In the last couple of decades, there has been a great deal of experimentation with liturgical music in the American Synagogue. Conservative and Reform Congregations have been experimenting with prayers such as, L’cha Dodi, Shalom Aleichem, Sim Shalom, Shalom Rav, etc. We have all experienced the new melodies for these prayers and others. When I pool a group of people, for example, at a Shiva minyan and ask them, “do you prefer the new music or the old music?” I get an interesting answer.
Cantor Herschel Fox's blog
One of the cornerstones of Jewish Music in the last couple of hundred years has been the music composed by the Chassidic Rabbis – the Chassidic Nigun (melody). Beginning with the Baal Shem Tov, continuing with the music composed by other Chassidic Rabbis and hundreds of Chassidic Composers, these wonderful melodies have touched the hearts of the Jewish People.
One of the highlights of my Jewish life on the prairies of Winnipeg Manitoba Canada in the 1950's was going from Synagogue to Synagogue on Rosh Hashona and Yom Kippur. Before and after singing in the choir at the Talmud Torah with Cantor Brownstone about four or five or us would listen for about five or ten minutes to the other Cantors in our neighborhood.
When I was a kid in Winnipeg, Pesach and Sukkot were the major “big two” of the “three festivals” – Shalosh Regalim. Somehow, Shavuot was a smaller “third wheel”. I never knew why, because Shavuot was after all, “Z’man Matan Torahtaynu” – The time of the giving of the Torah. After all, the Jews said “Naseh V’Nishma” – “We will do and we will listen”. They did not say “We are happy to receive the Torah”, because they simply did not know what was in it. We stood at Mt. Sinai and received God’s Torah! I wondered why they never said we are so happy to receive the Torah. They did not celebrate the receiving of the Torah as a joyful experience.
Yiddish is a beautiful mirror of the soul of east European Jewry. It is also a cherished language for us -their children and grandchildren. When I was a kid in Winnipeg, I think everybody spoke Yiddish. Even our Ukrainian neighbors understood Yiddish. The highlight of our long horrible winters was an evening with the Yiddish actors from New York - people like Ben Bonus, Menashe Skulnik, Leon Liebgold and his wife Lily Lilliana and many others.
When I was a kid in Winnipeg, as I have told you many times, we had wonderful cantors, whom I loved hearing. Jacob Koussevitsky was outstanding. Cantor Brownstone, my teacher and cantor, was unique and a world class improviser. Louie Berkel was a sweet baal t’filah as is today his nephew, Arky Berkel. There were many others- bothbaalei t’filah, and cantors. In addition we heard the world class guest cantors like, Pinchik who came to visit from New York. Most of us absolutely adored this cantorial singing. However, over and over again, I heard this is the last generation of cantors. We will never hear another generation of cantors again. How wrong they were. A few weeks ago in Israel, in Petach Tikvah, my friend Avery Greenberg and I, heard eight new traditional cantors who along with their teachers like Israel Rand, absolutely spiritually mesmerized all of us
When I was a little kid in Winnipeg, the traditional European cantorial chant and the Yiddish folk song/Yiddish theatre song, were the music that we European Jews and their children knew and loved. By the time I was in my teens, as this music began to change, and was affected by modern liturgical music and Israeli folk song, I began to hear “Jewish music is dying.” Well, it didn’t die. By the late 60’s and early 1970’s, the Chassidic Festival gave us songs such as Oseh Shalom, which became integrated into Jewish life, and Jewish simchas. Shlomo Carlebach gave us renewed musical energy. While his neo-Chassidic songs absolutely echoed the Chassidic music of European Jewry, they were arranged in more modern American popular idioms. Milton Okun, Harry Belafonte’s arranger, arranged some of Shlomo’s early albums. The fire of Jewish music was alive and well. Exciting new cantors, such as, Sol and Paul Zim mixed traditional cantorial music with the new exciting beat of Chassidic music.
