Category Archives: Cantors Mission
The following were my remarks for our congregation’s Shabbat celebration of the 100th anniversary of our Boy Scout Troup 14. (Thanks to Cantor Jack Chomsky and Rabbi Jeffrey A. Summit, Ph.D. for their background info/wording)
For a few minutes, I want to take us back 100 years to a far different place than Jacksonville Florida. It’s 1919. Religious conversion is a key component to the British colonization of Africa. Tribal chief and military leader Semei Kakungulu, who had founded the town of Mbale, Uganda, was evangelized by Anglican Church missionaries. He hoped to use his connections with the British so that he might be recognized as ruler of Uganda’s eastern region. When the British didn’t give Kakungulu what he desired, he returned to Mbale and rejected the Anglican church. He joined a group known as the Malakites who took a literal reading of the bible- Saturday was the Sabbath, they would eat no pork; eventually breaking from the group to follow an even stricter reading of the text, all while studying the Luganda translation of the Hebrew bible. In 1919, he and his followers embraced circumcision. Kakungulu created a Sabbath liturgy that included reading selections from the Hebrew bible in Luganda, chanting selections from the Song of Moses, the penultimate section of the Hebrew bible. The community, known as the Abayudaya, persisted for some years with little contact with the outside Jewish world, at first not even aware that there WAS such a world.
In time, though, they crossed paths with a few Jews who were living or working in Africa and shifted their practice to resemble the outside world. A quantum leap in their connection to the Jewish world came in the 1960’s when an Israeli graduate student named Arye Oded learned about the community and established connections with it. He later became Israeli ambassador to a number of countries in Africa, including Uganda. Oded died two weeks ago at age 89, a Professor Emeritus at the Hebrew University.
When Idi Amin outlawed other religions during the 1970s, the Abayudaya community suffered as most of its population converted out of Judaism. Beginning in the 1980s, the community revitalized under the leadership of one family in particular, brothers JJ, Aaron, Seth and Gershom, who infused new music and energy into the community. There were more connections with the rest of the Jewish world, especially through the Masorti (Conservative) and Progressive (Reform) Movements, and the international Jewish organizations Kulanu and B’chol Lashon.
In recent years the community has been led by one of those brothers, now RABBI Gershom Sizomu, who trained for the rabbinate at Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. Rabbi Sizomu not only leads his congregation and the organized Jewish community of Uganda, he is also a member of the Ugandan Parliament, serving as a minister in the opposition party. Rabbi Gershom, a true mensch, gives much of his state salary to provide for his community. His brother Aaron Kintu Moses runs the Hadassah Primary School. Another brother JJ is leader of another community in the village of Putti. Brother Seth Jonadab runs the Semei Kokungulu High School and played in most of the services we attended.
Recently, the community has finally been recognized by the Jewish Agency for Israel, although there are those in Israel that questioned their Jewish identity because of their community’s conversion through Masorti/Conservative rabbis. And while most of the community do not speak about making aliyah, there are a number of individuals who have fought to obtain study VISAs in Israel.
Our Cantors Assembly mission began as two part solidarity and one part musicological: to record not only the music of the community, but to hear their story through personal interviews and recordings. We recorded these interviews under the framework of the Haggadah- a retelling of the journey from the slavery of Idi Amin to the modern freedoms they have to express their Judaism. This was a listening tour- a strange endeavour for cantors, similar to a silent retreat for rabbis. I also felt the need to follow what the series Star Trek referred to as the “prime directive”- to not disturb people in their element- to just listen and observe. Knowing full well that Rabbi Gershom and his family lived in the States for a few years, that visitors have brought in their own melodies, we had some idea that the music was already a hybrid of what came before western influence and the melodies that we hear each and every Shabbat here in the U.S.
As we prepared to board our 15 hr flight to Nairobi, each of us was interviewed about why we chose to come along for this journey. I spoke about this notion of about a miracle- how I was looking to figure out how this tiny group in the most remote of places is not just surviving but thriving. How 2500 Jews make a name for themselves amongst 40 million Ugandans. We think of ourselves as a minority at 2.5 percent in this country. Imagine being .00006% of the population.
