Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Miracle by the Shore, A Mirage in the Sand

A hand picks up the remote control and presses the start button to resume the film: the man whose leg was frozen in mid-air for several weeks begins to ascend the bus, and the line of people waiting patiently behind him starts moving forward. The bus fills up, the door closes, and the bus goes forward out of the parking lot. We have resumed our journey to Ashdod, exactly where we left off about four weeks and several essays ago. Heaven forbid that I should deliberately mislead anyone. Anyone who read the previous article “On the Horn of a Dilemma” (in which we described the valiant and successful campaign to repel the Egyptian army in 1948) would be under the impression that our tour group would be getting back on the bus and heading from this isolated spot under a bridge (the most northern advance by the Egyptians) up to Ashdod. In fact, to fit everything in we were supposed to see, we toured this modern city first and only then went to the site of the battle – and from there on to Negba, a kibbutz in the area which also played a pivotal role in the battle for independence and sovereignty. But a writer has no logistical constraints, and therefore in this imaginary film version, we can proceed chronologically through Jewish history, the securing of the State of Israel in 1948 preceding the establishment of the city in the 1950’s.
Like most of the people on our bus, I hadn’t given much thought to the goings-on in this sea-side community. I remember once a visiting rabbi from there coming to Beth Aaron, our shul in Teaneck, to raise money for an emergency medical center in Ashdod. I know that our lift arrived in the port there (we never had to go there to sign the required papers thanks to our man Ed Singer from Sonigo, who took care of everything in Jerusalem), and that’s about it. Barbara had been there – in 1968 – because it was the closest town to escape from Kvutzat Yavneh, where she was learning Ivrit and, among other things, picking olives. Back then, Ashdod was a sleepy, rather dull town of mostly Moroccans, (this being one of the settlement communities which Ben-Gurion used to dump the tens and hundreds of thousands of Sephardic refugees from North Africa) as well as a sizeable number of Jews from India. (Barbara relates the story of Miriam, a shy young woman from India, who surprisingly spoke no English. She was with a group of Ulpanists who were sitting in a small coffee shop in Ashdod. Within minutes, several dozen young Indian men “just happened” to arrive; each one making an immediate detour to come and talk to Miriam, who for the first time in her life was the star of the show. Barbara also relates a wonderful story about taking a taxi from the kibbutz to Ashdod. As they were nearing their destination, the driver noticed two men engaged in Israel’s national pastime, arguing. He slammed on the brakes and jumped out of his monit, just so he could join in the argument. Some things haven’t changed!) But, while many of the development towns which the Labor Party created remain just what they were, pockets of poverty and unemployment off-the-beaten path, Ashdod became a demographic Cinderella. The three reasons why: location, location, location. It is right on the Mediterranean, with the bluest waters you can ever imagine; it’s a natural port; it’s close enough to Tel Aviv and environs to make daily commuting realistic.
So when the tidal wave of aliyah from the then Soviet Union began in the 1980’s, this town became very popular. And then the French, who as a general rule tend to hang out near the Mediterranean, started to move in. Now, this dumpy town of maybe 40,000 has become the fifth largest city in Israel, a growing metropolis of over 200,000 Jews of all religious stripes (I understand that there are only several hundred Anglos scattered throughout the city; unfortunately, not currently a destination for American olim.) Our actual tour bus wended its way past the beaches, through the streets of the many sections of the city, (how many communities in the world have a street named after Johannes Brahms?) into the prosperous shopping areas with their glamorous stores, past all the new construction (only some of it for foreign investors). At one point, looking at the large pastel-colored buildings right off the ocean, I could imagine that I was back in Palm Beach County, Florida. You could almost hear a collection of hearts swelling with pride on our bus. The majority of us on this tiyul were expat Americans from the Jerusalem area who had either never been here before or were last here thirty years ago, and, as I said, had no idea what to expect. We were collectively overwhelmed with the standard of living in this metropolis beside the blue waters of the Mediterranean and its transformation from what had been essentially a large sand pile with a few thousand poor people. (Just so that you should know, there are problems here too: the port is officially closed on Shabbat, but among the many synagogues, there are a few clandestine churches for Russian back-sliders; the air quality is poor – just like New Jersey; a new hospital may or may not actually get built.)
