Author Archives: Hazzan Jesse Holzer
What a magical morning!
Mazel tov to the Levine family as Christina and Ethan celebrated their bnei mitzvah together in the egalitarian worship space adjacent to the Kotel. Christina and Ethan worked with me over the past few months studying the Torah portions (in a quirky way, we actually split the double parsha this upcoming week into two separate Torah portions, one last week and one this week since Israel was reading one Torah portion ahead of us in the diaspora) as well as major parts of the service. Our prayer service began shortly before a number of other bnei mitzvah would take place alongside ours. Noise was somewhat of a factor, with a “siman tovs” echoing throughout the area. We couldn’t use the darbuka or tambourine, but I was able to use the shtender/eggs to add a percussive sound to our service. Ethan and Christina did an amazing job, aided by the energy of our kehillah. We came in close together for the entire service, so we were able to hear their leading/divrei Torah as well as sing along to the service in one voice! There were a number of other participants who had never had an Aliyah or who desired to have one in that space- alongside the place where the temple once stood, as we read of Zelophahad’s daughters who fought for equal rights, as we prayed man and woman together. What a gift!
As we concluded the service with Mourner’s Kaddish, I reminded the group that the prayer has nothing to do with death, but rather a hope for completeness in our lives. How we live our lives is the true testament to ensuring that those we’ve lost will have their name be a blessing for us, for we need to lead impactful lives to realize how much they are a blessing.
Speaking of gifts, I remember visiting Yad L’kashish as a student on Ramah Seminar a number of years ago. They have since expanded into a well oiled operation that provides work and a hot meal for senior citizens. The group interacted with the workers, most of whom came from the former Soviet Union.
We head over to East Jerusalem and on to Emek Turim, sifting through unexcavated archaeological remains looted from the Temple Mount. We divide the buckets of chazarai into 6 salvageable materials. We find bones of kosher animals, glass, pottery, and even 2 2000 year old coins (way to go David and Steven- picture of David below).
After lunch in Jerusalem, we headed to Maalei Adumim to meet Adina, who emigrated from Ethiopia by way of Sudan over 30 years ago. She tells the story of a thousand people journeying to Sudan, only to be robbed half way of all of their precious belongings. Only 500 made it to Sudan. A few takeaways: Adina is so welcoming, as I assume she is to the many groups she talks to in partnership with Keshet. She says, “If you have a place in your heart you have a place in the home.” She mentions how she often feels her life was easier growing up in Ethiopia than it is for her 6 children and their kids. There are issues of racism, and the lack of funding/financial support (it’s not like they had some uncle or cousin to lean on when they made Aliyah) does not enable her kids to attend university. One of her children wishes he wasn’t in Israel. Having heard this kind of story in the news, it’s hard to hear this from the source. However, Adina says she talks to God- that makes her happy. What does she pray for? Every mother wants to see her child happy and healthy. “Baruch Hashem” she says, “everyone is healthy.”
Heading up north to Tiberias, we pass a few spots where I have a deja-vu moments to my childhood family trips to Israel- almost falling of the giant water slide and staying in a hotel with a set of ruins right out front (now called the Leonardo Plaza). At our celebratory dinner at Refaello, I share a few stories of “connection” that lead us all to this joyous occasion- the bnei mitzvah, Rachel’s birthday, and more!
Ivy and Josh celebrated their 10th anniversary a few weeks ago and wanted to travel with their parents. Michael and Barbara suggested the synagogue trip, their chavura followed, and there was a chunk of our group. Ethan deciding to share his bar mitzvah moment with his mother brought on another set of participants. I made the claim that Yitzchak Sokoloff, head of Keshet, mentioned his grandfather had started a hebrew school in Worcester MA some hundred years ago. Maybe if he doesn’t do that, my mother doesn’t move to Worcester to run a Hebrew school, I don’t move next door to a cantor and become inspired to be one myself, and this trip doesn’t happen. Small decisions in life have ripple effects enabling such a joyous day, and such a powerful journey to Israel!
We get a late wake up at Kibbutz Hagoshrim in the upper Galilee. We had passed an area where the Israeli poet Rachel was buried (her request was to be buried overlooking the Sea of Galilee). Rachel wrote many poems that were later set to music. In particular, Naomi Schemer (who is also buried near Rachel according to her wishes), wrote music to many of her poems, including the poem Kineret.
We walk through the ancient ruins and lush Tel Dan Nature Reserve and Archaeological site, where a group is still excavating during our visit! We enjoy seeing the greenery, a stark contrast to the unshaded blandness of the dessert. Ascending the Golan heights, we view former volcanic activity as well as the new vegetation the Israelis are cultivating. Looking over from Kuneitra we see Syria, the UN outpost, wind turbines and more as Morgi explains the border situations over the years.
I remind some of the group about a sticker (of which I still have many in my office) that was popular in the late 1990s.
I was also trying to think of a song about the strategic and moral boosting position of the Golan.
Our lunch is in Katzrin, the only city in the Golan. We split into two groups as many of us try out our Catrina Ruby impressions at the De Karina (should have been Katrina) Chocolate Factory, while others taste wine at the Bahat Winery. We come back together for an olive factory tour, where they make olives into beauty products of all things!
I kept singing these songs during our chocolate tour:
L’hitra’ot- share with you more tomorrow!