Our time was spent meeting with many of the community leaders. I spent a few hours each day doing in depth interviews learning about the collective experience being Jewish in Uganda. We talked to the generation who had revitalized the community in the 1980s and the younger leaders who have a great thirst for knowledge. Uganda, and this community, are young. Very young. 77% of Uganda falls into the Generation Z range. Walking into services, the average age of the congregation may have hovered in the low 20s. For while the community is 100 years old, they have seen a rebirth in the last 10-15 years.
We found the answer to this miracle. We found it in the beaming joy of our hosts who wore large, beautiful, colorful kippot that community members had hand knitted.
While we were warned not to wear our kippot in public, we were greeted in Entebbe by our guide and head driver who wore their kippot with pride. And so we, in turn, felt proud to wear our kippot throughout our trip. As a heads up, I brought back a number of kippot that will soon be on sale in the Center gift shop, proceeds going to support the Abayudaya.
We found the miracle in the depth of the questions and answers of the Abayudayan youth. We interviewed a few 20somethings who are starting a community in the capital of Kampala. We asked each of them what questions they had about Judaism. One of 20somethings thought for a brief second and asked, “Why isn’t Tisha B’av, a day in which we mourn the loss of our temple, a more prominent holiday in the Jewish world?” I could ask any 20something from our community what questions they have about Judaism, and I’m fairly certain Tisha B’av would not crack the top 100 questions.
Life is hard for the Jews of Uganda. The only area schools in the early 20th century were started by Catholics and Protestants. They required conversion for entry. This meant that those who chose to keep their Judaism public, that entire community, lagged some 20 years behind the rest of their neighbors. Today, some 90% of the population is unemployed, making ends meet by selling crafts or produce. A teenager attending one of our morning learning sessions was asked why he wasn’t in a rush to get to school- he mentioned that his family couldn’t afford the fees.
Many do not have access to drinkable water, often making long treks to the local unclean water tap. You’re lucky if you have two meals a day. Most do not have access to electricity. Yet we saw an example of the extraordinary work of the Tobin Health clinic when we met a youth who attended Kabbalat Shabbat who had just received an IV for Malaria treatment who was up and around after just 24 hours. We visited with amazing NGOs connected to the United States and Israel who are slowly bringing access to clean water and electricity to communities one by one- and you can see the palpable difference it makes- you see it in the schools- in improved test scores, in enabling girls to continue schooling because they have private and clean bathrooms.
We found the miracle in the faith of the community. It didn’t matter if some of the synagogues lacked electricity. In one case, in the small village of Nalubembe, the synagogue, a brick structure with no roof, doesn’t survive from season to season. We asked what would it cost to build a synagogue- a brick building with a roof, no electricity: the equivalent of $2000. $2000 for a prayer space. In another synagogue in the village of Namatubma, as they await approval for a new clean water source, we asked the community’s spiritual leader, Shadrach, what his community needed most. Shadrach, for context, is studying to be a rabbi under the ALEPH program. He came to his role as leader when the elder of the community stood up one day and proclaimed that he was retiring- he looked to find a new leader who fit 3 criteria- someone who was engaged or married, over a certain age, and had a college degree. Shadrach was the only person in the community who checked all the boxes. So we asked him this question, what do they need?…and he replied “A Torah.” A community that does not have access to clean water, wants a Torah. Torah is water.
We found the miracle in the joy of a group of singers in the village of Nasenyi, home of the chairman of the Abayudaya. We were greeted by such beautiful music and dancing wherever we went, but the face of one of these singers stayed with me (show picture). The featured singer of their “choir” began losing her voice as the group sang Psalm after Psalm in their native Luganda, but as I filmed and photographed, I’ve never seen a more passionate singer in my life- it was a full body experience, and her full smile brought all of us to tears.