It is very easy for a Jew, living in America, to retain an image of Israel as a still-poor country – after all, most of the representatives who are sent to the States to interact with the organized Jewish community are trying to raise money for a long list of worthy projects and unmet needs which can still be filled by the generosity of American donors. But to put things in their proper perspective, according to a study from 2007 (which you can find on the web), the rate of Jewish poverty in Israel is less than in the United States, where as many as 20% of all Jews fall into that category. The poverty rate here in The Land is estimated at about 25%, but half of that is from the non-Jewish part of the population. (Let me go on record as not being in favor of Arab poverty, but we are dealing there with difficult politically charged issues.) And then you toss into the mix that a H-U-G-E part of that remaining twelve or thirteen percent is made up of what I call the “willfully poor,” the planned poverty of our friends in the Haredi community, where officially more than half of the men do not work and where extremely large families are the norm. Do a little arithmetic, include in your calculations that there are large pockets of poverty in Jerusalem and in the still-isolated development towns, and you can understand that there are many places in the country – including a little bit east of Yerushalayim – where a lot of people are doing pretty well – by Israeli standards. And the more you travel throughout this tiny Land, the more you witness the economic miracle that is going on here.
But back to 1948 and the desperate defense of our borders, a time which seems so long ago and far away. As we were riding on the bus, our tour guide made one remark in passing (to be clear: it was the remark, not the bus that was doing the passing) which I have been thinking about ever since. There are no Arab villages in this part of the country, and that is because they were simply obliterated in the 1948 war. The Palmach command asked Ben-Gurion for permission to continue this campaign across the country to Hebron, but the request was denied. So while there are relatively few Arabs in the area around Tel Aviv (except for Jaffa), there are many left in the area around Jerusalem,. And here we arrive (intellectually, not on the bus) at another dilemma, one in which our Western, liberal heritage, which looks with abhorrence at ethnic cleansing, is emphatically at odds with our Torah tradition. “You shall possess the Land and you shall settle in it……. But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the Land before you, those who are left shall be pins in your eyes and a barrier in your sides, and they will harass you upon the Land in which you dwell. And it shall be that what I had meant to do to them, I shall do to you (from Bamidbar, “Numbers” chapter 33). Now it can be said that the Torah was discussing a situation in which the inhabitants of the Land were idol worshippers. It can be argued that the Arabs of today who encourage or countenance using children as suicide bombers and in general worship Death are practicing a form of avodah zara. Whether one accepts this line of reasoning or not, whether one understands the passage quoted above as a specific commandment applicable today – or not, there can be no question – except from the “none so blind as those who will not see” crowd – that it is some mighty good, prescient advice, a dead-on prediction of what has come to pass. How else can it be put? From the eighth century, when Islam conquered the Land and forbade Jews from owning land, so, that for the first time since the time of Joshua, Jews were no longer a majority there – until the present day, it is fairly obvious from their words and deeds that Arabs do not want Jews living in the Land in any significant numbers PERIOD – even though the descendents of Ishmael have done precious little with it except to place their domes and mosques on our holiest sites.
When the children of Israel entered The Land under Joshua’s leadership, the inhabitants were given a choice: “Stay, Leave or Fight.” Imagine how different things would be today, if we had told the Arabs in 1948: “You have to make a choice. You may live here in peace as residents of the state of Israel, and we will be a lot more obliging to you than you ever would have been to us. You may leave and take all your movable property with you, a nicety which has rarely been offered to us. Three, you may choose to fight us, in which case we will show you the same mercy or lack thereof as you would have shown us. Option four: there is no option four. Please return to the main menu and choose from options one to three. But you can’t hang up the phone until you have chosen one of them. In other words, it would be their issue, their problem, their choice, and their dilemma.
But consider how Chaim Weizman, a scientist and political leader of truly great intelligence and probity, (just like today’s leaders!) approached the issue. He had no illusions about whom he was dealing with. He wrote in his autobiography “Trial and Error,” “Conversations and negotiations with Arabs are not unlike chasing a mirage in the desert: full of promise and good to look at, but likely to lead you to death by thirst.” (Has anybody ever said it better?!!) Yet as he wrote on “the day following the historic decision of the United Nations,” in 1947, “I have spoken of the problem of our internal relations with our Arab minority; we must also face the arduous task of achieving understanding and co-operation with the Arabs of the Middle East.” Later in the same paragraph, he wrote about the “fear in the hearts of many Arabs” which “must be eliminated in every way.”
