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The victory of Jewish music over evil

Prof. Joshua Jacobson


ON a summer’s day in 1999, Prof. Joshua Jacobson raised his hands to conduct the Zamir Chorale of Boston in a sunlit courtyard at Auschwitz. No one else was around. “For many of us,” Jacobson gently reminded the ensemble, “this is how we pray.”

So they prayed. Voices soared in unison until one by one they broke under the unbearable weight of history. The conductor continued moving his arms as tears lodged inarticulate stones in countless throats.

“People choked. They couldn’t get the notes out,” Jacobson recalls in the IJN conference room. But he was confident the group’s courageous spirit would prevail. And he was right.

The 1999 concert tour, which commemorated the Boston chorale’s 30th anniversary and the centenary of the Zamir (“nightingale” in Hebrew) movement’s first chorale in Lodz, Poland, reintroduced Jewish music to Eastern Europe for the first time since the Holocaust.

The singers were visibly moved on several occasions: in the original hall used by the Lodz Choral Society Hazamir, founded in 1899 and active in the Lodz ghetto until annihilation; the dimly lit stage at Terezin (Theresienstadt); and an abandoned Jewish cemetery.

Positive experiences outweighed the negative. “In Lodz we were received by all the local dignitaries, who treated us like royalty,” recalls Jacobson.

“We appeared at the Jewish State Theater in Warsaw, which produces Yiddish plays. So who do you think goes there? Polish Catholics who never see a live Jewish person. And some of them act in the plays.”

Non-Jews turned out in droves to listen to the Zamir Chorale of Boston, and their enthusiastic reaction warmed Jacobson. Still, he compares them to US visitors at an exhibition of Native American culture.

“ ‘Oh look at this fascinating culture we almost wiped out,’ ” he says sarcastically. “That’s what it’s like in Poland.”

Jacobson, one of the foremost experts on Jewish music in the Holocaust, is concerned that “all the emphasis we place on Holocaust studies and movies like ‘Schindler’s List’ appeals to our sadomasochistic side.

“It perpetuates the idea that we are victims — and I realize many Jews feel comfortable with that idea,” he acknowledges. “But if we ignore the incredible Jewish culture that flourished prior to the Holocaust, then we give the victory to Hitler.

“But Hitler did not succeed in wiping us out. Every time we sing this music, we pay tribute to our phenomenal survival.”

The theme of the Eastern European concert tour “was giving voice to voices that had been stilled,” he says. “But it wasn’t only about mourning. It was a triumphant return; a renaissance and a rebirth.

“Even at Auschwitz I felt that.”

JACOBSON, pinned between a few days in Aspen with his wife, a master class with the Colorado Hebrew Chorale and lectures at local synagogues, is asked to briefly summarize the evolution of Jewish liturgical music from ancient times to the present.

Jacobson rolls his eyes. “And I suppose you want me to do this while standing on one foot,” he quips before releasing a balloon-sized sigh.

In ancient Israel, “there was a lot of secular music primarily used for entertainment,” he says. “But in terms of formal music, we know there was a professional ensemble of Levite musicians in the Temple in Jerusalem.”

Accompanied by trumpet-like horns, they performed in Temple rituals until the magnificent edifice was destroyed. Music crawled out of the rubble when the Second Temple was rebuilt 70 years later.

“There was this amazing musical circus going on,” Jacobson describes. The Romans destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE and the Jews were exiled — dramatically changing the role of music in Jewish ritual.

“In the words of Psalm 137, ‘How can we sing the L-rd’s song in a strange land?’ ” Jacobson smiles enigmatically. “ ‘We hung up our harps,’ said the Levite musicians.

“The rabbis decreed that we are in a state of mourning for the destruction of the Temple, and the customs of mourning include abstaining from music,” Jacobson says. “The question is, what kind of music?

“I think the kind the rabbis had in mind was party music, music you dance to. I’m no halachic expert, but I don’t think they meant abstaining from a Mahler symphony. So they said ‘no music, period.’”

Jacobson equates the rabbinic reaction to the aesthetic that blanketed the US after Sept. 11. “In the aftermath of that national disaster, people were not in the mood” for upbeat music.