Most of our prayer experiences took place in the main village of Nabogoye Hill. Services were often co-led by Cantors and the local community. We heard familiar melodies, new melodies, and new languages. We listened to an entire congregation sing. Sing well. Sing in hebrew, in Luganda. We saw cultural differences, as most of the torah and many of the psalms were chanted in Luganda, shoes were removed outside the synagogue,
and women often chose to sit separately- however, this was a cultural difference, not a religious one, as each community is extremely egalitarian.
We found the miracle come full circle during a special ceremony on Super Bowl Sunday. Following a World Wide Wrap Shaharit service, our delegation assembled by the village guest house. One of our colleagues,Jerry Berkowitz, a cantor serving a congregation in Manitowic, Wisconsin, had procured one of his congregation’s five torahs to be donated as a gift to future generations of Abayudaya.
Jerry stood under a chuppah as we processed towards the synagogue singing and dancing with the Torah. From the other direction, members of the community processed towards our group singing their own songs of welcome and celebration. As two separate colleagues said, “it was right out of the musical Music Man.” A seemingly random reference, I’ll be performing as Salesman #5 in the Martin J Gottlieb Day School production of Music Man Jr during the first weekend of April.
As we came together, our voices joined in one song as we took the torah into the synagogue to be read. Rabbi Gershom chanted the penultimate chapter of the book of Devarim in Hebrew, the same chapter that Semei Kokungulu had memorized in his native Luganda (this had been memorized by the early Abayudaya as a song since the Torah says we are supposed to memorize it. Their minhag had been to recite it in Luganda by memory). The cantors shared an aliyah. Our hosts shared aliyot. It was a morning filled with expressions of pride, depth, faith, joy and passion.
And, as you might expect from a cantorial mission, they brought us the miracle of music. In between each aliyah, the Abayudayan congregations welcome the person taking the aliyah with a Halleluyah song. Not only does it celebrate the individual having an aliyah, it reminds those in the pews that they are very much a part of the torah service, when often it can seem like a very frontal portion of our worship. Throughout our time in Nabogoye, our hosts prayed, prayed well. They were insightful and inspiring. I’ll be speaking more about their music next Friday night.
All the Abayudaya are searching for is what any community or really any individual ever wants from others: acceptance. It’s hard to imagine that anyone ever questioned this group’s commitment to Jewish life and practice. As we taught them about Jewish practice and song, we learned ten fold on how to bring community to life. Abayudaya is Luganda for “Jew”. We are all Abayudaya. We all have the potential to bring these attributes into our own practice of Judaism. The torah portion during our visit was Mishpatim, a section in which we read the words, Naaseh V’nishma, “we will do and we will listen.” This is the story of the Abayudaya. They created unbelievable traditions and are ready to listen, thirsting for a greater understanding of Judaism. And, in turn, by listening and learning from this remarkable community, I hope that I and we can do Judaism as well as they do.
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!
Good morning (or evening)! We’ve had a wonderful first day in Barcelona after our overnight flight from Atlanta. While we missed a stunning a tour of the Barcelona Jewish Quarter (known as El Call), we were able to catch the morning presentation by Professor Berk entitled, “The ‘Greatest’ Year in Spanish History. In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue…and two other things occurred.”
As I mentioned in my initial post, I had some idea of where Professor Berk would take the lectures, and in fact his train of logic included parallels (and differences) to his analysis of the German Jewish journey from our Germany trip 4 years ago. It is fascinating to see these two stories of German Jewry and Spanish Jewry, take center stage 4 years apart (in lecture time) and hundreds of years apart in real time.
A few notes from Berk:
1492 was a great year for Spanish Catholics. With the conquest of Granada on January 1, the last stand of Muslim Spain was now over.
