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What's it take to blow a shofar? Burlington students give it a try

A person holds a long, curved horn to their mouth.
Mikaela Lefrak
Vermont Public
Judy Berger demonstrates how to blow a shofar at Burlington's Ohavi Zedek synagogue.

On a recent Sunday morning, Hebrew school students filed into a room at Ohavi Zedek, a synagogue in Burlington’s Old North End. They were there for a lesson in blowing the shofar, a traditional instrument made out of the horn of a ram, antelope or other animal.

Every year on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, Jewish congregations around the globe sound the shofar to mark the holiday. The instrument might look simple, but blowing one well is an art.

"It goes back to biblical time for announcing the new moon, or when there was a new king. And in Israel it’s still used if there’s a new president elected," explained Judy Berger, a retired music teacher and flutist, as well as the kids' shofar instructor for the day.

She started out by explaining the correct technique.

"There’s a certain way of learning how to blow it," she said. "If you play trumpet or you’re a musician, it usually comes easier than if someone off the street comes and just tries to blow into it."

First, you have to master buzzing your lips, as if you were playing a trumpet. Then you have to use what’s called your embouchure to create different sounds. Finally, you have to employ those lungs. Shofars can be big — even up to 4 feet long.

"It definitely takes a lot of breath," Berger said. "Especially for the last sound of the shofar, which is tekiah gedolah. It is long!"

A person holding out the long, curved horn of a shofar.
Mikaela Lefrak
Vermont Public
Judy Berger holds out her shofar.

Next, Berger asked the kids some basic questions about the shofar: "What holiday is the shofar blown on?"

"Rosh Hashanah!" they yelled back. The shofar is blown about 100 times over Rosh Hashanah, and again at the end of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.

Finally, the kids got their reward: plastic kazoos.

Amid the kazoo cacophony, Berger drove home the role of the shofar in ancient times by comparing it to a cell phone. For one kazooist, the comparison really hit home.

"So like, imagine being alive like 2,000 years ago, hearing a shofar, and being like a mile away from your village, and dropping everything and running," the girl said.

A 9-year-old named Gil Bratspis was already way beyond the kazoo. He'd brought his own shofar to class — a small one, about 8 inches long. He'd learned how to play from his grandparents.

After answering a few questions about his process (Was it hard to learn? Not really. Any tips? Buzzing your lips, and spitting a little.), Bratspis got back to practicing. He said he hopes to play in front of a congregation for Rosh Hashanah one day.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or tweet us @vermontpublic.

Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
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