Do you see what he’s done, and by extension what the secular Zionist leadership, good socialists and humanists, did? Created Option Four: Never mind options one two and three; it’s not your problem, it’s our problem. You don’t have to live with us; we have to live with you. You don’t have to “understand” us; we need to “understand” you. And after doing your best to wipe us off the map and off the face of the earth, and when, by the grace of G-d and the valor of so many, you failed, and now you are afraid of us…… That too is our problem, as if a little fear might not be a good thing. It does wonders for focusing one’s mental energies.
I think I’m on to something, a dirty little secret which I’m willing to share: once you assume ownership of a problem, you assume the onus for finding the solution. And then, whether you like it or not, you will have also tacitly assumed responsibility for causing the problem in the first place. Perhaps this will explain why our leaders are chasing the “Palestinians,” begging them to take almost all of our Land, and why they are holding out for the whole kit and caboodle. In effect, the Arabs have wisely chosen equal parts of all three options. Millions of them have decided To Stay, while Fighting on their own terms, and at the same time, accusing us of making them Leave. Once you have a problem securely fastened inside your backpack, it is hard to dislodge it. But that is what we have to do, and return it to its rightful owner.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Mayors, Music, and Mobile Phones

Stupidity is like a cancer; left unchecked it will destroy everything in its path.
Here I am, minding my own business (an excellent question might be, what “my business” is; but never mind), preparing to resume work on my description of our tiyul to Ashdod. We had left off just as our group was about to get back on the bus; and it is as if someone had hit the pause button on the video, and there is some guy with one leg frozen in the air and a line of very patient people behind him. But being the A.D.D. type that I am, I am easily distracted by things that amaze me, drive me crazy, or I think are exceptionally important. So the guy on the screen is going to have to keep his leg in the air for a little longer; I hope he doesn’t get tired!
Back in The States, my main bone of contention was the ultra-secularization of society: the turning of sports arenas into bar rooms, or taking our wonderful mass media (movies, radio, TV, the internet), and turning them into a cesspool, so we have to worry about our children and even ourselves using them. Here in The Land, that problem is not as great – for Olim, especially geezers like me. I have zero connection to Israeli pop culture; neither does anyone in my family. It’s pretty hard to get excited about the excruciatingly lame Israeli popular music, and few American immigrants over the age of twenty every develop any interest in what seems to be the rest of the world’s passion, known as kederegal, football, or, to us, soccer – which is everyone else’s venue for ultra-boorish behavior at a sporting event. And while I am always only a mouse-click away from my Yahoo home page, the names, pictures, and stories about America’s celebrities du jour seem even more remote than when I was in New Jersey. Here, one of my concerns is the polar opposite: our ultra-Orthodox brethren (if I can use the term “ultra-secularists,” I can just as well call some people “ultra-Orthdox,” “ultra” having the connotation of too much of a good thing). Now I’m a live-and-let-live kind of a guy. I try not to get too excited about what other people do. Why get steamed up about a Haredi guy wearing a fur streimel on an August day when it’s close to 100 F in Jerusalem; after all, it’s literally and figuratively no sweat off my brow. But when the Haredi leadership gets carried away in a way that affects the rest of us, I feel obliged to take notice and report on it to my devoted readership.
Whatever happens nationally, there will be local elections in November for mayor in cities and towns throughout The Land. Here in Maale Adumim, the incumbent, Benny Casriel has an approval rating in the eighties and is running unopposed. In Jerusalem, the incumbent, Uri Lupolianski, might be blamed by some voters for the incredible mess that the construction for the Light Rail is causing, and this might have affected his run for re-election. But we’ll never k now, because he can’t run. Why? Because his rabbis won’t let him! You see, in 2003 when Mr. Lupolianski first ran for mayor, replacing Ehud Olmert (may his name be soon forgotten), his candidacy was predicated on a deal between different Haredi parties. Now that it’s time for the next election, these deal makers want to run someone from the other party, so Meir Porash is now the candidate of the Haredim in Jerusalem. I’m sure that he is a fine and worthy man, someone I would be honored to shake hands with, but there is something about the blatancy of this which sticks in my craw (wherever that is). Why don’t we just have a rotating monarchy? Or pick a different random rabbi out of a hat every four or five years? No need to bother the voters, or worry whether the candidate is qualified.