Today was a heavy day. We started early as Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum, opened just as we arrived. 3 hours passed by quickly as we barely made it through the main exhibition hall. I visited Yad Vashem briefly three and a half years ago on an Educator’s Mission, and was thankful then as I was today that there was a conscious shift in pedagogy from my childhood/teenage memories of the memorial. Tell the stories. Share the pain as well as the hope. Our guide Morgi did an exceptional job setting the stage for our morning and walking the group through the timeline. We also heard fascinating stories of perseverance and pain from Kim, who shared the story of her father in law’s journey to Shanghai, and Ivy, who shared a few stories including one of a 29 yr old Leonard Bernstein, who brought light to the darkness the DP’s had experienced under Nazi horrors. A few things stood out:
Rabbi Kalonymus Shapira, the Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto, is quoted on the wall of the exhibition, questioning why the world didn’t turn back to water (i.e. The flood) when the Nazi’s began their horrific acts.
At one section of the timeline, the visitor follows a pathway portraying the unthinkable Death marches that took place from Birkenau beginning on Jan 18, 1945 and ending May 10, 1945. At each stop you learn who survived and who did not. By the time of their liberation, only 120 of 3,000 survived the war. There were similar stories of agony, coupled once in a while by a story of perseverance and hope.
Having visited a half dozen concentration camps and a number of ghettos, museums typically don’t emit the same level of emotion for me. The end of the museum experience was much more difficult this time as I had remembered. As I watched a video of DP kids singing a version of Hatikva, just as my daughter sings around the house, I began to choke up. If that wasn’t enough, I heard the story of Uziel, whose parents survived the war because the mother’s mother took Uziel away during selection at the Death camp, so that his mother would survive. The parents later helped create the Children’s Memorial in his memory. Uziel was 3 years old, the same age as my eldest. That did me in.
We had a respite in between Yad Vashem and visiting the graves on Mount Herzl. After lunch we visited the Herzl museum with an epic film starring Ben Stiller’s doppelgänger (see below). This late 90s film telling the history of Herzl and the state of Israel finished up with a clip from the peace accords (skip to the last minute) with Bill Clinton helping to sign the deal (and play with the balloons)
Josh Weingram, husband of Ivy and son-in-law to Barbara and Michael Schneider, shared his personal connection to one of the Lone soldiers, Michael Levin, who always dreamt of joining the IDF. We visited Herzl’s grave, Golda Meir’s grave, and then the graves of Hannah Senesh, Max Steinberg and Michael Levin. Morgi points out the way the graves themselves are peaceful, tucking in those the country has lost, as well as how recent soldiers who died have a wider variety of ways people are remembering them at their burial sites. We said an El Malei as Michael’s 10th yartzeit is this upcoming week. I thought for a while as Morgi called all of the lone soldiers shlichat am, emissaries of the people, quite unlike a prayer leader being called shaliach tzibbur.
We drove over to the Menorah in front of the Knesset before a night out on our own, our last night in Jerusalem.
Friday morning, we took a short bus ride for a panoramic view of the the Old City as we were welcomed by Keshet (the tour company) founder Yitzchak Sokoloff. We then traveled to the City of David on the southern tip of Old city as we viewed an epic 3-d film of the origin of the city. Our tour guide ran through the different iterations of the city throughout history as we focused on the period of King Hezekiah. Through the help of a private organization (somewhat controversially), Israel has unearthed a series of tunnels used for water access throughout the city of David. I pointed out East Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives, where my father’s paternal grandparents are buried! A small group of us ventured inside the water tunnels for a thrilling 45 minute experience.
Free time in the Old City meant shopping in the Cardo, eating in the Jewish quarter, and visiting the Kotel. Wearing a baseball cap and looking uberly touristy, I was stopped 3 times in the men’s section to see if I wanted to put on tefillin or even have a prayer said on my behalf.
On Monday we’ll share a bnei mitzvah ceremony by Robinson’s Arch, an egalitarian worship place, but I do hope that we can find a way to create an egalitarian worship place at the Kotel itself. The one saving grace of having two sections was that the women in the women’s section were able to pray- in the men’s section, all I saw were men being accosted and having someone say that their prayer meant more than whatever notes someone had brought. The Kotel, needless to say, is a complicated place, primarily because of the political and social discourse surrounding it.
We rushed over to see the hustle and bustle of Machane Yehuda pre-Shabbat- this is in stark contrast to my last experience there, at 7am on a Monday morning as the market was just opening. We collect food for Shabbat as well as the world-famous Marzipan Rugelach!
A new addition to the Jerusalem pre-Shabbat menu is the Tachana, the old Turkish railroad station turned into an outdoor mall and music space. An acoustic band leads the assembled crowd in some familiar and new melodies for Kabbalat Shabbat as the chaos of pre-Shabbat shopping surrounds the central space. This is less davening and more Judaic exposure; a new take on Public Space Judaism- not a random table set up at a fair- this is at the center of it all, and the musicians are not phased when a large portion of people are more interested in the vendors than the Psalms.
From the Tachana we head to davening at Kol Haneshama, a reform synagogue whose Friday night service (the sanctuary eventually fills up 30 minutes into the service) mimics melodies that I might have heard at Ramah growing up- there is a conscious (or not) lack of Carlebach melodies in the service. It was cool to hear them chant the Lcha Dodi melody created by their community a generation ago.
At the same time, Nava Tehila, a Shabbat in the Round on steroids service, was taking place in the basement of the same complex- groups were not allowed to attend since they only meet a few times during the summer, but some of us were able to join in even for a few parts of Kabbalat Shabbat- even though both services were packed, Nava Tehilla, with a full “round” davening space and 5 guitars/Cello/violin/drums, felt like it had more energy. The attached link was song by over a 100 voices. It was awesome!!
Shabbat dinner featured a new favorite of mine, Goose legs!