On March 31 (I’ve mentioned this as being the only factoid I know about my birthday other than sharing it with Al Gore) of the same year, in the Ambassador’s room at the Alhambra, the edict was signed to expel the Jews from Spain. This was the culmination of a long series of events. Berk takes us back:
711- Muslims cross the Straights of Gibraltar to take Spain. At the same time, Berk brings up the Mongol horsemen who rode their way through multiple continents. The question arises: why move? And in this case, why are the Arabs expanding (or leaving) in 711? Jihad (spreading faith by war)? Food shortage? The classical definition of Jihad wins out.
When the Arabs go on the March, 97% of Spain is conquered. This is a “relatively” good time for the Jews. This academic hyopthesis, known as La Convivencia (the coexistence) claims that during this period from the early eight century until 1492, the Muslims, Christians and Jews lived in “relative” peace.
I mentioned this in my earlier blog, but Berk reminds us of this relationship between Jew and Muslim as parallel to what we learned 4 years ago. He states “Don’t look at German-Jewish relations through the prism of the Holocaust, just like you shouldn’t look at the Muslim-Jewish relations through the prism of the present. Times for Jews were “relatively” good as Dhimmis (protected people’s)- legitimate but inferior contributors to society.
So what happens in 1492? The Church is on the March, unified, while there is disunity amongst the Arabs. This is the time of “militant orders” (it wasn’t uncommon to find militant monks).
And the Jews? As we know, in history, perception of reality is what matters. The growing mythology that began with Matthew Chapter 27 has taken form in two ways- Jews are guilty of ritual murder and host desecration so (rabbis supposedly stabbing wafers). In spite of the fact that 1/3 of the Jewish community in Spain opts to convert, there is a growing fear that Judaism will subvert Christianity from within. “Old” Christians are upset- and racist thought comes to the forefront with this notion of “purity of blood.” That was the fear of the church, but the state and the masses also had fears- the legislation that barred Jews from having certain rights was null and void when 1/3 of them converted. There’s lots more to write but that’s a good start on Berk’s lecture ….
We enjoyed a delicious meal at a local all Vegetarian restaurant Teresa Carles (highly recommended!), and later we scarfed down Grilled lamp chops at Maccabi Kosher! Our group continued to Northeast Barcelona, seeing the great works of Antoni Gaudi, whose architecture defines much of the modern city. We passed La Pedrera, an undulating apartment block completed in 1912. This was Gaudi’s last civic work before dedicating 46 years of his life to the Sagrada Familia. We toured Parc Guell, a 14 year project by Gaudi in which the patron Eusebi Guell envisioned gardens, artistic villas and public spaces. This is home to famous mosaics, the most famous being a whimsical dragon. Gaudi’s perspective took into account that no two things in this universe are alike, and the variety of styles and colors incorporated into the park make for a magical experience.
We finished our touring for the day at the impactful Sagrada Familia. While the first stone was laid in 1882, the up and coming Gaudi took over as principal architect a year later and continued with the project until his untimely death in 1926. The church is filled with rich colors, mosaic tiling and gargoyles, as well as a helicoidal stone stairway. From inside and outside, and in spite of the fact that Gaudi has been deceased for the past 90 years as the church continues its construction, the project is totally Gaudi.
The project is financed solely by the millions who visit the sight (set to complete on the 100th anniversary of Gaudi’s death in 2026). No political or religious financial aid. This fact, alongside the other spaces Gaudi worked on throughout Barcelona, paint an inspiring tail- that creativity is meant for the masses- we all need colors and spaces for radical thought – from our apartments to our places of worship.
In this week’s torah portion we learn about inheritance- the daughter’s Zelophechad wanting to inherit land, and Joshua inheriting the leadership of the Jewish people. These inheritances are new and out of the ordinary. They remind us that there is more than one shade of inheritance. Inheritance is something we receive from both family AND community. What are the kinds of things we inherit from family AND community? It’s not just inherited land or leadership, as we find in this week’s parsha- there are inherited traits, inherited traditions. Focusing on inherited traditions from family and community, what is OUR responsibility to preserve THESE inheritances.
