as in most traditional Orthodox synagogues (moving the bimah to the front was, in fact, one of the major innovations of early Reform, which was also later incorporated into Conservative synagogues). In Sfardic synagogues, I thought that no one was supposed to sit between the bimah and the aron (unlike Ashkenazic synagogues, in which the bimah in the center is surrounded by seats). But in Beth Gavriel, there was one row of seats in front of the bimah.
Two chattanim were being feted for their upcoming weddings. Their kallot were not on the bimah with them, and the candy for their “aufrufen” was gently and lovingly dropped on their heads (except for some that came flying from behind the mechitzah that was in front of the women’s section). They wore beautiful embroidered long jackets; the other members of the congregation were dressed in typical western dress, except for the rabbi, who was dressed more like a Lubavitch Hasid.
I got there about 9:30. There was a man speaking in Russian. Of course, I couldn’t understand a word. After he had spoken for a while, another man, who later davenned also, got up and spoke in Russian, too. I could make out a few words, like “Yom Kippur” and “Rosh Hashanah,” and I realized that he was auctioning off High Holiday aliyot and honors.
I thought that this was the end of the service, but in fact, this was done just preceding the “p’tichah” of the Aron for the Torah-reading.
The ba’al koreh was audible, but not prominent. There was no microphone. I could have followed in a chumash if I’d wanted, but I really wanted to hear how he did the lehning itself. I couldn’t tell if he was doing the trop thoroughly, but what he did do was done with a very middle-eastern flavor. I think it’s a much more authentic sound for how Torah should be read. We “Europeans” have westernized the modes and the chanting considerably.
The mechitzah was a low partition, behind which the women were sitting. Supported above the wall was a rod, separated into sections. During the Torah-reading, the women lowered a curtain that was on the rod. When the Torah-reading was finished, the women lifted the curtains of each section.
As the Sefer Torah was carried past the end of the mechitzah when being returned to the aron, the women blew kisses towards the Torah with their hands. It was very sweet to see.
In the rear of the Bet Medrash itself, there was a place to wash hands, complete with 2-handled n’tilat yadayim cups. Some people went back there during the service to sip cups of water, too. During the Musaf K’dushah, some men went back there.  Later in the Amidah, they got up to duchan.  The entire congregation covered their heads with their talleisim. I don’t think I’ve seen that before, even though I’ve duchaned as a Kohen more than once. The Kohein is supposed to cover his head (these days, hers, too), but I don’t remember seeing members of the congregation doing it.
There was a brief kiddush at the end. Nothing fancy. Some wine/grape juice and some pieces of cake, which people took on their way out. And the melody used for the brachah was a simple chant, not the hazzanic masterpiece that’s much more familiar to us.
So, I couldn’t walk away having learned any new melodies, but I’m sure there are cd’s from which this very middle-eastern sounding nusach could be learned. It would be interesting to incorporate it into the services we lead (even without the microtones).