Saturday morning, we traveled to Moreshet Israel, located adjacent to the Fuchsburg Center at the heart of downtown Jerusalem. The service used many of the same melodies the JJCers are accustomed to and even used our Shabbat siddur. The sermon was in English too! Part of Moreshet Israel’s mission is to be that “home away from home” as Rabbi Adam Frank put it. We were greeted by Rabbi Jerome Epstein, who staffed Eliot and Barbara Safer the summer they met! We shared the service with a group from Park Synagogue in Cleveland, many of whom had regards for David Wolinsky! We enjoyed the hospitality of Rene Feinstein, the outgoing shul president and family friend who, by chance, had also negotiated my first contract in Jacksonville! The shlichat tzibbur, Saralee Shrell-Fox, has a beautiful voice and serves as the High Holiday cantor in Milton, MA at the shul where my grandmother served as sisterhood president! Talk about connections!!
A small group splintered off for a taste of the Great Synagogue and its magnificent choir!
The group gathered for Seudat Shlishit overlooking the Old City as we sang songs about Jerusalem that led right into Havdalah. A group went back to the Tachana to see the stage alive with a musical performance as the new week is upon us.
Shavua Hachi Tov- we hope a great week ahead in Israel!!
It’s been a jam packed few days as we transitioned from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem by way of the desert (a little indirect but I guess like Moses we weren’t good at asking for directions?).
Wednesday morning we were treated to the first of a few talks by different sectors of Israeli society. Assaf Luxembourg, a third or fourth generation Israeli, spoke about the tech industry. He also gave us some tips to experience Israel- act a little Israeli, eat some hummus, and interact with its people.
We stopped by Rabin Square (I posted the melody of Shir Lashalom on the last blog) where Rabin was assassinated as we recreated the scene and discussed Yigal Amir’s bastardizing of the Torah to think that this was what God would wanted (Israeli society pre and post-Oslo was tensely critical of the Peace movement, with some sections of government/religious authorities calling for someone to “take care of” Rabin (often depicted to look like Hitler).
A birthright group joined in a circle to sing “Lmaan Achai v’rei’a”-for the sake of my brother and my neighbor- a melody written by Shlomo Carlebach (text is used in our liturgy) and quite appropriate for the experience.
We traveled to the Weizzman Institute, named after the the 1st President (figurehead position) of the State of Israel (also a scientist) and a leading hub for R&D in the world. After an interactive welcome center we took some free time in Old Jaffa, visited the flea market (Where I heard this classic on the radio from my high school Israel experiences being blasted from a car radio),
and finally left Tel Aviv and headed to Kiryat Gat. It was at this time I started looking into top kosher restaurants in Jerusalem (for Thursday night’s free night), and low and behold our hotel in Tel Aviv had a 15th floor restaurant ranked #3 in all of Israel. Oops!
Rabbi Sharon Shalom is an Ethiopian Orthodox Rabbi who serves a congregation of mostly Holocaust survivors. He is an engaging speaker who talks about his journey, his adjustment to Israeli society and the importance of speaking with the heart.
Musically speaking, the Rabbi is also a Hazzan and says that depending on what life cycle he officiates (really for whom), he will use the nusah and customs of that couple- he gave an example of Sheva Brachot being chanted a number of different ways!
It was also crazy to hear the Rabbi use an Ashkenazic pronunciation of the Hebrew and even have Yiddish phrases in his repertoire like “gornisht mit gornisht”
Our day is culminated by a late evening Camel ride and Bedouin hospitality. As we headed to bed, a group of Israeli soldiers started humming TLC’s Scrubs for some reason. Only in Israel!!
I also look out at the clear skies and crescent moon. There are a number of Israeli songs that talk about the moon, but this one came to mind at that moment.
An early morning (wake up call at 3:30AM) hike up Masada. So proud of ALL of our participants for making the early morning trek up the mountain. We enjoyed watching the sunrise and spent a few early hours recreating the controversial experience of the Jews living on Masada (from King Herod to those who committed suicide rather than give in to the Romans).
As we were leaving the top of Masada, we left an open ended question of how these Jews should be remembered – as heroes? As a tragedy? In any event, this early Israeli perspective of “we may have been perceived as weak before, but look at all the might we have; look at all of the examples of those who rebelled” is prevalent. We’ll see that as well when we visit Yad Vashem – the first museum (before it was recently renovated) showcased the story of Mordechai Anilevitch, who died in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Early Israel wanted to associate with the heroic stories of strength and heroism.
Afterwards (iwhat felt like 5pm already) we traveled down for a hike to the springs at Nahal David. Nahal David floods every year so the topography of where the springs are changes from year to year. It was a great surprise to catch our Jacksonville kids in the waiting area to enter Nahal David!! Having reached out to Seminar we had thought our paths would totally not cross on our journey. What luck!
After a refreshing dip we headed to Ein Gedi and the Dead Sea. It was hot! It was salty! It was wonderful!
We traveled to Jerusalem and made a Shehechiyanu to show that we are finally home in the ancient city. I sang an excerpt from Hameiri’s Yerushalayim as we gazed at the panoramic view of Jerusalem.
Checking into the hotel, we had a few hours before our reservation at the Latin restaurant La Boca (half of us went to Eucalyptus). Whenever I have a few hours in a city (this happened in Madrid a few weeks ago), I like to walk around for an hour to acclimate myself. I walked up to the Old City through the Jaffa Gate and headed towards the Kotel (I don’t think I’ve ever entered from that direction). It was cool to hear all of the languages in the shuk (some Italians speaking Italian with the Arab shopkeeper and bonding over their love of cashmere). I headed for the Cardo and realized there’s a shortcut to the Arab shuk back to the Jaffa Gate; and I didn’t even need Waze (An Israeli company)!!