The fact is that Rabbi Porash has zero support outside – and little inside – his community, and if the election were held today, it is likely that Nir Barkat, the opposition leader of the Jerusalem City Council and a self-made millionaire (he apparently has the support of former Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu) would be the winner in a landslide, with the gazillionaire Arkadi Gaydamak running a distant third. What to do? Poised to enter the fray is Aryeh Deri, the former Shas leader who was convicted of bribery in 1999. If he can find a loophole in the law that would prevent him from running for elected office until 2009, he’s ready to run. Is there anybody’s craw big enough to contain this affront? We’re talking about the capital of the State of Israel, the capital of the Jewish world, the site of the holiest place in the world. And someone convicted of “moral turpitude” wants to be its mayor???!!! One could bring up the fate of two American politicians, both former Speakers of the House of Representatives, Dan Rostenkowski, the powerful Democrat, who was convicted of bribery, and Tom DeLay, the equally powerful Republican, who is still under indictment, neither of whom ever returned to political life. The consoling news is that, while there seems to be little sense of shame here by and about corrupt politicians, polls indicate that Barkat (who made his millions honestly in high-tech) would still be the winner. It’s not even clear that Deri will be allowed to run. While we will be stuck with several miles and several years of Light Rail construction in the middle of Jerusalem, we might be spared a spiritual rupture which could be even more disastrous.
From the potentially catastrophic to the merely absurd: there exists in Bnei Brak a group called Guardians of Sanctity and Education who have taken on the formidable task of enforcing “normative haredi behavior,” along with another Bnei Brak organization called The Committee for Jewish Music, and last but by no means least, a Jerusalem organization with the most impressive title Council for the Purity of the Camp. (whatever that means.) All of these groups seem determined to distinguish between kosher and treif music and to stamp out (stamp, stamp, stamp) all vestiges of the unholy from their communities: “Respectable people listen to decent music and immoral people listen to indecent music…..” Personally, I don’t care what kind of music the Haredi world listens to or doesn’t listen to, or anybody else listens to or doesn’t listen to. Again, it’s no skin off my teeth (or my eardrum). If all the folly of the world were collected, there might be enough to fill up the Light Rail construction holes and restore the streets of Jerusalem to normal use. So let it alone.
It’s just that there are other committees, one of which is called “The Committee to Stamp Out Idiocy Wherever We Find it,” and whose rallying cry is: “Intelligent people say sensible things, and the rest say whatever they want.” Once this situation was reported in the Jerusalem Post (from which article the quotes are taken) that these other committees wanted to ban “2-4 beats and other rock and disco beats,” along with quote from Mordechai Bloi of the Guardians of Sanctity and Education, “We might be able to adopt Bach or Beethoven, music with class, but not goyishe African music and beats,” CSOIWWFI sprung into action. They along with two less well-known groups, The Committee for the Encouragement of Some Semblance of Musical Literacy and The Committee Against Gratuitous Racist Remarks, investigated the matter and prepared a report. Because I have connections, I was able to get a preview of this report, and because you are such a wonderful readership, I am going to give you an advance look – which is why I felt compelled the change my publishing schedule.
“The musical term “2-4 time” is simply a time signature which indicates that there are two beats to a measure, and that each beat is composed of a quarter note or its equivalent, just as 3-4 time has three beats to a measure. The latter, has become common in Jewish music; for example, there are versions of Lecha Dodi, Eishet Chayil, Yom Ze Mechubad and Yedid Nefesh employing 3-4 time. It should be noted that the predominant use of this time signature in Western culture is the waltz, a dance which originated in Germany in the eighteenth century, and was then considered scandalous and was even banned in parts of Europe because it required close contact between men and women dancing together. Yet the waltz time is used in synagogues and home on Friday nights today without any sense of this stigma. The main use of 2-4 time in Western music has traditionally been in marches and polkas. It seems inappropriate to assign any moral value like kosher or non-kosher to any music because of the tempo or time signature employed.
