The contest ad was released on the listservs of dozens of shuls at 10:00 PM EST after Shabbos Shirah. By 10:02 PM, Ami had texted his wife, married son and five closest friends, “Game On!” He would have Tweeted it, but as a fifty-something who hadn’t noticed Twitter for its first few years he always had the feeling he was missing something about how the platform worked, and he didn’t want everyone laughing at him for some silly error. Better to focus on the competition instead.
And focus is what Ami did; he posted the flyer for the Third Annual World’s Fastest Chazan competition in his cubicle at work and over their desktop computer at home. He put a copy in his tallis bag, and a mini-version in his siddur. Game On, indeed; Ami was going to finish first this year, he could feel it.
In truth, Ami had felt this certain before; he was perennially sure no one could match his strategies at the Minyan Factory showdown. For the first year, he had switched to Sephardic pronunciation in order to take advantage of the split-second benefit of Tav over Sav. (The rules allowed chazanim to compete in their declared mivta; Ami hoped his ancestors wouldn’t mind this switch.) He had lost anyway, by a handful of seconds, to a Yekki from Washington Heights.
For the second annual competition, Ami had tried another change: From now on, he would pronounce every sh'va as a sh’va nach instead of a sh’va na. He was definitely faster, but it still wasn’t enough; his Yekkish nemesis was faster again, apparently without effort.
But after the second year’s race Ami had noticed something – examining slowed-down video footage for clues, he had realized that his all-Hebrew Artscroll included more words per line than his chief competitor’s Koren. What if there was something psychological or neurological about seeing more words on a line? It was counterintuitive – after all, fewer words on a line meant more possibilities for distraction when going from one line to the next – but what if...? And he also wondered about those thin Koren pages; might they turn faster than the softer Artscroll pages? So he would switch to Koren this year, and see if that would help.
Ami spent a great deal of time searching for minute advantages, but he knew that the main thing would be to practice – and did he ever practice. The contest’s setting would be a bona fide Monday morning minyan of Minyan Factory commuters trying to catch a train, and the timed contest would be chazaras hashatz (the chazan’s repetition of Shemoneh Esreih), and so Ami took every opportunity available to recite those words of the liturgy. Sitting in traffic on his morning and evening commutes, riding in elevators, running on the treadmill at the gym, standing in the shower (without stating G-d’s Name or complete pesukim, of course)… his wife Rivkah reported he was even mumbling kedushah in his sleep.
Ami’s regular morning minyan joined the effort; it would be a point of pride, as well as a marketing advantage in the neighbourhood, if their chazan would hold aloft the golden gartel of the World’s Fastest Chazan. Their shul did not have money or a very large membership, but who wouldn’t appreciate the chance to walk, rather than run, to the train after davening? So when Ami began chazaras hashatz each morning, the members of the minyan all looked at the clock, aware of what was at stake. When he finished they all noted the time. But no one mentioned times to Ami; it wouldn’t do to rattle him if the news was bad, or jinx him if it was good.
A month before the competition, one of the regulars lost his father; the minyannaires felt for him, but they also wanted Ami to have his shot, and so they established a breakaway minyan for the avel, where he could also daven for the amud. They all had Ami's back, even the avel. Ami felt like Rocky Balboa running the streets of Philadelphia, trailing a parade of admirers and supporters.
One week before the showdown, Ami asked Rabbi Schwartz for special dispensation to perform extra recitations of the complete repetition of Shemoneh Esreih, with G-d's Name, during his day. “Couldn’t it be like a tefillas nedavah (voluntary prayer)?” he pleaded. “I would have total kavvanah, I always do!” But Rabbi Schwartz explained that this was not a valid halachic option. Ami suspected that he was not a fan of the competition, but it was hard to tell for sure; whenever Ami looked at Rabbi Schwartz during chazaras hashatz, the Rabbi was always reading from a sefer or looking at his phone.