When we got back from dinner, a party was hopping across the street. A band played 3 songs in succession before going into a techno/DJ dance mod: Inyan Shel Zman (we used to sing in Pizmon, meaning “A Matter of Time”) what I refer to as Etmol haya tov (yesterday was good, officially called “Hayareach”- another Hayareach!!), and John Denver’s Country Road.
Only in Israel- Rak B’Yisrael!
After traveling with the Cantors Assembly Mission to Spain, it is an honor and privilege to lead a group of 26 to our ancestral homeland. After an overnight flight from JFK, the majority of the group arrived Monday night and headed to our welcome dinner at the Maganda Restaurant in Tel Aviv’s Yemenite Quarter. After filling up on salads, we feasted on shipudim/skewers/shishlik and headed to our hotel to rest up!
After a delicious Israeli breakfast- fresh breads, fruits, cheeses, with your choice of herring, egg souffles, and even ice cream, we began our first full day in Israel exploring Tel Aviv, named “Hill of Spring” after Theodor Herzl’s call to return to a Alteneuland. Our tours took us to 4 unique locations, all incorporating the music of Israel to tell their respective stories.
We begin at the Palmach Museum. Palmach is the hebrew abbreviation of Plugot Mahatz. Founded in 1941, the Palmach, the striking force of the Hagana, was the precursor to the IDF. This interactive museum gave us a 90 minute tale of those who made up the pioneer defenders of the State of Israel- teens and 20somethings (Yitchak Rabin was an elder statesmen when he commanded his group at the age of 25!).
The group assembles around a campfire and sings this Israeli classic (and a favorite of our longtime Cantor Abraham Marton z’l).
Seeing the valleys and the glorious land, in awe of the place they would be asked to defend and lay down their lives for, the group sings Shir Haemek.
We hear the theme song for the Palmach.
As we take the journey (with real live footage and a feature film made for the museum), the group connects with the different stories of those making up the Palmach- new olim, holocaust survivors, 2nd generation pioneers, etc. We hear about the struggle during the War of Independence and hear the melody of the heartwrenching song, Bab el Wad.
After the Palmach Museum, we travel to Nachalat Binyamin, the Arts & Crafts Fair adjacent to the Shuk. The group enjoys some free time and I even bump into Ami Yares and his bride to be (Mazel tov). Ami visited Jacksonville a number of years ago as a member of the band, The SHuk. How ironic!!
As we enter the Rabin Museum (20% dedicated to his life, rest to Israeli history), we enter a large room with video of the night Rabin was assassinated. The crowd and everyone on the dais chants the words to Shir Lashalom (song for peace), seen below. The words were found in Rabin’s pocket following his murder just 15 minutes after the peace rally ended.
The museum flows similarly to the recent documentary Rabin, In His Own Words (highly recommended). Since the State of Israel sponsored the museum (and not as a memorial to Rabin), they do paint a fairly streamlined view of every conflict- war/political campaign etc. Our group learns a new perspective – the height of the Generals of ’67 and the negativity towards politicians and military following the Yom Kippur War of ’73.
We feasted at Na Laga’at Center (Na Laga’at means “please to touch”), located at the Jaffa Port in Tel Aviv. The Center is comprised of the Nalaga’at Theater, home to the Deaf-blind Acting Ensemble. We ate at Cafe Kapish, served by very friendly waiters who also were deaf.
We were blessed to see the performance “Not by Bread Alone,” an interactive and thought provoking story in which the actors share their hopes and dreams with the audience. One of the most striking aspects of this performance is the choreography- there were a number of emotional moments in which the main narrator (deaf and blind) maneuvered across the stage with the helpful hands and arms of his actor counterparts. It really was poetry in motion.
An older woman, who in the story courts an older gentleman, plays a song on the keyboard that she remembers from childhood (written in 1939). The audience is given the lyrics to sing along with her beautiful playing.
At the conclusion of the program, the audience is again asked to join in with another song- actors make out the sign language so one can sing the song with their hands and their mouths (unfamiliar but stirring song).
The evening culminates a powerful day showing the spirit of Israel and the spirit of Israelis- strongest when they work together to create such impactful moments. I’m so grateful to have experienced such a moment this evening!
As the Israeli Ambassador to Spain put it at our Sunday night concert, “Music transcends time. It is the image of our souls.” Whether dancing for a packed house for Shabbat services, an impromptu chanting of Ani Maamin in a church (that was once a mosque, that was once a synagogue), or a sing-along of Israel’s greatest hits, our mission to Spain showed us all that beyond Am Yisrael Chai (the nation of Israel lives), Lev Yisrael Chai (the heart of Israel lives).
During our last day, Professor Berk reiterated this idea that perception is reality. This goes for human history, but as we go from the learning and singing, this “camp-like” bubble of an existence over these past two weeks, away from the chaos of society and the Pokemon Gos of the world, it is our collective responsibility to make sure that the perception of both the past and present remain as genuine and introspective as possible, so that the future remains bright.
Our last day included a morning tour of Seville, including a visit to the Cathedral Palace (where Columbus can be found) and a tour of the Royal Alcazar Palace of Seville. The evening was punctuated by a Flamenco performance and Israeli song festival at the Real Venta De Antequera, a place that normally hosts bull fights!
