I was also at a Shiva this week — a member of our community lost his brother, who lived in Israel, after a long illness. Their family is from Iraq, and praying in his home offered the opportunity to both hear the prayers and learn more about the minhagim, customs, of the Sepharadim, Middle-Eastern Jewry.
Baltimore may not be Brooklyn, but there are synagogues that are Belz, Satmar, Lubavitch, Persian, Sephardic and of course many praying in Nusach Ashkenaz, all within a one-mile radius (and I believe that there is a true Minhag Ashkenaz minyan as well). That offers an opportunity of which I think too few of us avail ourselves.
In the Sephardic tradition, Hagbah — holding the Torah up and open for all to see — is done before the Torah reading. The Torah, in a cylindrical wooden case, is removed from the Ark, the case is opened, and the Torah is paraded to the Bimah. The tunes, of course, are elegant and distinctly Middle-Eastern, in a minor key.
German Jewry enters the Amidah of each holiday evening service by singing Kaddish (starting with the verse VaYidaber Moshe… as said on Yom Tov) in a regal march that conveys both the joy and solemnity of the prayer to follow. Their dance with the Sifrei Torah on Simchas Torah, before returning the Torah to the Ark, is something that must be witnessed to be appreciated — I, at least, can’t describe it well in words.
The Chassidim of Karlin-Stolin bring fire and joy to their prayers and tisch — while the Slonimer Chassidim use somber tunes that employ a 12-note scale that you are unlikely to hear anywhere else. The two are nonetheless closely related, and apparently Slonimer Chassidim in the US will often choose to pray at a Stoliner shul.
With all of these different customs and traditions, one important point must be made: there is vastly more that all of these groups have in common, and I am not referring merely to that which is found in Torah MiSinai. Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Yemenite Jewry were separated for hundreds of years, at a time when international communication was practically nonexistent, and long-distance travel a risky venture.
Nonetheless, go into any traditional synagogue on the Sabbath, and morning blessings will be followed by P’sukei D’Zimrah (“Verses of Praise”), the Shema preceded by two blessings and followed by one, the Amidah, the Torah Reading, and Musaf (the Additional service for the Sabbath). Mourners sit Shiva on a low bench, for seven days. All of the differences are superfluous by comparison — additions made by sincere Jews to enhance sincere prayer in their communities. Anyone who knows how to follow the traditional prayers — according to any of these traditions — won’t be badly lost in a synagogue of any other. And it’s worth trying, just to better appreciate who “we” are.
A Yemenite at the Shiva house told me that there are actually two Yeminite forms of prayer — one attributed to Rav Yosef Karo which is close to the Sephardi Nusach, and one which they attribute to the Rambam which is, nonetheless, much like Nusach Ashkenaz, and may date to the Second Temple period. Much like Nusach Ashkenaz — after over 1000 years of separation.
This is what true unity is — everyone working together towards the same goal, sincere devotion to G-d and fealty to His Torah. It is part of the miracle of the Jewish people that we have developed many different unique and wonderful customs, all of which are trappings added to a common core that holds Jews together all over the world.