“We are perplexed at the reference to Bach and Beethoven and the notion of adapting their music for Jewish use. It is generally understood that there are different types of music and that they serve different purpose. Just as a family might sit down to a sumptuous, many-course meal on a Friday night, order pizza Saturday night, and serve grilled hotdogs on a Sunday night, a person with a well-rounded musical education might listen to a Beethoven piano sonata one night, and yet want a different kind of music at a simcha or for synagogue use. Having listened to a significant amount of Beethoven’s music, we fail to see how any of it would be appropriate for dancing at a wedding.
“We are equally confused with the reference to Bach, by which we assume Mr. Bloi means Johann Sebastian Bach, not the many generations of other Bachs who also composed music. Among J.S. Bach’s remarkable output are enormous numbers of religious pieces, mostly composed for use in the Lutheran church services. While these cantatas, masses, and Passions are among the most sophisticated musical compositions ever created, they truly reflect the wide-spread virulently anti-Semitic attitude of the Lutheran Church of the time. In a word, they are among the most “goyishe” music ever written, preceding by 300 years the very “goyishe” response of the German nation to our people.
“Any discussion of “Jewish music” should note the fact that with the final destruction of our Beit Hamikdash nearly 2000 years ago and with it the service of the Leviim, all authentic Jewish music essentially disappeared. Generally speaking, the music produced in our Diaspora communities are reflections of the music prevalent in that area and time period. This is why the music of our communities sound so different, similar to the fact that the food eaten and methods of preparation in our differing communities is so different.
“We note the statement of Rabbi Luft of the Committee for Jewish Music that “(T)his music is pushing into our community a generation gap similar to one created by the rock music of the ‘50s in the US.” We wonder if Rabbi Luft is aware that the older generation then lost the war?”
While this report was being prepared, I happened to be in the office of one of my medical practitioners, a baal tshuva who lives in Ramat Bet Shemesh. In the middle of my treatment, his cell phone went off with a distinctive and cheerful ring. I asked him about the ring tone, and he told me it came with the phone. He had lost his old cell phone and now he had a new “Kosher phone.” You know I couldn’t resist. “What makes your phone kosher,” I asked, “besides the label on the cover.” He explained that his phone only made and received calls; it couldn’t connect to the internet or do anything else. I replied that I was the proud owner of the cheapest, simplest Cellcom phone available, and while in theory it might be able to access the internet, I had no idea how to do that. Plus, it is very expensive to access the internet from a cell phone, so I would never consider doing it. “Does that mean that I have a kosher phone too,” I inquired. It occurred to me later that in many situations ‘kosher” is no longer good enough: everything has to be “glatt kosher” (even omelets on airplanes), “mehadrin,” or the ultimate, “mehadrin min hamehadrin.” I began to wonder how that would work with cell phones. A good guess would be that a “glatt kosher” phone would give you a ring tone sounding like a rebbe’s tisch (table). A mehadrin phone would disconnect if you got the voice of a woman to whom you are not married or related, and a mehadrin min hmedadrin phone would only let you speak to your rabbi – assuming he’s on an approved list. Do me a favor: don’t pass these suggestions on to these Haredi Committees or we’ll all be in trouble.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Just a Song at Twilight

Just a song at twilight, when the lights are low;And the flick'ring shadows softly come and go.Tho' the heart be weary, sad the day and long,Still to us at twilight comes love's old song,Comes love's old sweet song.”(Chorus of “Love’s Old Sweet Song,”Lyrics by J. Clifton Bingham, Music by James L. Molloy, 1884)
If someone were to ask me (I can’t imagine why anybody would, but you never know) to select a dozen or so of the most memorable moments in my life, I would certainly include the evening I performed at Carnegie Hall. Of course, I wasn’t alone: in 1957-1958, I was a baritone in the NYC All-City High School Chorus, and together with the All City High School Orchestra, we were performing at the annual concert for assembled family, friends, and assorted music lovers. My musical career was relatively brief. Two and a half years before, I had just transferred from The Bronx H.S. of Science to DeWitt Clinton H.S. On my first or second day there, I ran into my dear friend Al in the hallway. When he realized that I had study hall the second period, he suggested that I join the school chorus, which met at the same time. I had spent the previous three years valiantly but painfully struggling with a clarinet as part of the J.H.S. 80 orchestra. Singing came a lot easier, my vocal chords being more reliable than the reed instrument that had bedeviled and humiliated me these previous years. So I climbed the stairs to the music room in the Tower, met Mr. Dycke, and was immediately accepted into the chorus. (If you are interested, “chorus” is defined on dictionary.com as “a group of persons singing in unison”; “choir” is defined as “a company of singers”; “glee club” is defined as “a chorus organized for singing choral music.” I hope this clears things up.)