Berk’s last lecture of the trip was sponsored by my synagogue, the Jacksonville Jewish Center, and I do want to thank the synagogue and leadership for giving me opportunities like this for personal and professional growth! Most of Berk’s lecture focused on Franco’s rule and this play between European countries following World War II. To be honest, my focus during this time period was always on Germany, Poland, Russia and even Italy. Hearing about Spain’s position in this period brought the art work we saw at the beginning of the trip (the film about mass poverty, Picasso’s Guernica) back to life. We can say “never forget”, but if we never know, it’s hard to never forget. As the lecture turned into a question and answer, Berk focused his energy on what he saw as the eventual inclusion of Turkey into the EU. As the gateway to the Middle East, Turkey is an important political/military ally. As the borders would open with its inclusion into the EU, the conversation about security is a very serious one. This talk, two days before an attempted military coup in Turkey!
- I learned a lot about the interplay between religions; the interactions between factions of religions. Spain’s Jews had a Golden Age, and there was a not so golden age. I learned a lot about post-WWII Spain. Meeting with and hearing the stories of Masorti Jews in Spain today, I found it worrisome that we don’t pay more attention to this group of Jews trying to create a Casa Sefarad in Spain once again. The Joint Distribution Committee gives very little to the Masorti communities in Europe. Hopefully through twinning and through education, this will change. The Golden age will never return, but love of culture, love of a modern Spanish Jewry can!
- Kippah- I felt weird not wearing a kippah (for security reasons it seemed like more people went kippah commando or hat on this trip vs. Germany, ironically). It’s not like I didn’t scream tourist with my fanny pack, diaper backpack, and camera bag.
- Most importantly, I realized that more than the cantorial music they sing, these cantors on our trip, and I gather the same can be said about the cantorate in general, are loved. They are beloved by their friends and congregants (and congregants who are friends). Hearing how non-cantor trip participants (of which there were 300+) spoke about my cantorial friends in such glowing ways was truly inspiring. As a social experiment, one need only look at the dozens of photos I posted from our concerts for those back home to enjoy. These were not videos of cantors singing, but cantors smiling and loving what they do. To wake up to hundreds of notifications saying that hundreds of people that I don’t know loved/liked/commented on my photos shows the impact our cantors are making today. The way in which we interpret music is important, but the way in which we engage with our community through our personalities and stories means so much more. From strength to strength!
I love being in a country where everyone pronounces Dafna (airport/customs personal, hotel receptionists, bartenders) the right way!
Granada and Seville
As I mentioned yesterday, Granada was the last Muslim stronghold. We skip forward to the yer 1500, where Granada is now the home to forced conversions. Our guide, Rosa, paints a picture of 1502, as Muslims lined in front of their former mosque (now a church) ready to be baptized. Conversion often created more rifts within the Christian community, as new Christians were designated separately from the old by being classified as “Moriscos.” In many instances, the “old” Christians were deemed clean (implying impurity for those newly converted). The church had long viewed converts on an equal playing field.
Rosa led us on a morning tour of Granada as we saw this juxtaposition once again of Islamic and Western architecture. In fact, the style of architecture changes like in Granada later on than in other communities, strengthening the tie to a more moorish style.
Our tour takes us to the museum of torture (Leora and I visited a Museo Della Tortura on our honeymoon while in San Gimignano, Italy), with a second floor tribute to the history of the Jews. The museum hosts a number of Jewish artifacts from Spain and throughout Europe with the hope of sharing the rich culture of the Jewish people (and therefore showing what was lost). We saw letters of conversos renouncing their Jewish faith, while using a secret code to communicate (writing in lemon!). Straight out of a National Treasure movie. My favorite artifact on display had to be the Arbol de Jesse from Granada (1618).
As we glanced over the hillside with a majestic view of the Alhambra Palace, Rosa explained that at one point during Muslim rule, occupants of Granada received their own land to become self sufficient. This makes a lot of sense given the way the Alhambra layout also has space for gardens in order to be self-sufficient. When the Christians took over, they kept hearing about all this land, called “Karen” (or Keren, as in Keren Kayemet Liyisrael), but they thought the locals were saying Carmen, so that’s why there are so many “Carmen” spaces throughout the region.
As we depart for a 3 hour bus ride to Seville, we learn about the vast number of monasteries and convents. One monastery is now a boarding school, yet there are “19 convents and counting” within Granada. Sounds like a reality tv show in the making to me!!
We were treated to a brief talk while on our way to Seville. Some of Berk’s insights:
We left off at the end of the 19th century. Setting the stage for the mood of the people:
There were revolts amongst peasants, workers, middle class; strong anarchist and Marxist movements. The low point is La Semana Tragica, July 25-Aug 2 1909, known in English as the Tragic Week- a series of bloody confrontations between the Spanish army and the aforementioned working classes/anarchists/socialists.
This unrest of 1909 couldn’t be seen in a Spanish vacuum when political theories and movements didn’t stop at the boarder crossing.
With the Russian Revolution in October 1917, we see the appeal of communism and the fear of communism. The appeal had a messianic feel to it- families like the Rosenbergs appealed to the idea of communism (not for the $$$). The leftists were motivated to action while the right (against Lenin), stayed socialist.
At the same time, since this is still a lecture on Spain, we see the last remnant of the Spanish empire in Spanish Morocco (we’ll learn later from our evening speaker of the various types of Moroccan Jews- Spanish, French, etc). The unpopular war in Morocco (in which 14,000 were slaughtered), with the humiliation of the Spanish armies contributed to the military coup of 1923. Primo De Rivera becomes dictator until 1930, when he leaves the country, followed by the monarchy (now the second expulsion of the monarchy of 1931 finally has context!!).
