Singing the siddur: the man who'd like to tune us into prayer

Richard Collis hopes his musical recording of the Shabbat service will help more people to become familiar with the liturgy


Sing to the Lord,” urged the prophetess Miriam, timbrel in hand, at the Crossing of the Red Sea. For our ancestors, collective prayer was synonymous with song.

But we don’t always recognise that. Think of the scene in some old-style central Orthodox synagogue in the suburbs — a snatch of Hebrew from the shaliach tzibbur at the bimah, followed by the murmurs of those who can daven their way around the siddur and blank looks from those who don’t.

Like many, Richard Collis has bleak childhood recollections of shul but he was determined to do something about it. At his own expense, the Hendon businessman went to a studio to record a singalong version of the main Shabbat service in the hope of helping others to become familiar with the prayers. He calls his project “We Sing, We Stay Together” and his wish is that by learning melodies for the prayers, families will be able to take them to heart.

Growing up in the United Synagogue in North-West London, he recalls, “It was the same for all of my friends. We did our barmitzvah and never went back.”

His grandfather had been typical of the middle-of-the-road Jewry of his day — “shul in the morning and Arsenal in the afternoon.” But the shul habit had faded with the younger generation.

“I wasn’t able to participate in the service,” said Mr Collis, 54. “We were never taught what the prayers meant. I thought I might as well have been going to a Buddhist temple. We were disenfranchised, there was no point going to shul because we didn’t understand a word. And then I saw friends disappearing off the Jewish radar.”

“When I was 19, I’d been travelling in the far east and I remember walking down a mountain in Kashmir and I’d been meeting all these American Jews who were looking for something. I thought, ‘This is crazy’. Before I would start learning about other religions, I’d learn about my own.”

For his own part, he learned to speak Hebrew. Some years later, the idea began to germinate that the way to connect with the prayers was to sing them. “I wanted to do something to help my community. I started looking — who’s got tunes? I went round websites, I visited synagogues — California, Utah, Arizona, I was always the youngest there.”

His generation, he believed, would “never go” for traditional chazanut and Chasidic niggunim were not part of his world. Aware of some of the work of Shlomo Carlebach that was becoming increasingly popular, he found his way “to a guy in Safed who had a Carlebach synagogue, Rabbi Steve Ginsberg. He wanted to help.”

Together, they bounced around melodies. “We went through every prayer and looked for melodies from within the Carlebach portfolio that might match the meaning of the words and the mood of the prayer,” he said.

“It was the melody inspiration that I was looking for — not the way Carlebach was singing because that was Chasidic and Ashkenaz. I had to have a Hebrew that was universal and modern because the whole idea was to provide an alternative prayer service offering for the majority of diaspora Jews for whom Ashkenaz cantorial style prayer services simply did not appeal.”

Back in London, over the next few years he began recording the melodies with a musician friend from Edgware, Yossi Yoffe. And now he has released a musical double-album of the Shabbat service from Nishmat to Adon Olam with 64 tracks in which pretty every word of the prayers is sung.

The tunes are arranged in an easy listening style with percussion, guitar, keyboard and sometimes multi-layered vocals. “It had to be easy to learn and for people to sing along and we had to make it sufficiently melodic and enjoyable so people would want to listen.”

But they were mindful that “the tune had to reflect the meaning of the prayer— we weren’t going to use Madonna. We had to make sure the tunes were from Jewish sources.”

Most were based on traditional or Carlebach melodies, but sometimes they are “sampled”, adapted from a few bars of the original. He has found tunes for parts of the liturgy not usually sung such as P’tum Haketoret, the Talmud passage about incense, or Al Tirah, the short passage after Aleinu.

The tunes can now all be downloaded free from streaming services such as iTunes or Spotify or heard on Youtube. But a two-disc CD is available for sale as well as a We Sing We Stay Together book with a translation of each prayer and a transliteration into English.

He hopes teachers will now disseminate the tunes to children and families will accept his invitation to at least learn to sing one prayer together. The prayers cry out to be sung “with happiness”, he said — there is a particularly lively version of Mizmor L’David, the psalm that accompanies the Torah scroll back to the ark, which you can imagine doing an Israeli-style dance to.

“I’ve had a few people send me videos of singing the prayers,” he says. “I’ve had contact from Jewish communities that I didn’t know existed like Uganda.” He recently received a clip of a woman and her daugher singing the Shema to his setting — in Nigeria.



Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive