Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Rooftop: the fugu of davening styles

(Alternate titles for this post: "חרות על הלוחות" ; "ועשית מעקה לגגך")


Fugu is the Japanese word for pufferfish, a fish that is said to be tasty when prepared correctly, but lethally poisonous when the poisonous parts are not removed. Many American audiences (including my 11-year-old self) were introduced to it through the classic Simpsons episode "One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish", in which Homer eats fugu and then believes that he has 24 hours to live.

Rooftop: The Origins

It started in September 2003. A few of us were feeling disgruntled with the Shabbat morning options in New York on non-Hadar weeks and wanted to try something completely different, so we threw together a non-minyan (i.e. there were intentionally fewer than 10 of us, so we didn't have to worry about reading Torah or any of that) in Central Park. We liked it so much we did it again a number of times, often on one of our roofs. (This combined the advantages of being outside with easy access to bathrooms and food for the potluck lunches that often followed.) When the weather was inclement, we'd take it inside into a living room, but the name "rooftop davening" (or "rooftop-style davening") had stuck.

Rooftop: The Style

On paper it's simple: there is no leader. Anyone should feel free to start any melody for any prayer.

Beyond that, the ground rules are fluid. Sometimes, instead of a Torah service (in the absence of a Torah or a minyan), we would read and discuss the Torah portion. But we would often start at times that were moral (i.e. late), and rooftop (when done well) can be a prescription for long davening, so that by the time we got through pesukei dezimrah and shacharit, we'd decide that it was time for lunch, and reading the Torah portion and/or musaf could happen after lunch. Sometimes that would actually happen after lunch, sometimes not. Sometimes an actual minyan would show up at some point in the morning, at which point we would appoint a sheliach tzibbur for the parts that require one, and continue rooftop-style for everything else.

Rooftop: The Advantages

I'm not sure anyone would want to pray this way every week, but as an occasional alternative experience, it has a number of things going for it.

  • In the absence of an organized Friday night option, anyone can throw together a Friday night minyan in their apartment. Not so for Shabbat morning. Shabbat morning minyanim have significant costs in capital (a sefer Torah) and labor (Torah readers, who need to prepare beforehand). This is one way to put together a low-cost Shabbat morning prayer experience in the absence of that capital and labor.
  • It's an opportunity for free experimentation with the liturgy - a space to test out new melodies or new text-melody pairings before they're "ready for prime time". Some things that I now use when leading a minyan originated in rooftop.
  • Formal teaching of melodies is acceptable, whereas it wouldn't be in many genres of minyanim.
  • When you're doing a full-liturgy Shabbat morning minyan, pesukei dezimrah necessarily gets short shrift, because you're trying to get through everything by a reasonable hour. Rooftop has no time limits, so it's an opportunity to focus on the many parts of pesukei dezimrah that are often mumbled through in 20 seconds. To generalize, normal davening has to strike a balance between kavanah and efficiency, and rooftop removes efficiency from the picture so that the kavanah side can get full attention.
  • When done right, it's a grassroots bottom-up experience: everyone in the community participates equally in making the service happen. No one is more or less important than anyone else.
  • Since multiple people are each leading small parts, this gives people who might not be ready to lead an entire service the opportunity to lead something, and ensures a diversity of styles within one service.

Rooftop: The Pitfalls

However, casting off the wise restraints that make us free can have many deleterious unintended consequences. As with fugu, opportunities to be poisoned lurk everywhere.

1) Awkward silences. If no one jumps in with a melody for a given piece of liturgy, what happens next? How long does everyone look around at each other awkwardly before concluding that this thing just isn't going to be sung out loud, and it's time to do that prayer individually? At this point, the aforementioned radical egalitarianism may start to buckle, because people feel varying degrees of responsibility for the awkward silence - some think "It's my problem and I should do something", and others think "It's somebody else's problem", or even "It's Ploni's problem." As a result, Ploni may find unwanted leadership thrust on him/her, or in the absence of a Ploni, everyone may be confused for a while.