For us as choir boys in Winnipeg Canada in the 1950’s nothing compared to the “liturgical” excitement of the High Holy Days. While all of us between 8-15 years old were the cantors on Shabbes at the orthodox Talmud Torah, Rosh Hashanah-Yom Kippur was the “Big Time” for us. Broadway could not have been better. We rehearsed Monday through Friday morning all summer long. Monday and Wednesday nights we harmonized with the men and sang four part choral music. While we all developed our musicality, something even more important happened to us. We as young children developed a deep natural connection to Shul (Synagogue) and Jewish religious music. We led Shabbes services, every Shabbat throughout our childhood- The nusach (prayer mode) of Shabbes and holidays became automatic and penetrated our hearts and souls. On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we heard Cantor Brownstone pour his heart out to everyone of us choir boys as well as the congregation. We encircled him, gave him musical chords that we hummed and actually learned all of his nusach and tefilot by the time we were ten or twelve years old.
I’ve always seen summer as a great opportunity. Without question, we all need to rest, refresh, and “catch up with ourselves.” Our life is hectic, busy, full of emails, and constant stimulations. We all need to slow down recharge, and relax.
Every morning traditional Jews pray a beautiful prayer. It is called “Eilu D’varim” – It talks about important Mitzvot. One of the most important of these Mitzvot, is “Leviyat Hameit” – “Burial of the deceased”. In other words, attending the funeral, and escorting the deceased to his final resting place
This week’s Torah portion, “Tazria,” speaks about laws of purification. Once I made a foolish comment, saying that “Tazria” was not my favorite Torah portion. A friend corrected me that every Torah portion is important and we learn a great deal from every Torah portion. As we approach Pesach, memories flood into my mind and heart, remembering Pesach in Winnipeg, Canada as a child.
This week’s sidra is Tetzaveh. May I share with you a few thoughts?Tetzaveh talks about the Ner Tamid—the eternal light. For almost 2000 years, the Jewish people had no country. From 70 A.D. until the middle of the 20th century, Jews wandered and settled throughout the world. But always, the light of Judaism burned bright in every synagogue in the world. The Ner Tamid was a symbol of our will to live and our passing on Torah and Jewish tradition. Yiddish songs in Europe often referenced the Ner Tamid as the symbolic center of the synagogue and our tradition. May it continue to burn forever and bring us the light of Judaism—the wonderful way of life of our people, and may each generation find their own direction.
When I was a young man in Winnipeg Canada, everyone knew what Jewish Music was. It sounded “schmaltzy”-syrupy, sweet, passionate and endearing to the heart of European Jews and their children. Cantors and Yiddish singers were the people who sang “predictable”, “Jewish flavored songs,” in the 1950s and 1960s.
As we approach summer and all of us look forward to an annual vacation I can’t help but remember a sermon I heard in Brooklyn NY. I was visiting Boro Park and it must have been 105 that day. I went to listen to a great cantor at Temple Beth El, one of America’s most famous venerable synagogues. Interesting y the rabbi’s sermon that morning stayed in my memory all these decades. He talked about what people expected to do on their summer vacation. I think he accurately pointed out that most people probably wanted to do nothing . They looked forward to having no responsibilities.
In the spirit of Purim, Cantor Fox and Cantor Baron were sitting around telling funny (not necessarily true) stories about a couple of our esteemed rabbis. Their conversation went something like this.
Cantor Fox: You know, Cantor Baron, years ago, way before your time (because you’re soooo much younger than I am) I used to roast Rabbi Schulweis at the Purim Turnabout Service. It was a lot of laughs, and I really gave him a rough time. He deserved it!
My favorite opening was; “Last night G-d came to me in a dream, and He said, ‘Herschel, Herschel, Herschel (G-d likes to repeat Himself – it makes Him sound like his idol Harold Schulweis) and I said, ‘G-d, why are you coming to me your humble servant when you could go directly to your idol?’ And G-d said to his servant Herschel, ‘Not so fast, it’s not so easy to get to Schulweis. I can’t even get past his secretary. She told me I can’t speak to him because I’m not a big giver to Valley Beth Shalom.”