Massive rioting eventually leads to the republic establishment in 1931. When Hitler ran for office in 1932, Stalin said he would be out in 6 months. However, when Communists and socialists would not make any alliances, Hitler had his stranglehold. In 1934, the Kremlin party line changes. Now, it’s all against fascism, known as the Popular Front.
Socialists and Communists win mass majority in Spain. The Church and Republican army are obviously against it. With the summer revolt of 1936, Spain begins its Civil War. 1 million people die in the civil war. This civil war is the Vietnam of the 1930s.
Franco’s side has unity, but it also has guns and aircraft. The Republic has nothing. Salazar, Mussolini and Germany provide funding to Franco and support Guernica.
For the Republic side, the British and French send nada with their policy of appeasement in full effect. As Berk puts it, “no one wants to go in the meat grinder again.” America, too, is combatting isolationism.
Consequences of Civil War
Berk points out people turning their backs on Jews because they didn’t support their cause during the civil war. This is right out of the second paragraph of the shema- you pat my back, I’ll pat yours, but if you don’t pat my back, I’m not going to pat yours.
Stalin looks at the world through the prism of Leninism: as Hitler advances west, it must be a capitalist plot to release him eastward. As we know, perception is reality. We hear the story of Max litvinov, the Jewish foreign minister of Russia, replaced by Molitov. Molitov meets the German foreign minister as Hitler is about to invade Poland (Britain and France have alliance with Poland). The question arises- would Russia attack Germany from the east and make it a two front war? Or could Germany promise something in return for Russia’s help? Germany offers up Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and part of the Ukraine. The Soviet people will not know about the deal until Gorbachev.
This is all context for Franco’s iron fist rule from 1939-1975. Franco cracks down on all areas that would dare challenge him. For example, 7,000 high school teachers are executed during his reign.
It’s getting late so I’ll just mention that we had a wonderful meeting with Moses Hazan, from Morocco (most Jews in Seville are from Morocco), who teaches us about the Jews of Seville (lowlight includes June 6 1391 progrom, Spanish Inquisition beginning in Seville in 1478, last trial in 1781) . Cantor Aaron BenSoussan led us in a Moroccan maariv and Cantor Dov Keren led a powerful El Malei prayer for those in the Sephardic community that perished.
Sunday morning we traveled to Toledo. Our resources (our guide and guidebooks) gave varying opinions as to the origin of the phrase, “Holy Toledo.” Either it was a term originated by the Sephardic Jews, or a reference to the many churches housed in Toledo. Either way, the city of Toledo is a gorgeous vestige in time.
It was fascinating to visit two synagogues created centuries apart, only a block away from each other (sound familiar?). I am always taken by the acoustics of these synagogues. Architectural gems, these synagogues have amazing sound, as shown by my video of Hazzan Alberto Mizrahi on Facebook. We’ll also see a common theme of writing out certain key prayers on the walls. Our guides will paint a balanced picture of religious life in Medieval Spain- often the local religious communities did in fact work hand in hand. In fact, the idea that Arab artisans wrote the Hebrew lettering in one synagogue is but one of many synergies between communities and their worship spaces. Over time, we’ll see a number of worship spaces change hands, converting into mosques and churches without changing up every aspect of the space. As an example, the first synagogue visited was named Santa Maria la Blanca Monumento Nacional. Antigua Sinagoga deal Siglo XII.
Walking around the area, there are a number of Jewish shops and for the first time (other than our Maccabi Restaurant), we see a visible “kosher” sign in a few places. Toledo is a welcomed change from the bustling cities of Barcelona and Madrid, but the small windy streets do create some crazy driving scenes. We exit the Jewish quarter to find a world of Mazapan (the world’s largest monastery made out of marzipan, as well as the largest Don Quijote. We also see souvenir shops being housed in 400 year old buildings.
With regard to the height of Jewish Toledo, It’s interesting to note that the Jewish community was later aided by those scholars who fled during the reign of the Berber dynasties.
One final note from Toledo: often you’ll find musicians playing for money at many of the major tourist stops. Today’s story involves a guitarist playing a familiar refrain. I immediately connect the melody to a niggun we had used on Friday night in Madrid. I learned that the melody we sang Friday night derived from a pop song, so whether you are bringing in Shabbat or playing outside a Cathedral, music can be transported anywhere you have an ear ready to listen.
Sunday evening Teatro Goya (next to a golf school and go-cart track on the other side of town) played host to a grand concert of “World Jewish Music.” As part of the chorus, we sang everything from Avinu Malkeinu to Hallelujah to a salute to Israel. The eclectic concert showcased familiar faces as well as newcomers to the Cantors Assembly. We also received greetings from the Israeli Ambassador to Spain! You can catch my catalog of some of my favorite facial expressions from the concert on Facebook.
Córdoba and Granada
Monday morning came bright and early as we took the high speed rail south towards Córdoba, home of Moses Maimonides. After seeing a statue of the great Rambam, we headed to the Casa Sefarad to hear how the local guide incorporates Sephardic music into teaching visitors about the Jewish tradition (video on FB). We toured the former mosque turned church (a common theme will be brewing). You get the sense from seeing Córdoba (and later Granada) that this is a different culture- the architecture, the story lines (we are now in Andalucia FYI). Muslims Jews and Christians coexist. And Córdoba was a juggernaut – when cities like Madrid had populations numbering in the fifteen to twenty thousand range, Córdoba was pushing a half million. To show the Jewish impact, our guide, who identifies as Christian, showed us how her parents surnames both had Jewish origins!