For two and a half years, I had the opportunity of singing in the Clinton chorus, loving every minute of it. Mr. Dycke truly appreciated me, not because I was the best singer – I certainly wasn’t – but because I loved music and I was full of enthusiasm. In my senior year, he encouraged me to audition for the All-City Chorus, a highly regarded musical group led by the estimable Peter J. Wilhousky, who, among other activities, had been the chorus master for a number of recordings of Verdi operas which Arturo Toscanini made in the late 1940’s. (I am not even going to entertain the notion that anyone reading this does not know who Arturo Toscanini was.) This being an elite group of singers, there was a real audition. Each of the bass and baritone auditioners came up, one by one, and sang to our pianist Harry Hurwitz the refrain from “Love’s Old Sweet Song,” chosen because of its exquisite simplicity and diabolical vocal difficulty. By the time you hit the high note for the second “twilight,” any musician will know if you can sing or not. I hit the note squarely (I had been practicing all morning) and Mr. Dycke recommended me; so I got in.
We were expected to arrive for rehearsal ever Saturday morning (this was years before I even heard of the concept “shomer Shabbat”) for about six months. The musical arrangements were much more complex, and hence more interesting, than what we were doing at DeWitt Clinton. We spent months learning our music, at first each section separately, and only much later with the full chorus. I still remember the sense of recognition when I could hear and understand how the harmony which the bass and baritone parts provided fit into the whole, grounding the melodies sung by the tenors and sopranos. After a lot of struggling, we were ready to perform our concert. I can’t say that after all these years I can remember much of the music we sang, except for the sentimental “Madame Jeanette,” then a staple of the choral repertoire – Mr. Dycke had a simpler version for the Clintonites. Every concert which the All-City Chorus performed ended with this haunting chestnut (composed by Alan Murray): “Madame Jeanette when the sun goes down, Sits at her door in the rush of the town; Waiting for someone each close of the day, Someone who fell at St. Pierre, they say…….” There were always many alumni sitting in the hall, and they were invited to come up and join in; so there would be hundreds of singers young and old on stage, somehow remembering the music and the lyrics about a French woman who was growing old, waiting for the return of her lover who had fallen in battle many years before. (Anyone who wants to hear this song, sung by a chorus from Dartmouth College, can go to http://www.biggreen65.com/id200.html). And then it was over, the concert and my musical career. I went home and officially retired from singing. As far as I was concerned, this was the Super Bowl, and I was going to go out as a winner. Certainly there was a chorus at City College, but then I was into other things. I never sang again – except to serenade my wife from the vast repertoire I have accumulated in my juke-box-of-a-brain.
It is safe to say that vocalizing was not on my priority list when we made aliyah. There were two occasions here in The Land when my resolve was sorely tested. In one of my earlier posts, I did mention our attending a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado. What could be “funner” than singing in the chorus for similar productions? It occurred to me that J.J., the son of our friends Arvin and Gila, had performed in another of the company’s productions a year or two before. I recognized the guy who owns Moked, a stationery store on King George and Hillel in Jerusalem, as being in this production. But I decided not to pursue it.
Another opportunity was an informal invitation extended to me when we were on a tour one Friday morning in the southern part of Jerusalem.. Our guide mentioned that he was a little late for his singing group which met every Friday. What did they sing?. I inquired. Barbershop quartets (albeit with more than one singer to a part). When he saw the look of delight on my face, and he realized that I knew the music, he gave me his card. If I was interested in joining, I could call him. I had the sense not to inquire into their repertoire. If he told me that it included “On the Banks of the Wabash” (Oh, the moonlight's fair tonight along the Wabash…), I don’t know how I would have been able to say no. But this way, I could sensibly remember the time commitment I couldn’t make and my unmistakable loss of vocal stamina over the years.
