The thrill of the trill: blowing the shofar on High Holy Days

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What does it take to be a ba’al tekiah, a person who sounds the shofar?

Strong lungs? Maybe.

The ability to contort the lips accordingly to make the right sound? Sure.

Eli Cohen with his “go-to” shofar photo/shoshana hebshi

Confidence in the spotlight? Indeed.

But the most important characteristic, say Bay Area volunteers who sound the instrument at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, is a deep connection to the horn.

Fine technique is also necessary, they say, to produce a clear tone.

“It doesn’t really matter the person’s age — some people take to it, that’s what I’ve found,” said Debbie Coutant of Saratoga, whose first attempt at the ram’s horn was decades ago while a student at the University of Arizona.

Mary Gold had tried her hand at piano and violin as a child, but the Alameda resident hadn’t touched a horn until intrigued by the shofar as an adult.

For Eli Cohen, a retired professor living in Santa Rosa, it was his history with the French horn that helped seal the deal with the shofar.

Brass players do have a leg up, said Coutant, who also played the French horn. The mouth position and lip vibration are similar, she said, making for an easy transition.

Mary Gold with her collection, which she uses all year photo/ahri golden

Coutant, the former executive director at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, blows the shofar at Congregation Shir Hadash in Los Gatos, where she is a member. She also initiated a “shofar choir” there and trained others as well: During the High Holy Days, the group produces a “surround-sound” effect by positioning themselves around the room and on the bimah.

Because she’s a small person, Coutant said, worshippers often are surprised to hear her strong blasts. “People will say, ‘I never expected that from you.’ ”

As for her tekiah g’dolah, the sustained sound on the horn, “I really never timed it,” Coutant said, “but keeping up with cardio exercise definitely improves my shofar playing.”

Cohen has been blowing one shofar or another for the last 50 years. As a college student in Israel, he bought a shofar from a corner store and picked up the technique right away. He is totally self-taught and sounds the horn at Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa. He and his wife, Betty Boyd, direct an occasional shofar class through the temple for all ages.

Through his teaching, Cohen shared during an interview at his home, he has studied the rules and history of the shofar. For instance, he said, the shofar must come from a horned animal — not antlered. And some say the animal needn’t be kosher.

Cohen owns four shofars, including one that is several feet long and curvy. It looks regal when he puts it to his lips. But his go-to shofar is a straight black horn that is curved at the end. It’s easy to transport and produces a good sound. He picks it up and blows, sending his cat into mimicking meows.

“The whole purpose is to listen to the shofar,” he said. And to wake people up, to get them to pay attention to the present moment.

Gold would agree.

Debbie Coutant says cardiovascular exercise helps her prepare.

“It’s a primordial sound of attention,” she said. “Traditionally it’s sounded at specific times. It just has this resonating primordial connection for me to tradition, to Jewishness, to the ancestors.”

Gold, who sounds the shofar for Temple Israel in Alameda, doesn’t save her skills for just the High Holy Days (though she will sound the shofar at the temple on the second night of Rosh Hashanah).

She also does it for fun, at various times of the year.

During the Oakland A’s Jewish Heritage Night this summer, she sounded the shofar each time her home team scored. On New Year’s Eve, she blasts the horn at midnight. And she grabs a horn (she owns several) during the annual Fourth of July parade in Alameda, which passes by her house.

Leading up to Rosh Hashanah, Gold practices the entire month of Elul in preparation.

But her dearest moments of sounding the shofar, the times when she feels most connected, take place at the beach.

“Doing it at the ocean gives me joy and an awareness of the moment,” she said. “It makes me feel good.”

Gold, who first picked up the instrument 15 years ago, added that she also feels proud and lucky that she can handle the shofar, as many people cannot.

And during the High Holy Days — after the tekiah, the shvarim, the teruah and the final tekiah g’dolah — she experiences quite a feeling of accomplishment.

“I’m excited, and I feel a completion,” Gold said. “Being able to do something like that in front of the congregation is an amazing feeling.”.

Likewise, Coutant gets her thrill from playing loud and clear, an exercise to wake up the soul. “That’s part of the whole experience for me. It drills into your kishkes.”

Shoshana Hebshi
Shoshana Hebshi

Shoshana Hebshi is a freelance writer and former J. copy editor living in the North Bay.