One solution we found was to appoint a "pacesetter", or "sheliach tzibbur of last resort", for each section of the service. (Recruitment of pacesetters can simply happen at the very beginning, and doesn't need to happen in advance.) The pacesetter's job is to shoulder the burden of looking around awkwardly so that everyone else can be relieved of this burden. If nothing happens for some length of time (as determined by the pacesetter), the pacesetter steps in and either starts singing something or starts mumbling loudly to signal that it's time to move on.

The existence of the pacesetter may cut into the leaderless ideal, but transparent leadership is still more egalitarian than leadership by default.

2) Out of sync. The flip side is that instead of awkward silences, sometimes if nothing is happening, people will plow on ahead on their own, until something happens. If this goes on for a while, then by the time someone starts in with something, everyone is in vastly different places, and people are forced to jump ahead or jump back. (Plus there is the potential for additional awkward looking-around, as people try to ascertain where others have gotten to, to figure out whether they're ahead or behind or what.)

This can also be remedied in part by the pacesetter, if the pacesetter's responsibilities also include signaling the end of each unit of liturgy, to keep people in sync.

Ironically, the necessity that everyone be in sync only pertains to the supposedly structureless rooftop style, because everyone has the right and responsibility to lead parts of the service, and therefore everyone has to be aware of where everyone else is. In a conventional minyan, only the leader (and perhaps a critical mass of participants) has to be maintaining the tempo of the service; everyone else can go freely at their own pace.

3) Macroscopic liturgy mismatch. The group needs to agree beforehand on the rules of the road, in particular on assumptions about whether or not the service is full-liturgy. If some people assume that it is, and other people assume that it isn't and jump ahead and start things further along, then that's not cool. And even if the group agrees that the service doesn't have to be full-liturgy and skipping is ok, if I jump ahead to prayer #9 and you had something you wanted to do for prayer #8, then that's still not cool.

As I see it, there are three options that allow for democratic (but not chaotic) leading: a) full liturgy (and, of course, the group agrees on whether this means Ashkenazi, Sephardi, etc. -- they differ vastly for pesukei dezimrah); b) non-full liturgy, in which everyone agrees in advance on which prayers will be included (or, equivalently, everyone agrees to follow the same siddur); and c) non-full liturgy, in which any departures (or at least deletions; insertions shouldn't be an issue) from the full liturgy require asking for consent ("Is it ok if I skip to prayer #9?" "No, wait! I had something for #8!").

4) Too many people, or an uncohesive group. Rooftop works best with a small group of people who know each other, and who ideally have experience davening together and a common frame of reference. Among unfamiliar people, people will feel inhibited about stepping up and starting something. Among a group above a certain size (analogous to the rule of 150, but much smaller), people will feel inhibited and won't feel a sense of responsibility for jumping in because the group is large enough that someone else can do it. (Insisting that rooftop groups be less than a minyan is a useful rule of thumb, but not strictly applicable all the time. I've been to rooftop services that had a minyan and worked successfully, and rooftop services that had less than a minyan that fell flat.)

5) The guest list. Even worse than an inhibited service where no one takes initiative: Because everyone at a rooftop gathering is fully empowered, someone who doesn't understand the group or doesn't understand when enough is enough has the power to wreck it for everyone. This is why I've never been to or heard of a rooftop service that was announced in a public forum; they're always by invitation only (though the answer to "Can I bring a friend?" is usually "yes").

6) Confusion. By its nature, rooftop is best suited for people with a strong familiarity with the liturgy. That in itself isn't a flaw; no davening style is for everyone. But, unlike other genres that are also best suited to a similar crowd (in which the worst-case scenario is that someone won't be into it), this can lead to spectacular flameouts. In rooftop, someone might make a major error (e.g. starting entirely the wrong prayer -- similar to scenarios discussed in #3 above, but unintentional), of the sort that wouldn't happen in a minyan with a leader where the leader prepared beforehand, leading to awkward interpersonal situations. The group has to make a spontaneous decision about whether to say something or to roll with it. Saying something is problematic, because of the "anything goes" atmosphere of rooftop (especially if ground rules haven't been laid down as in #3 above), and the distributed nature of leadership (whose role is it to say something?), and the possibility of personal embarrassment. But rolling with it is also problematic, because the group has to spontaneously come up with a graceful way to smooth things over logistically (again, difficult when leadership is distributed), and the possibility of personal embarrassment still exists if the person in question figures out what happened.