I have distinct memories of my childhood: Friday night, guests visiting our home for Shabbat dinner. There’s awkward point in the midst of our introductory blessings, during the Kiddush, when I place my hand on my forehead and pray that my father does not embarrass us with his “family” version of the Friday night Kiddush. He insisted that this was in fact the right way to chant, and the Jewish masses had it all wrong.
Fast-forward to Cantorial School, year one. The following piece of sheet music is placed in front of me during a Nusah practicum class. The setting for Kiddush was composed by mid to late 19th century German composer Louis Lewandowski. Father to many familiar melodies from our Shabbat and Holiday services, Lewandowski was given the title “royal musical director” and was later appointed choirmaster in the Neue Synagogue of Berlin, for which he composed the entire musical service.
Following class, I frantically called my dad to let him know that the way he chanted Friday night Kiddush was in fact same way the composer has it written down in front me. What a great “you were right” moment for a father and son! But the message of this piece goes much much deeper. For this isn’t a Holzer family tradition, this is a set composition, each word given specific notation by its composer because those words needed to come alive in a particular way.
There are two words that stick out as being variants to what we might call our “standard” Friday night Kiddush melody. Even for those who don’t read music, it’s easy to pick out that the words: “zikaron”, reminder, and “zecher”, remember. For Shabbat reminds us of both creation (zikaron l’maaseh v’reishit) and the exodus (zecher l’tziat mitzrayim)- so that we remember both the awesomeness of creation AND the difficult journey to freedom.
The musical irony is that time has simplified these two phrases, as if they were forgotten to the masses. But the music has the power to drive the meaning of the text. Lewandowski wanted us to focus on remembrance. My father chanting that second phrase, “zecher l’tziat mitzrayim” sticks out for me because we should remember the entirety of the exodus- the struggles and hardships, to better acknowledge and appreciate the journey to freedom.
Lewandowski- great Jewish composer from Germany; Zikaron, Remembrance: These were some of the thoughts and questions going through my mind as I prepared a few weeks ago for our Cantors Mission to Germany.
How do we remember, and how much do we choose to remember? To give proper kavod to those who were lost, its important to view the entirety of German Jewish life- past, present and future. While there are many lessons and experiences to share in the coming months, there are two stories in particular I’d like to share with you all this morning, to give you a sense of the importance of both personal and collective memory for us as a people.
We journey back to 1938, to the Neue Synagogue. This is Lewandowski’s home from 50 years earlier, a place where his choral works inspired the melodies that are the cornerstone of our musical liturgy. It was one of the most notable centers of Reform Judaism in the world. On Nov 9, 1938, “Kristallnacht”, the Neue Synagogue was set ablaze, Torah scrolls desecrated, f
urniture smashed and other combustible furnishings piled up and set on fire. The main sanctuary that once seated 3,000 people will not be restored.
Today, services are held at the Neue Synagogue, though most of the restored areas are used for a museum. Members of the Cantors Assembly Mission visited on the Jewish tour of Berlin. The museum includes ritual artifacts and photographs from the German Jewish community. The group finally entered a cavernous entryway into what used to be the main sanctuary. In the far corner there is a glass case with a book open to the title page “Kol Rina Utefillah”, Bote and Bock Publishing. Published in 1882, this is one of two volumes of Louis Lewandowski. To the right is a picture of a young Lewandowski. In this holy space are the composer, his brilliant work, and the spot where it all first came together. This alone is a spiritual experience- how often do we get to see an artist, their canvas, their inspiration, and their studio.
As I look to the center of the room, there is a black and white picture of the old sanctuary plastered on the wall. One can only imagine what was once there but no longer. It’s within this context that a few cantors begin an impromptu chanting of Lewandowski’s “Tzadik Katamar”, which you all know from Friday night. More and more join in his choral setting, creating a 4 part harmony, as the sound reverberates off the walls. Normally, we might hear a piece of music that takes us back to when we first heard it- where we were, what we were doing. Imagine a melody transporting us to a time and place when the melody itself was first heard, connecting us to place and people. I close my eyes, having the context of this music, this man, and this space. I picture the sanctuary alive and booming from seams because of this melody. The group understood the magnitude of the moment and embraced it. Imagine if we could understand the context of where we are, where we’ve been, what we are doing and why? Think of where we are today- where we’ve all come from; our own personal exoduses to reach this place, this day. If we embrace those moments, we can create such powerful experiences.