Our 3 hour bus ride (with a detour for snacks at a rest stop with the worst possible location for a kids play area) brought us to Granada (we learned that the name means pomegranate), the last stand of Muslim rule before it fell to the Christians. We learned the significant date of December 30, 1066, when an angry mob stormed the palace in Granada and murdered Joseph Ibn Nagrela, the vizier to the Berber King, not to be confused with a similar sounding king. The massacre that followed wiped out the Jewish population, either by death or by getting the rest to leave.
We’ll explore a little more of Granada in the AM, but we did receive a late evening VIP tour of the Alhambra (meaning “the red one”) Palace (very different than Jacksonville’s Alhambra theatre), home of the Spanish monarchy for over a hundred years. It was interesting seeing Isabel and Ferdinand’s living quarters, having converted over (pun intended) the original use of the palace. You can still make out the Arabic on the walls. This is an interesting parallel to the Hebrew prayers we have found in the same level of synagogue walls throughout our trip.
Musical note #2: As we walked through Córdoba, we were treated by a guitarist (pictured below) who played Bei Mir Bistu Shein. Small world!
Our morning began with a grand tour of Madrid, highlighted by three main stops: the Royal Palace, Plaza Mayor and the Centre de Arte Reina Sophia. Our bus split in half with each group going with one of our fantastic Madrid guides, Marta and Susannah.
Taking in the city, we noticed signs from the recent LGBT Pride parade, as well as banners for the support of taking in refugees. We learned that this is the 400th anniversary of Cervantes’ death (wrote Don Quijote).
While visiting the Royal Palace, we learned the history of the Spanish monarchy, with a special emphasis on Charle III and the current Spanish King and his family. It was here we learned that President Obama would be visiting the palace towards the end of this weekend, so each room became much more than a history lesson. The dining room (converted from 3 of of the former queen’s changing rooms) adapts to whomever and how many are eating at a given time, with place-settings for at least 140. As a side note, there were five glasses set out at each place setting for the gala event this weekend! As an even greater side note, we did have more silverware at our Friday night dinner than the President will have at his seat! The President and First Lady will sit towards the center of the table alongside the King and Queen.
It was fascinating to hear our guide use the word “expulsion” on numerous occasions describing the second expulsion of the Royal family in 1931.
We traveled to the Reina Sophia, a modern art museum with some powerful imagery and multimedia. Our introduction to the museum was a short documentary in black and white film showing those suffering in poverty a generation ago. This is still something quite palpable as you walk the streets of Madrid (and Barcelona). The art works do not shy away from political or social matters. I’m not used to having guided tours in art museums, but our guides’ attention to detail added extra layers to the pieces we looked at. Most importantly, we delved into the stories behind Picasso’s Guernica. As an art history student, I remember seeing many pieces of art for the first time via slides projected on a wall. The major disadvantage was not being able to realize the scale of a piece. I thought pieces like Jackson Pollack’s Autumn Rhythm or Picasso’s Guernica would be a decent size in real life, but I never imagined them taking up an entire wall of a museum. In contrast, a painting of Henry VIII in the Thyssen was TINY. In reading my favorite Top 10 book, I found out that the best sculpture in the museum was Julio Gonzalez’s Daphne (pronounced Dafna as in Pasta or Kafka) . I felt it was beshert to have the work sound just like my youngest daughter’s name (often mispronounced), but alas it was on loan!!!
Friday night was a true delight. A number of cantors co-led our service entitled “A World of Jewish Music for Erev Shabbat.” I was able to introduce a Latin-inspired Mizmor L’david that I had written for our Shabbat in the Round service a few years ago. You can listen to a less-Latiny version here.
It is a great feeling to hear 300+ people learning and singing a melody that they are all hearing for the first time. The energy continued throughout the whole service.
Our Shabbat morning service started with Shaharit at 9:30 and ended at 12:20, unable to touch the 4 hour gem from Germany. However, there was a wonderful flow to the service, with a few particular highlights for me. Our Rabbi in Residence of the trip, Yoshi Zweibeck (works with our mission co-chair Cantor Nate Lam) taught us (succinctly I might add) about the proper to argue with another- to find a balance of tolerance and pluralism. He also wrote a fantastic rhyme for our Torah introduction that rivaled Kendrick Lamar. A second highlight was hearing this guy Henry Rosenblum incorporate wedding melodies into the Musaf Kedusha (autocorrects to Medusa). I think he is celebrating his 40th wedding anniversary this Monday, but it’s not like I know him at all. I could ask my wife (his eldest daughter).
A final highlight was hearing the melodies used by Hazzan Annelise Ocanto-Romo, currently at Ohev Shalom of Bucks County, PA, but previously serving at Beth Israel in Worcester, MA. Having grown up in Worcester, I was familiar with some of the “Worcester standards” introduced by our longtime Cantor, Stephen Freedman. Stephen had introduced a great Ashrei melody a number of years ago that obviously continued to stick with the congregation through multiple cantors that followed. The melody caught on with the congregation this morning, as most were hearing it for the first time. If you were to poll the congregation, they may have thought that it was hot off the press. Quite the contrary- the melody was written a number of years ago by Cantor David Brandhandler z’l, who passed away recently at the age of 104. I was lucky to meet Cantor Brandhandler at last year’s Chicago convention and thanked him then for the melody. It just goes to show the power of song to bring joy and excitement to a community even after the composer has left us in body.