Eventually, Jews who established a fairly good existence in Babylon and Rome wanted music to flow again in their communities. “So the rabbis stepped in and made laws that prohibited this,” Jacobson says. “One rabbi even said, ‘The ear that listens to music should be cut off.’ ”

He suggests that some of the rabbinic prohibitions against music, such as not listening to Greek compositions, derived from the desire to maintain a cohesive and distinct Jewish society.

There were two musical “commandments” regarding popular entertainment:A wedding was not considered kosher without a band; and “on Purim, anything goes — especially music,” says Jacobson.

For countless centuries, Middle Eastern chants dominated Jewish music. While this hypnotic tradition fell out of favor, it resonates in Jacobson’s heart. “I lament their loss,” he says.

IN the 17th century, Jewish Italian composer Salomone Rossi wrote choir music in the Christian style that was performed throughout Italy. The Zamir Chorale of Boston incorporates several of Rossi’s works in its repertoire.

The Haskalah, or Jewish enlightenment that gradually seeped through Germany, Galicia, Lithuania, Russia and parts of Poland from the 1770s to 1880s, left an indelible stamp on Jewish music.

Cantor Salomon Sulzer, who gained a large Jewish following in 19th-century Vienna, became famous throughout the world for his choir music. “His compositions are still performed today,” Jacobson says. “Except people don’t know Sulzer wrote them.

“They think these melodies were written by G-d and handed down to Moses at Mt. Sinai.”

Berliner Louis Lewandowski, Sulzer’s contemporary, promoted the desire for large synagogues resonating with majestic organs and professional choirs. “This became the norm to which many synagogues aspired,” he says.

The current state of Jewish liturgical music, Jacobson comments, is deplorable. “I collected some articles recently from all the Jewish denominations that bemoan contemporary music in the synagogues,” he says.

“Music is the gateway to prayer. Unfortunately, in many synagogues today, music is entertainment — merely songs we sing. Which is great for socializing and a sense of group solidarity. But are you spiritually uplifted by this music? Does it connect you to the divine? Chant has been replaced by the sing-along. With all due respect to Debbie Friedman, it just doesn’t do it for me.”

Jacobson’s modern Orthodox synagogue offers a choral service once a month. Everyone receives sheet music, siddurim, and sings the entire service in four-part harmony.

The pitch may be less than perfect, but the impetus is creating a deeper connection to prayer.

“The first time we did this we set up 40 chairs and 120 people showed up,” he says. “Obviously there’s a thirst for this kind of experience.”

But you don’t always have to sing to achieve inspiration, Jacobson adds. “Sometimes it’s possible to listen and be inspired. One has to find the right balance. You can participate with your mouth, and you can participate with your ears, brain and soul.

“I think there has to be room for both encounters in the synagogue.”

HaZamir Chorale, Lodz, 1941

JACOBSON, 64, comes from a family that was “deeply Jewish and deeply artistic.” His father was a visual artist and his mother was a decorator.

“There was a lot of singing in our house around the table on Shabbat and on holidays.”

The family’s Jewish friends and artistic friends inhabited different spheres and rarely mingled.

Although he took piano lessons, Jacobson somehow convinced his mother to let him quit.

“It was the ‘60s,” he smiles. “I wanted to play guitar. I was even in a semi-professional folk singing duo with my friend.”

Jacobson had no use for classical music until he attended Camp Yavneh, a Zionist camp in New Hampshire, where music counselor Stanley Sperber decided to initiate a choir.

“My first reaction was, ‘What do I need a choir for? I can make better harmony with my buddy.’ Then I saw what Sperber was doing.”

His decades-old epiphany still elicits a gasp.

“Four-part harmony. Sophisticated music. That’s when I knew I wanted to be involved in Jewish choral music for the rest of my life.”

Sperber, who started the Zamir Chorale in New York, approached Jacobson about launching the Zamir Chorale of Boston in 1969.

“I had just finished four years of undergraduate studies as a music major at Harvard College and was beginning my MA in conducting at the New England Conservatory,” he says. “And there it was.”

Jacobson, who earned a doctorate in musical arts from the University of Cincinnati, feels proficiency in conducting both Jewish and non-Jewish music is crucial.

In addition to works crafted by the great Jewish composers, he has conducted Beethoven’s “Mass in C,” Handel’s “Messiah,” Mozart’s “Requiem,” Poulenc’s “Gloria” and Schubert’s “Mass in E-Flat.”

