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Shabbat Shira Sermon
Temple Israel: A 150th Musical Retrospective

Cantor Joanna Alexander 
January 29, 2021 (Watch the full service here.)

Shabbat Shalom,  

Tonight we will embark upon a musical journey through our temples history. While I have not included music from all 150 years, and have not yet succeeded in that quantity of research, each prayer setting heard tonight is pulled from a historical document. Some of this music continues to be familiar to this community and is still used regularly, such as Israel Goldfarb’s Shalom Aleichem or Isadore Freed’s Hassidic Mi chamocha. Much of the rest of this music I suspect was used only for specialty services or concerts, which is where I’ve pulled them from.  

I began with our archiving project. If you are not aware our archives are being pulled out, cataloged and stored in archival boxes. This process is ongoing, but our archivists were able to help pull some Cantorial programs for me to look through. 

I discovered that there were “musical Shabbats” each spring. Extrapolating from 4 service handouts that have been preserved, Rabbi Silberman and Cantor Kuttner chose a musical theme to teach about and lean into for worship that evening.  

Rabbi Silberman’s service from April 1952: “Eternity Utters a Day” based on chapter 7 of Rabbi A.J. Heschel book “The Sabbath—Its Meaning for Modern Man.” This service was made up of communal tunes which would likely have been familiar or regular, they came from the Union Hymnal, Harry Coopersmith’s “the songs we sing,” Abraham Idelsohn’s “The Jewish Song Book” These were the song consortium of the day and many communal and familiar holiday melodies were gathered in these compendia. Toward the end of the service were three pieces which were more “showy” in nature, from Ernest Bloch, Zavel Zilbert and Edward Stark. Tonights service will weave together music found in our Cantors Musical Shabbats and specialty concerts. 

From Rabbi Silberman’s 1952 service I’ve chosen the familiar tune of Shalom Aleichem and an unusual setting of Ahavat Olam. You will notice on the slide for each text I’ve marked in a blue box from when this archival piece was pulled and with which Cantor). The next piece is L’cha Dodi From Freed’s Hassidic Service, we’ll talk a little bit about that in a moment.  

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Our Archival journey continues with Cantor Kuttner, we have programs from three “special musical service in observance of Jewish Music Sabbath.” In his 1968 service “Music of Sephardic Jewry,” 1969 service which highlights “Hassidic sabbath service by Isadore Freed and Incidental Music to “The Dybbuk, by Joel Engel” and 1970 service “Jewish Music Shabbat Highlights Great French Jewish Composer: Samuel Naumbourg 1817-1880).” With these three musical services you see the broad range Jewish music from different areas of the world and throughout the centuries.  

One year he highlighted the music of a specific Sephardic synagogue in England, the next the Hassidic service written by American Composer Isadore Freed, which included a sermon on “16th century superstition, they dybbuk—and its music.” The Dybbuk was a play written in 1922 based on Russian Jewish Folktales by Sh. Ansky which Joel Engel wrote “incidental music” to accompany.  

The next year in 1970 a whole service dedicated to the French Composer Samuel Naumbourg. Each of these services gave a once per year opportunity to see the diversity of Jewish music, and to reach out of Temple Israel’s tradition to witness what attending synagogue in a different time or place might have sounded like.  

For tonight I’ve chosen selections from each of Cantor Kuttner’s Musical Sabbath Service to interweave into our prayer experience. From the Music of Sephardic Jewry the 16th century Italian Composer Solomone Rossi was highlighted in the Choir Prelude. I’ve chosen his Bor’chu, as we reach this moment, sometimes called the “call to worship,” in our service tonight, I invite you to picture a Renaissance Italian Court, the sound of the loot or perhaps harpsichord; the ornamentation on each word stretching out the syllables and unusual repetition of the Hebrew phrase is very different from our accustomed sounds. Rossi represents one of the oldest written compositions available to the Jewish community and I’m sure he has been used to highlight our long and diverse musical tradition many times in TI history. 

The Hassidic Service by Freed, used during the 1969 Musical Sabbath represents a turning point in American Reform Music, rather than rejecting the Eastern European modes and melisma, Freed introduced them and helped contain them within the western musical frame. Tonight we sang L’cha Dodi, which is new for me, and will return to the familiar melody for Mi Chamocha. 

