El Nora Alilah: Scaffolding of Ne’ilah
Lizzie Leiman Kraiem
In an essay called “Books That Have Read Me,” the contemporary Israeli writer David Grossman writes:
I belong to a generation that was accustomed to reading texts in which they did not understand every single word. In the early 1960s we read bookish, archaic, and poetic Hebrew; we read translations from the 1920s and ‘30s that did not employ our daily language at all. The incomprehensibility imposed on us was certainly a barrier to fluid reading, but in hindsight I think part of my reading experience in that period came from this very same incomprehensibility: the mystery and the exoticism of words with an odd ring, and the pleasure of inferring one thing from another.
In El Nora, I recognize this odd ring of mystery and exoticism, as well as the pleasure of inference that comes from its elevated, poetic Hebrew. Let’s start with words in the poem’s opening and refrain. There is עלילה (alilah), which our mahzor translates as “Creator.” It rhymes with נעילה (Ne’ilah), the service when we sing this piyyut. They suggest other words that inform our experience, like עליה (aliah), ascension: what we hope will happen to our prayers, and also לילה (lailah) the nighttime, which hangs over the piyyut as it does the entire Neilah service. We can almost think about Ne’ilah as existing in the tension between עליה and לילה: between directing our hearts and prayers upward and the inevitable descent of darkness. If this is so, then El Nora is a moment when this tension dissipates.
The Ashkenazic rite places the piyyut strategically between the Silent Amidah and the Reader’s Repetition: a kind of handoff from personal to communal, from private back to public prayer. When we get there, we have prayed many hours and said many words, and making the most of the day’s remaining moments will require even more energy, focus, and concentration. El Nora is typically where I harness that energy, assisted by the community’s singing and the piyyut’s formal poetic structure of set word count, line count, and scheme of internal and external rhymes. I think of this structure as a kind of scaffolding that not only supports the poem but at that hour also supports me. I am drawn to this image of scaffolding. It brings to mind the ubiquitous zoom grid: the gallery view of community that has similarly bolstered us over difficult months.
At B’nai Jeshurun, we use a melody that suits the piyyut’s placement in the service, but not necessarily its words. There are other melodies, less bouncy, that may better fit its serious requests. In the poem we ask for many things: for understanding, pardon, compassion, grace, and justice. We request rescue, reunion, renewal, and redemption. The tone is urgent. We speak of trembling and of pouring out our souls, like Hannah on Rosh Hashanah. By the poem’s seventh stanza, however, the last one in our mahzor, the tone and the requests lighten up. The ask is to merit length of days, a cause for celebration, but the verse also suggests that what we celebrate is this very hour of Ne’ilah itself. As the scholar of religion Tom F. Driver observes, even in the most solemn of rituals “a tendency toward festival may be seen.” El Nora is Ne’ilah’s expression of that tendency, and I sometimes wonder if someone added this stanza to bring the poem more in line with the festive role it has assumed.
This seventh stanza refers to us as sons and daughters: as בנים and בנות (or in some versions בנים and אבות: children and parents). When we arrive at this point, I often think of the first Yom Kippur that Rabbi Marcelo Bronstein was at BJ, and I made a mistake having to do with parents and children. We had finished the seventh and last stanza of El Nora and I looked up from my book, expecting him to ask the congregation to rise as the ark was opened for the Reader’s Repetition. There was no announcement. Instead, he was still singing. In Spanish. I thought I heard him say the names Michaela and Gabriella and told myself: “That’s so clever: he has put the names of his children in the prayer.”
Of course he was neither singing in Spanish nor including the names of his children, and I felt like the child Grossman describes in the passage above. However, I subsequently learned that the poem does include a name: that of the author Moshe Ibn Ezra. In each of the first six stanzas, the first letters of the first word form an acrostic that spells משה חזק: Moshe, may he be strong (scaffolding!). Our mahzor adds a seventh stanza, the festive one, and it begins with the letter ת, the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet, perhaps signaling the end of the poem.
The verse Marcelo sang is in Ladino, not Spanish, and it is not in our mahzor, either. It invokes the angels Michael and Gabriel and also the prophet Elijah. We can think of them, too, as a kind of scaffolding; liturgy often turns to them in fraught moments of transition. Appearing here, they remind us that we are about to return to the precarious and vulnerable end of the holiday. לילה will soon overtake עליה in some of the most intense, beautiful, and crystalline moments of the day.
We will greet this trio, or at least Elijah, soon again on the other end of the service at havdalah, when in other times we would typically greet one another. I look forward to the time when we can meet again in person and celebrate, in the words of El Nora, in joy and in delight.
Lizzie Leiman Kraiem directs the Jewish Life Program at the Charles H. Revson Foundation. She and her husband Ruben raised their children Renee and Leon at BJ.