After a brief Kiddush many of us made the long walk (and well worth it) to the Prado museum, where we spent a few hours going through the museum filled with Carravagio, Durer, Diego Velazquez, Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, El Greco and even Raphael (his “Portrait of a Cardinal” mimicked the Mona Lisa in many ways). I was able to get a greater appreciation for the Spanish great Goya (his famous work in the museum is quite dark, but the top floor contained a number of rooms devoted to colorful and bright paintings by Goya. I was also able to learn about and become a fan of new painters like Beruete y Moret as well as Rico y Ortega.
After minha, we heard from the Rabbi of the local Masorti (Conservative) congregation. He gave us a mixed bag of information about the Jewish community today- it’s trials and the potential good heading its way. They have a Sunday school with 36 students (from a pool of 3000 Jews in Madrid- for context, Jacksonville has 4-5 times that population). The Rabbi’s own sons attend Chicagoland Day School in, you guessed it, Chicago!
Here’s some good news: people are discovering their Jewish heritage and since the end of Franco’s and Catholicism’s reign (it’s amazing how many people talk openly about despising him), people are soul searching, and even finding out that they have Converso roots. A common story is having a family tradition of having a ham leg in the house, for at one time, the family wanted the outside community to think that they had fully converted. When people are ready for conversion, the rabbi takes them to a lake (only warm enough in June andJuly) rather than the local mikveh, which is closed to them!
That’s the bad news- we learned that Casa Sefarad, where we visited and were welcomed on Thursday night, has little to do with the local Masorti community and is there for more political reasons than anything else.
Some great news. Having acquired two torahs (first a non-kosher one and finally a kosher one), the community has begun the process of writing its own Torah, the first Torah to be written in Spain in 500 years! B’sha’a Tova!
After a great Havdala led by Tahl Ben Yehuda (another shout out to Jacksonville), we are off to Toledo tomorrow! Hasta Manana!
Wednesday afternoon, Eliezer Papo gives a great lecture to fill in some of the gaps and answer questions about the community of Sefarad. Papo reminds us that there is always some subversive storyline in the folk lore and etymology of a place to heighten it’s importance. For example, a common pun of Sefarad was “sof rad”, meaning “end of the earth.” Poland got the same treatment, for they associated Polinia with “PO lan ya”, meaning “God dwells here.” In fact, Sefarad is first mentioned by Ovadiah, although Papo claims that this is in reference to Sardes on the Mediterranean.
When we left off with our history lesson from Stephen Berk, Islamic rule was becoming divisive while the Christian faith suddenly had a united cause to fight for. Andalusian society (spreading through most of southern Spain to include Granada and Seville) was under Moorish rule for most of the 8th-15th centuries. As Professor Papo put it, they could not see themselves, and their children, fighting Christianity. They had done well for themselves financially, so the class wars between the affluent sons of Islam and the low-income Christian brethren was on.
While I seemed to glorify the relative successes of Jews under Islamic Spain, Papo points out that Muslim Spain had its peaks and its valleys. Infighting, new regimes, the abolishment of Christianity and Judaism as recognized religions (Spain’s success was linked directly to allowing other religions to thrive), all led to the slow demise of Islamic rule.
Papo and Berk describe a tale of two rabbis- those rabbis that converted to Christianity, thus acquiring a new religious leader with a familiarity with the ancient text (see Moses’ hands guiding the sea to part as the first sign of the cross); and those rabbis like Maimonides who, as the Jewish elite, left Spain for greener pastures.
Speaking of rabbis, Professor Papo draws a direct line from the rabbis of Babylonia to the rabbis of Spain. In his eyes, you judge whether a community is at the center of Jewish life vs. the periphery based on one principle: if you import rabbis, you are marginal, while if you export rabbis, you are central. The center for rabbinic leadership shifts from Babylon to Tunisia. Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi goes to Fez, Morocco and then finally to Spain. Alfasi, known as the RIF, teaches Yosef Ibn Megas, who teaches the poet Yehudah Halevi as well as Maimon, the father of Maimonides. In making this family tree, Papo suggests that there is a Sephardic way of thought (practical) and an Ashkenazic way (theoretical). He tells a story of a community looking for a new rabbi. They stipulate that they are looking for a rabbi with one hand. When asked why, they respond “the old rabbi always said, “on one hand…, but on the other hand…”
As for sightseeing, we traveled a little over an hour outside Barcelona to the very well preserved community of Girona. The home of the Ramban, our group took a tour of the Jewish museum, which included a mikveh and a courtyard with a special gift from the famous Jewish artist Frank Meisler (See below). The Jews of Girona were active in for a few hundred years and quite chummy with the king, although the population never soared because at the end of the day, Girona is not a port town like Barcelona. While Barcelona Jewish life left in 1391, Girona, in the heart of Catalonia, thrived until the expulsion. Speaking of Catalonian, a factoid provided by our guide, Susanna #1: Jews spoke Catalonian and knew hebrew, but Ladino developed later. Who knew?!
We returned for an afternoon of visiting the street market (and seeing the first of two dozen museums for ham) before our Soul of Sefarad concert At Barcelona’s Palau de la Musica Catalana!
Thursday morning we took an early 3 hr train ride (1st class was great!) to Madrid. Some of passengers enjoyed meeting new friends while others learned all the lines to Star Wars: The Force Awakens in Espanol.
Our bus tour stopped for 40 minutes for lunch, so Leora and I made it over to the Museo Thyssen. Thanks to my Top 10 book (highly recommended), we saw works by Rembrandt, Degas, Picasso, El Greco, Hopper and Mondrian amongst others.
Our evening activity included a ruach filled welcome reception at the Sefarad Center, a site donated by the city of Madrid and a short walk to the city center. We sang and drank wine to bring our communities together! L’chaim!