7) Friday night. There is a common line of thinking that if we can do rooftop for Saturday morning, then kal vachomer we can do rooftop for Friday night. This line of thinking goes like this: If we can do rooftop for pesukei dezimrah, when we ordinarily don't sing that much and coming up with creative material is a challenge, it should be much easier to do rooftop for kabbalat shabbat, when we always sing a lot and everyone is very familiar with kabbalat shabbat and knows lots of tunes. If we can do rooftop on Shabbat morning, when there's not otherwise a culture of pickup apartment minyanim, kal vachomer we can do rooftop on Friday night, when there is a strong culture of pickup apartment minyanim.

I think this thinking is flawed, and Friday night rooftop's supposed strengths are actually its weaknesses.

Because everyone knows lots of tunes for each unit of kabbalat shabbat, this paradoxically inhibits people from coming forward. Jumping in with something you just thought of for Psalm 33 (in pesukei dezimrah) has no cost, because if you hadn't done it, no one else would have done anything for it, whereas you're going to feel like you have to be damn sure of yourself before you start anything for Lecha Dodi. And there are some tunes that are relatively "standard" (in the sense that they're the default), but not completely so (because there are alternatives), for example, the Carlebach Psalm 96. And so no one wants to be That Guy (or Gal) and start up the "standard" tune when there are other alternatives, leading occasionally to the improbable result of doing Psalm 96 silently. (In a milieu where the standard tunes are completely standard, e.g. straight government-issue Carlebach, Friday night rooftop is smoother, but is also pointless. If everyone knows what's going to happen, then what difference does it make if one person is leading it or everyone is?)

Because kabbalat shabbat is often entirely or mostly sung, it benefits from having a leader who can think in advance about the overall plan and ensure an appropriate balance between upbeat and mellow, between singing and (if desired) not-singing, between "standard" melodies and new ones, and who can create smooth transitions between prayers for a seamless flow. Rooftop services are spontaneous and disjointed by nature; they have no advance plan and (other than in exceptionally awesome cases) no coherent flow. That's true for Shabbat morning rooftop also, but no one has any expectations of coherent flow for pesukei dezimrah, so nothing is lost.

8)"Let's just do rooftop." This is another problem characteristic of Friday night rooftop. Shabbat morning rooftop is so different from a typical Shabbat morning minyan that if you're doing it, you know you're doing rooftop. In contrast, because there is already a culture of informal Friday night apartment minyanim, rooftop looks superficially similar to a conventional minyan, and the differences are easy to overlook. But we overlook these differences to our peril.

A common scenario is "Ok, I'm having a bunch of people over for dinner. Where should we daven? Let's just daven in the apartment. [no problem so far] How should we daven? Let's just do rooftop." In this scenario, sometimes the participants are informed in advance, and sometimes they find out when they arrive. In both cases, there may be participants who are just finding out what "rooftop" is. In the latter case (no advance notice), participants are not psychologically prepared for a service that they're all responsible for making happen (they've just gotten to the end of a long week and thought all they had to do was show up), and so people are reticent to take initiative. And it's even worse for people who show up late and miss the "We're doing rooftop" announcement, and thus don't even know that they're authorized to take initiative.

Even if participants know in advance that it's going to be rooftop, it is a mistake for the host/convener to simply say "Let's do rooftop" and assume that everything will magically sort itself out. As outlined above, there needs to be a pacesetter (yes, even for kabbalat shabbat -- as discussed, one can't assume that kabbalat shabbat will be free of awkward silences), and there also have to be a committed core of people who are sold on the idea of doing rooftop and not merely showing up to someone else's event.