Having met with members of the German Jewish community as well as political and religious dignitaries, I believe that Jewish life is thriving in Germany. I’ve debated whether or not our group did enough outreach and interactive dialogue with the local communities, but I think that our goal was not only to see German Jewish Life, but to bring Jewish life to Germany. This was accomplished through our Shabbat morning service dubbed “Shabbos at the Ritz.” This four hour service was led by 45 cantors- you could have called it the great cantorial duel. Having only a page or two of liturgy to work with, each cantor found ways to weave in cantorial pieces, congregational melodies, and choral works. Many of the melodies were unfamiliar or written just for this service, but the kehillah of over 300 embraced these new melodies. Everyone was singing and dancing. It had to be the most energetic and musical 4 hr, Shabbat experience I’ve ever had. It’s not every day that I get to spiritually journey to 45 different cantors’ synagogues (it would normally take years for me to physically travel to all my colleagues’ synagogues) and so I’ve returned with a number of melodies I hope to introduce in the near future. Here’s one in particular that stood out. It’s always a thrill when a congregation can hear a melody being sung by its composer, some learning the melody for the first time. Ofer Barnoy, the composer, led us in his L’dor Vador two weeks ago. Let’s sing!
From Generation to Generation- it is our responsibility to have what Lewandowski so emphasized: “zikaron”, reminders. If we don’t embed these stories places and people into our personal memory, they will not find traction in our collective memory. The charge “never forget”- often associated exclusively with the Holocaust, does in include the honoring of the memory of those individuals who were lost, but at the same time, we must recognize the and remember the culture that may still be preserved. May the melodies we sing unlock that collective memory. May the music on the page and in our hearts continue to be that anchor to our history and people. Let us never forget the magnitude of being here today, the greatness of being in this community, of having the freedom to shout God’s praises each and every day. Shabbat Shalom
When I first began posting videos of our trip to Germany, YouTube required me to fill in what “category” these videos fell under. Without hesitation, I selected not “music”, not “entertainment”, but “education.” I was struck by one of Professor Berke’s final statements of our Germany mission: “Write and recall.”
Write and recall. The goal of this blog is not to write and pack up these memories in a photo album. This is something to revisit often to remind ourselves “never again.” The photo above was taken at Dachau Concentration Camp, where barracks holding thousands of captives once stood. I’ve heard the concept of “out of the ashes” something is reborn. I know that flowers may bloom in dark places. Yet I am struck that this plant grows amid the ROCKS and stones of Dachau. In Judaism, we place rocks (as the symbol of God, “Tzur”, as our rock) on the gravestones to remember loved ones and teachers. Flowers, while beautiful, whither away over time. But in remembering, marking these places and this moments as holy, we make sure that this sapling will grow to be “k’erez bal’vanon yisgeh”, thriving like a cedar of Lebanon.
Judaism is not pediatric. This is not something we should expect our children or grandchildren to do unless we live Jewish lives, visit these memories, these places, and recall what happened there. For me, these rocks that fill the roads of Dachau are there for a reason. They are there for Jews and non-Jews alike to pick up, mark the moment and remember what happened during the Shoah. Lo Tishkach, you should not forget. May this musical journey inspire others to visit places of horror AND places of hope, placing a rock on the grave of the unknown, so that while their names may not be known, their memories WILL be for a blessing.
Our final day in Germany begins with a 2 hr drive to Salzburg, Austria, home to Mozart and the Sound of Music. After visiting some of the locations of major events in the movie, we start our Mozart tour, viewing his hang out spots, his home, and his birthplace. Amid the windy streets and open markets, it really feels like a quaint European city. I really feel like I’m in Austria (whatever that means- guess you have to visit to find out!).
