"Psukei D'Zimrah", usually translated "morning psalms", is the first part of the traditional Jewish morning service. It begins with "Birkot haShachar", the morning blessings (not technically part of Psukei, but short enough that it's generally lumped together), praising G-d for relatively basic, earthly things like giving us functional bodies, clothing the needy, and raising up the downtrodden. Following that, there are a bunch of psalms and other liturgical passages. The whole point is essentially to ease one into the mindset for prayer. Traditional Jews generally don't do much of anything between waking up and praying, so it can be a good transition, helping one to wake up, stretch your mind a bit, and focus better by the time the more central parts of the service come around. There are a few extra psalms added on Shabbat mornings, so the Saturday version of Psukei D'Zimrah typically takes 20 to 25 minutes. It is followed by Shacharit, the central part of the morning prayer, which is usually led by someone else, and then other subsequent parts of the 2-3 hour service, also frequently led by different people.
I've almost never led any services before at all. The only times I've ever been in that role before were the services we held at relatives' houses soon after each of my mom's parents died. While I can't dismiss those times entirely, I don't really give them much stock, partly because I'd obviously like to forget the unfortunate circumstances that led to them, and partly because I was the most knowledgeable service leader in the room then, and did various services that were pared down to their essentials in various ways. This was going to be the first time for me to lead anything for a group of people, many of whom are perfectly capable of leading things themselves, and all of whom attend services regularly and know approximately what to expect.
The expectations were part of the problem. I was leading services at Penn Hillel, which generally does a rather boring version of Psukei D'Zimrah. They never sing more than 3 things out loud and together, and when they do sing aloud, it's the same things each time. (My synagogue at home, the other place where I regularly find myself praying, is even worse in this regard.) That suits a lot of them just fine. A lot of people there see Psukei D'Zimrah as a necessary evil, an inherently boring service to be rushed through and perhaps ignored. (Or skipped, for the people who don't always show up on time.) Others like it just fine, but don't see the point of singing more.
This isn't how I feel. For as long as I've known what it is, I've liked Psukei D'Zimrah. I love singing. I love the mood that you can set by singing the right things. I love that Psukei is mostly psalms, which tend to be very singable. And I've learned some great melodies over the past few years from various friends, places I've visited, and things I've attended, places that have no qualms about Psukei taking a half hour or even 45 minutes. So, even though it's easier to do a simpler version of the service, I had no interest in doing that. I wanted to show my college friends what they were missing.
My challenge this past week, then, was not only to make sure I knew all the words, the melody of the chanting for things I'm not singing, and the tunes for singing what I wanted to sing. I also had to pick and choose what and how much to sing. Not only were harder or less well known melodies potentially bad ideas, but so were too many melodies. I ended up deciding not to sing out loud three different things that I really wanted to include. I had a lot of help from a few friends with all of this. And no matter how much I practiced all week, I was still so nervous that I didn't sleep well at all on Friday night.
So Penn Hillel usually starts at about 9:15. I tried to convince them to start a little earlier, so I cound sing everything I wanted to and still not make people too antsy about us taking longer than the Orthodox people who always rush through things downstairs. So with like 4 people in the room, I started the "Mah Tovu" round at 9:10. Did that for a bit, and it wasn't very round-like, and no one was really singing much, but it was still a good mood setter. After that, we sang "Elohai Neshamah", and by the time I actually got to the opening brachot (done in David's lovely variant of the traditional Shabbat Psukei nusach), where Penn usually starts the service, we were barely earlier than usual.
The other things I ended up singing were "Eilecha Hashem Ekra" in psalm 30, the "hosheah et amecha" tune that they usually do, Hallel Gadol (psalm 136, the "hodu LaShem ki tov" one) to the Anim Zemirot tune from the Hadar CD, "Ma Gadlu" for the Shabbat psalm (psalm 92, "mizmor shir leyom haShabbat"), Shefa Gold's Ashrei chant (also on the Hadar CD!), Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" for psalm 146, the psalm 150 ("hallelu El b'kodsho") tune that (surprise!) is on the Hadar CD, and the standard (or what I think of as standard) Az Yashir Moshe tune. There were maybe 15 people in the room when I finished at 9:40.
I decided it was best to leave out the "Mi haIsh" melody that I like, "Mikolot Mayim" (from my favorite CD) for psalm 93, and Miriam Margles' "Ilu Finu" canon. The plan for next time, then, if there is a next time at Penn, is to work in one of these, to maybe branch out a bit more into non-Hadar stuff, and to be less nervous, because dammit, I know Psukei now and there's nothing to be nervous about.
It went really well. I'm sure my shaking wasn't noticeable at all, and I was glad the bimah was there for me to hold onto for dear life. People picked up on and joined in on most of the singing I expected them to, and the things that I ended up virtually soloing on were short enough that it wasn't awkward. I stumbled over the Hebrew a bit during some of the non-singing parts, but not as badly as I did when I was practicing during the week, and probably not even enough that people noticed. (Neat tip that I didn't think of beforehand: Chanting slightly slowly not only sounds better and more powerful, but it gives me more time to internally sound out the words or remember how the chanting melody best fits the phrases, if necessary.)
Oh, yeah, and as far as I could tell, everyone loved it. I'm sure that to some extent the congratulations would've come for my first time leading no matter how it ended up, but people kept telling me how I really did a good job, or how they liked that I sang more than usual, or they liked the mood I set, or they liked that I used Leonard Cohen. I think that means that I actually did a good job, yeah?
It's fun. I want to do it again. Or learn a new service!