When Stan Grabia was growing up, the highlight of the High Holidays was hearing the shofar.
“I remember on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, they would blow the shofar and it always appealed to me,” says Grabia, a Silver Spring resident who grew up in Coney Island.
“Although I tried my hand at blowing a shofar when I was a kid in the yeshivah, I wasn’t very good at it.”
In time he did get better. Nearly 25 years ago Grabia’s stepdaughter bought him a shofar. He taught himself to blow the iconic notes — tekiah, teruah, shevarim.
Soon Grabia became fascinated with the instrument, not just how to perfect the long tekiah gedolah note; he wondered how this ancient ritual object is made.
“I blew [my first shofar] a few times at my synagogue, Tifereth Israel,” says Grabia, 73. “It was a small black ram’s horn. The first time, I did it on Rosh Hashanah, I was very, very nervous. I sort of flubbed the first shofar call. But then it came out, and it worked beautifully.”
Most shofarot are crafted from a ram’s horn — reminiscent of the Akeda story in Genesis, that moment when Abraham sacrificed a ram in place of Isaac. But, after doing some online research, Grabia discovered that the shofar can be made from the horn of any kosher animal. While ram’s or goat’s horns — those small ones children often get on a field trip to a shofar factory — are most common, shofarot can come from horns of the gazelle, ibex, oryx, kudu, sheep and mountain goats, among other animals.
“I started reading about all the different animals that are kosher for making shofars,” he explains. “Then I bought a kudu, the long, curved Moroccan shofar that everybody at [Tifereth Israel] loves to blow.”
His interest piqued, Grabia wondered, “How hard is it to make one of these things?” With a little more internet investigating, he discovered several U.S. companies that import exotic animal horns.
“What makes a shofar a shofar?” he pondered and set about finding out. While the animal must be kosher, it doesn’t have to be ritually slaughtered, as it is not going to be eaten The horn has to be hollow, he learned, noting that goats and other local animal horns are not cleaned out so he has to boil and clean them. Imported exotic horns have already been hollowed out, thanks to Department of Agriculture regulations, which prohibit the importation of complete horns — primarily from India and Africa — because the inner material is considered food. If he has to boil a horn to clean it out, Grabia said he’ll wait until his wife is out for the day. The odor, he says, is intense.
In his makeshift workshop in his Silver Spring home, Grabia, a retired Board of Veterans’ Appeals attorney, uses a few basic tools and a jerry-rigged coat hanger to make a shofar.
“You need a hacksaw with a blade that’ll make a nice straight cut through the horn,” he says. Then you use a drill with a 10- or 12-inch drill bit. For a small shofar, that’s fine.
But, Grabia says, for a kudu, “You need to see how far in it’s hollow because you need to drill through the solid piece of the horn.” His trick? A coat hanger, so he can measure and mark off the depth.
To shape and smooth the mouthpiece, he uses sandpaper. As for finishing, Grabia prefers the natural, rough-hewn look, although many shofar makers like a polished look.
Over the years, Grabia has made about a dozen shofarot. Many are on display at his home. He has a few more unfinished horns downstairs awaiting him when he has the time to focus on a new shofar. Each year he selects one from his collection to blow on the High Holy Days — this year as part of his synagogue’s month-long public shofar blowing project, he has blown a different shofar each time.
But as much as he enjoys the challenge of making shofarot, it pales in comparison with sounding the horn before a congregation.
“It feels very spiritual in a lot of respects,” Grabia says, recalling pre-pandemic services. “When I come up there to the bimah, first I notice the congregation sitting out there. But then I try to block the congregation from my mind and put myself in a different realm. When I hear the shofar blowing, I really do feel a connection to Jewish history and our ancestors.”
Lisa Traiger blows shofar each year at Rosh Hashanah. She has been told that she was the first woman to blow shofar in her Washington congregation.
Stan Grabia’s shofar recipe
1 horn of a kosher animal: goat, ram, kudu, etc. (Horns can be ordered on the internet.)
Tools: hacksaw, drill with 10- to 12-inch drill bit, vise, wire coat hanger, fine sandpaper, belt sander if shiny sanded finish is desired
If horn is not hollowed out, it will need to be boiled for a few hours. Then you will need to pull out the inner cartilage, using plyers or other tools.
Use an untwisted wire hanger to ensure the shofar is completely hollowed out.
Cut the tip with a hacksaw.
With the drill, drill into the tip to clear out the narrow end and create a mouthpiece. This is challenging, as you don’t want to crack or put any holes in the horn aside from the mouthpiece opening. But you need to ensure the hole reaches the opened part of the shofar. Use the hanger to check.
With sandpaper, hand sand the mouthpiece to smooth it enough to put against your lips.
If desired, use a belt sander to smooth and polish the horn for a glossy, elegant look. Some shofar makers polish one side and leave the other side raw.
Put it up to your lips, take a deep breath and blow.