One of the cool, unexpected highlights of the excursion is finding our way into the Cathedral for a 1pm concert delivered by two teen choirs from Australia/New Zealand. As a side note, while in Germany, I have seen a lot of teenage choirs traveling throughout Europe. What an experience that must be!
Prior to our last concert held at the gorgeous Hercules Hall (entitled “From Mahler to Mack the knife”), we are treated to a concluding message from Professor. This is a unique opportunity to see how Professor Berke’s reflections align with my own over these past few days. Before we get to that, I was thinking of some of the highlights of our trip:
- A whirlwind musical journey to 45 synagogues (through 45 cantors) during our “Shabbos at the Ritz” Saturday morning service
- Having congregants exposed to the inner workings of the Cantors Assembly, the fun we have, and the music we create. On Tuesday night, for example, we had a late night promenade concert (normally we have 3 or 4 during a convention, following a regularly scheduled evening concert..these normally don’t START until midnight). While we normally have a separate space for this, we were situated in the lobby of the hotel. I must make note that there was a large Arab contingent here at the Sofitel (the menus/info in each room were translated first into Arabic, then French, then English). It was awesome to have for us to lead Israeli dancing and to get the whole lobby clapping. It was amazing to see 4 or 5 Arabic women dressed in traditional clothing clapping their hands to Bashana habaa!
- Those “you had to be there” moments- Munich Memorial & Tzaddik Katamar at the Neue Synagogue. It’s interesting that we sang Lewandowski’s Tzaddik Katamar 4 times on our trip: Friday Night at the Concert Hall, Sunday at the Neue Synagogue, Tuesday at the Ohel Jakob Synagogue in Munich, and at our closing concert at the Hercules Hall. Nothing compared to the energy and reverberation of our experience at the Neue synagogue, in the face of where the sanctuary once stood. It was also the most impromptu of them all. The music of Lewandowski is important, but the words are just as important to this mission (see final post).
Now on to Berke’s lecture. Again we begin with a discussion of why didn’t people do more to stop these atrocities: the role of the Vatican, as the Pope never uttered a word to oppose the Nazi state; the role of FDR, or lack thereof.
Berke suggests four lessons we can learn about/from the Holocaust:
- Beware of racism (in any form)
- Evil triumphs when good men and women say nothing; it must be stopped wherever it is, even when there’s a price to pay
- Today we cheapen words like “hero” and “heroism”. An athlete may do something extraordinary, but they aren’t a hero. We know what heroes are from World War II- righteous gentiles; survivors who saw things that no one should see, lost families, spit in the face of history and created new lives.
- History is not stagnant. It is fluid, always changing. Do not fight old battles- we are not at war with Germany or with Christianity.
I nod my head as Berke reminds us that it would be a serious mistake to think that this trip would be about the Holocaust. This again goes back to my original “between the clouds and the earth” comment in my opening blog. It’s important to appreciate German Jewry before the Holocaust because it reminds us of all the history that was lost, and all the potential history that could have been made- future doctors, politicians, thinkers; future mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters. On the other end of the spectrum, I had hoped to get a sense of what’s going on in Germany today. I had hoped for more dialogue and interaction with the local Jewish communities (a la Musical Outreach Initiative), but nonetheless, I feel strongly that a) Jewish life has returned and b) Germany is fully recognizing the horrors that were committed here, and feels a sense of shame and remorse.
As we reflect on July 4th, it’s crazy to think of all of the changes here in Europe. Europe has turned a corner- no passport checks, as people begin to think of themselves as European, not just German. As Germany quickly re-established itself as a world leader, they realized that national power and prosperity are based on history, enlightenment and the sciences, areas that were decimated and neglected during the war. The “east Jews” who were frowned upon in the early 20th century are now the ones rebuilding Germany, as 150,000 Russian Jews have made their way to Germany.
Note- I’ll be posting my pictures to facebook and most of the videos on YouTube and/or Facebook