“Schubert makes me a better conductor of Sulzer,” he says. “Conducting Mendelssohn makes me a better conductor of Lewandowski. Conducting Monteverdi helps me better conduct Salomone Rossi.”

Several years ago Jacobson was teaching at Northeastern University, where he is a professor and music director of choral activities, when the university received a grant for an endowed professorship in Holocaust studies.

“It was only open to existing faculty,” he recalls. “I applied to do a project related to music in the Holocaust, and was accepted. That’s how I got involved in the Holocaust field.

“When I started reading the literature, boy did I get depressed,” Jacobson says.

“But as I read about what music was able to do for the Jews it became inspirational — especially how music frequently helped concentration camp inmates maintain their sense of humanity in the face of all odds.”

For example, the doomed artists of Theresienstadt had a jazz band known as “The Ghetto Swingers,” and opera and theater companies. They also risked their fragile lives to hold underground concerts.

“If the musicians could take only one item with them to the death camps, it probably would have been their violin,” Jacobson says of their commitment. “They had to have their Brahms.”

He quotes from a document written by Jewish composer Viktor Ullmann, who was imprisoned in Theresienstadt until his deportation to Auschwitz, where he perished:

“It must be emphasized that Theresienstadt has served to enhance, not to impede, my musical activities; that in no way did we sit weeping by the banks of Babylon, and that our endeavor with respect to [the] arts was commensurate with our will to live.”

Whether or not they realize it, when 53,000 people stand up and sing the “Star Spangled Banner” before a baseball game, they tap into the vocal magic of the ensemble.

“It’s incredibly powerful,” Jacobson says of the sound emitted by a group of individuals singing one melody in unison, which is the foundation of choral music.

There’s even a word for the powerful emotion that engulfs singers during a performance: unisonality.

“The sociologist Benedict Anderson came up with the concept of unisonality,” Jacobson says. “And you can feel it when you sing in harmony with the people around you.”

For instance, there’s a high D in the concluding phrase of Max Janowski’s “Sim Shalom” that’s absolute torture for many second sopranos.

No matter how hard they try to reach it while driving alone in the car, the note eludes them.

But surrounded on stage by their fellow second sopranos, they nail it every time.

“Human beings have this need to be a part of a community,” Jacobson says.

“And a musical community that sings in harmony — it doesn’t get much better than that.”

The American psychologist Abraham Maslow introduced the theory of peak experiences —euphoric, blissful moments that elevate athletes and others into a transcendent sphere of consciousness.

“There are many ways to access a peak experience, and music is one of them,” Jacobson says. “Many rabbis argue that prayer without music is unacceptable.

“If you’re in need of inspiration, go sing. Find the right tune.”

About 45 singers belong to the Zamir Chorale of Boston, celebrated as one of the most accomplished interpreters of Jewish and Holocaust-era compositions in the world.

Their repertoire includes the defiant (“The Partisans’ Song”), the whimsical (“Hava Nagila”), the upbeat (Gershwin), the poignant (“Even When G-d is Silent”) and major choral works (Bernstein, Haydn, Schoenberg).

Jacobson says pain rewrote the lyrics of Yiddish folk songs to reflect the new and horrifying reality of the Holocaust.

“Abraham Goldfaden’s lullaby ‘Raisins and Almonds’ — ‘Rozinkes mit Mandlen’ — was changed to say, ‘No more raisins, no more almonds’ in the Lodz ghetto,” he says.

“This parodied the original folk song, which then became a lullaby for these poor children.”

A Jewish choral conductor imprisoned at Sachsenhausen organized a clandestine choir there in 1939. Somehow they managed to rehearse and perform for three years.

In 1942, sensing their end was near, the choir was rehearsing its own Jewish requiem based on the Yiddish folk song “Tsen Brider” (“Ten Brothers”) when the deportation order arrived.

With the exception of partisan melodies, music from the Holocaust was composed in a profoundly tragic key. Yet Jacobson insists that extraordinary legacy surpasses grim meditations on death.

“It’s art,” he says. “It’s art for inspiration’s sake. It’s memory, and memorializing. It’s resuscitating, and reviving.”

Additional words form in his mind. But he is weary of words.

“So yes,” he says, “my focus is bringing back the voices silenced in the Holocaust, and not just weeping.”

Copyright © 2012 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Andrea Jacobs

IJN Senior Writer |

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