9) Decision points. One time I went to a Friday night rooftop service. We reached the end of kabbalat shabbat, and then someone immediately started up with ma'ariv. I think this was a breach of etiquette. They shouldn't have gone ahead without seeking the consent of the group and/or the host. When kabbalat shabbat came to an end, the group and/or the host should have actively made a decision about whether to continue rooftop-style for ma'ariv, to have a conventionally-led ma'ariv, to say that anyone who wants can have a few minutes to do ma'ariv on their own, or to go straight to dinner. And these decisions need to be made explicitly by the group or an empowered individual at each major decision point (or in advance), rather than one participant deciding unilaterally on the group's behalf.


So that's all I have for now. In your experience, what are some other pros and cons of rooftop? What ways have you found to achieve the pros while neutralizing the cons? When is rooftop worth the risks?


  1. I think #8 is a big one. Because rooftop can be so wonderful when done well, and seem so effortless to achieve that, people often think that "let's just do rooftop" means an easy, no effort solution.

    I'm glad you've taken the time to post this, BZ. Hopefully folks will read through it and realise that "even rooftop" takes preparation and thought!

    I would also add #10: the host/"sheliach tzibbur of last resort" should check in at the very beginning to make sure participants are all on the same page. And then should remain with the group throughout! Sure, everyone needs a washroom break from time to time, but if you're the host/"sheliach tzibbur of last resort," you should return quickly in case there was awkward silence or panicked singing through.

  2. I never even knew what "Rooftop" was when i started reading this, but now i realize i've done it once (for Friday Night Ma‘ariv)... and it worked pretty good.

    Part of what made it work well was that a few people who really wanted to introduce tunes to the group called it before we even started — which does lower the improvisational rooftop atmosphere that you've described, but it does help everything run smoothly with less awkward silences or conflict between people who both try to start something at the same time.

    I prefer the idea of "Populist" davening — distributed among the participants like Rooftop, except pre-planned. I've done this for Qabbalat Shabbat (and i think you were there), as well as for Hallel one Rosh Hhodesh. I think it would work well for other tefilot, as well.

  3. Last "rooftop" davenning I was at was at Desh's apt on July 4th. I think it was because we didn't have another place we wanted to go.

    It went pretty well, if one doesn't mind some massive giggling fits when there was either an awkward silence, or people realizing too late that they were doing different alternatives to the same tune.

    On second thought, the last one I went to was last Friday night. I think it worked pretty well, but I was tired enough that I don't remember much of that one.

    The pace-setter idea is an interesting one...

  4. i think another problem with such davvening is that, if you are really into it, your desire to do this well (and look good to others) as well as your anxiety either to participate or not screw everyone up, can take away your focus in prayer.
    it's the result of having no arbitrary leader. now, everyone is a potential leader, a position that can be really inspiring, but also can be kinda anxiety ridden.

  5. My experience with "rooftop" style davening (and I also had no idea it was called that) is that it was basically a very anxiety ridden experience - theres a pause, should I do something? am I leading too many? am i leading too few? aaahh! I can't pray at all. However, I was at a davening once which seemed to have many of the benefits without the cost of all that stress and distraction, and its also more accessible. All the prayers in the service were written on flashcards and an order was written out in front of the room (previously agreed upon), and people took the ones they wanted before we started. That way, prayers started from all around in a democratic manner, style and tune varied, etc. but also everyone knew what was going on at any given point in time, and what their responsibilities were. I highly recommend it.

  6. An idea I've heard of that might help a rooftop-style service to self-organize with no pacesetter and no awkward silences would be to create a deck of cards naming parts of, or page numbers for, particular sections of the service. Depending on the level of comfort with liturgy of the group, they could either simply pass the deck around, with each person getting whatever they draw as their part to lead, or placing the deck on a table and giving everyone a chance to "snap up" the sections they'd like to lead. There'd still be a distributed, spontaneous quality to davening because different folks would lead each part, and who was next would be a surprise to everyone but one ... but without awkward pauses and with those jumping in having had a chance to give what they'd be leading at a least a little bit of thought in advance.

  7. I really like jewtah's idea with the flashcards.
    Someday, I'll have to try it.