To represent Samuel Naumbourg I’ve asked some cantorial classmates to make choir recording, Tonight we will not sing the words of Sh’ma yisrael… we will follow the instructions and listen, sh’ma, hear… listen to the words of sh’ma and the sounds emanating from 19th central French Jewish tradition. In the video you will see a rendering of the Synagogue where Naumbourg was Cantor and composer Rue Notre-Dame de Nazareth Synagogue in Paris. 

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We move in our archives to new cantors and also new style of programs, moving from worship programs into concert programs. In the year 2000, Cantor Jennifer Blum held a concert called “The Four Cantors’ Concert” with guest cantors and the Jewish community choir, many of those choir members are still with us and singing today including Tom Friedman, Jill Idelman, Jon Meyers, Maxine Noodell, Miles Remer, Jeff Schweid, and Patsy Wallace. From this concert program we opened our service tonight with the words of Hinei Ma Tov set to the Yemenite tune by French Cantor Lion Algazi. And We continue with the words that adorn the windows of this sanctuary. Hashkiveinu, that God protect us from all evil as we slumber. This setting by contemporary Canadian composer Ben Steinberg is glorious and represents the beauty of classic reform style which was the normative music of synagogues in the mid 20th century. There are hints of the Eastern traditions with ornamental runs and the syllabic emphasis but built on high quality Western chordal structure and organ instrumentation Steinberg represents the many composers who seamlessly bridged the western aesthetic with the Jewish sounds of mid century Reform synagogue music.  

As the century turns to its later half music is beginning to change and aesthetics are being influenced by popular culture. Cantor Robbie Solomon and his band Safam are writing Jewish Rock music, some is based in our liturgy and all is steeped in Jewish stories, sounds and traditions. One of my favorites of his checks off all these boxes. Solomon’s Yism’chu pulls from klezmer, from liturgy, has a fun and uplifting choir section and is appropriate for worship or the concert stage. This composition was part of the concert Hazzan Contzius put together to honor Temple Israel’s 125th anniversary in April 1997. 

After we’ve had a moment to pray the words of our own heart, Hazzan Contzius will share his composition of Shalom Rav, written while serving this community in commemoration of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.  This setting was also part of “Four Cantors concert “of 2002, hosted by Cantor Shermet featuring 4 of Temple Israel’s previous Cantors: Jennifer Blum, Erik Contzius, and Karen Webber-Gilat.  

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We’ve covered a lot of ground tonight, representing music stretching back 400 years, and representing Jewish communities from different times and places. Yet each of these prayers and melodies is woven into the history of Temple Israel as well. Elevated in special musical sabbaths, placed on concert stages, even sung in choir by some of you listening tonight. Tonight’s musical Shabbat honors the ones that have come before it, highlighting the richness and enduring nature of our musical traditions. Each composer brought their midrash, their story and understanding of God, their interpretation of how to show honor to God, how to appropriately engage the Jewish people of their time. And each of our Cantors have giving us glimpses into these differing understandings as they highlighted: the music of Sepharad, or the Hassidic community, as they celebrated they joy that is Jewish music to honor Temples birthday; or to honor the Cantors of temple. All of this is Torah, in the broadest sense of the word. Our texts, our histories, our sense memory bind us to this living religion; and it binds us to the Ever living God that we gather to pray with. Eilu D’varim: these are the obligations without measure, whose reward too, is without measure.  

 

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I’m so grateful for tonight, thank you to Julie, it was like a breath of life to make music again with anther living soul and not simply a recording. Thank you to our archiving project which gave me the inspiration for each of the choices made tonight, I cannot wait to discover even more!  

Thank you to my cantor classmates: Galit Dadun, David Berger, and Ross Wolman for allowing us to listen to the words of Sh’ma. Thank you to our cellist David Downing for adding to our beautiful cantorial duet. Thank you to Cantors’ Contzius and Shermet for all the blessings you’ve been for this community, and for joining me in song as we celebrated the musical history of Temple Israel. Thank you to my Rabbinic partners for letting me monopolize our worship tonight to tell this tale and sing these glorious words of prayer. 

Our concluding song was commissioned by Cantor Jennifer Blum, in honor of Julie Sandine on the occasion of her 10th anniversary, and written by Hazzan Contzius, while not in one of the archival programs (yet!) it fit all the categories of celebrating the music of Temple Israel’s 150th year. And so we sing praises to God with Psalm 150. 

 

Thu, March 4 2021 20 Adar 5781