All of the above may be seen as an introduction to a magical musical evening last week. Barbara is always looking for events for us to go to, especially FREE concerts, and the like. So last Tuesday, we headed over to Sergei’s courtyard, one of Jerusalem’s most overlooked treasures, originally the courtyard of a hostel for Russian noblemen making a pilgrimage to The Holy Land, part of Jerusalem’s Russian compound – another part of the city which Olmert is determined to give away – this time to Mr. Putin, et. al. There would be a concert of a capella music in this quiet tree-lined spot, and that is all the information I had (it could have been doo-wop music, for all I knew). When we arrived at 7:15, the musicians were still rehearsing – strange because the concert, according to my wife, was supposed to start at 7:30. (Also strange was that there was hardly anybody there.) We sat down, and I began to pay attention to what was going on. The conductor (who I later found out was Judy Axelrod) was working with a small group of singers, putting the finishing touches on a performance of a Renaissance motet, a Latin text of one of the Psalms of David. After listening for about a minute to her coach her singers, it was obvious that Ms. Axelrod is a highly gifted conductor of choral music, capable of obtaining highly nuanced results from her forces – again, a capella, without instrumental support. Ms. Axelrod went from piece to piece, each time with a slightly different alignment of singers, who themselves seemed highly qualified. 7:30 came and went, as did 8PM when the rehearsal was over, and the soundmen seemed satisfied with the acoustics. By 8:10, the audience began arriving and filling the many chairs which we had watched being put into place.
At around 8:30, the concert began for real (we did check later; Barbara, who is almost perfect, had misread the starting time). You can say that we “wasted” an hour; we could have at least had a picnic supper while we waited, and we could have been reviewing our Ulpan assignments. But there is sometimes great value in witnessing a rehearsal, and we got to hang out at twilight in a verdant spot seemingly unconnected to the turmoil of today’s Jerusalem. And, believe me, I have spent longer times waiting for a lot less than this concert offered. What beautiful music: Claudio Monteverdi and his Jewish contemporary Salamone Rossi, as well as English madrigals (all from about 1600), something by the still-alive Israeli composer, Yehezkel Braun, and then a collection of “Negro Spirituals,” solidifying my impression that virtually all of the singers, like Ms. Axelrod, were originally from somewhere close to the River Thames. And the thrill of the performances: not just twenty voices coming in together – that you can reasonably expect – but changing the tempo, slowing or speeding up together, stopping together, the voices in perfect balance, louder and softer, together, together, together. With encores, an hour and a quarter of the most glorious choral music one could ask for, interrupted only by Ms. Axelrod’s witty remarks – in good Ivrit – and the sounds of applause. Then it was over, and it was time to go. I located one of the singers and asked him for some information about the conductor and the musicians. Unfortunately, I picked someone who was asked only several months ago to fill in; so he did not have much background information to relate, except to say that “It’s all her” (meaning Judy Axelrod). Not much wiser, we walked over to Jaffa St., going rapidly from the tranquility of Sergei’s courtyard (whoever Sergei was) to the reality of center city Jerusalem, with coffee shops filled with people at ten o’clock at night, despite the fact the main street is now down to one lane, the rest of the thoroughfare being dug up to accommodate the light rail, which may or may not be ready in my lifetime.
Sometime this past Shabbat when I was davening at my current shul, Mussar Avicha, an idea came to me, something overwhelmingly obvious: what is the original meaning of the words a capella? In the chapel, or in the manner of the chapel, as relating to music. In other words, unaccompanied vocal music for a religious service. So what are we doing on Shabbat in most synagogues for at least part of the service? Are we not engaging in a practice which, incidentally, our Christian brethren borrowed from us? For it is generally agreed that the plainsong, the earliest Christian music which dates from as early as the third century C.E. is somehow based on, derived from, or inspired by Jewish sources, possibly what the Leviim sang in the Beit Hamikdash. And it is also understood that these plainsongs and then the Gregorian chants formed the basis for all Western music (up to, but not including Rap).
Now it’s hard for me to relate to this glorious musical history when I walk into – usually late – a synagogue these days. What I have heard as often than not bears only a fleeting resemblance to anything musical: a shaliach tzibbur leading the davening who shouldn’t even be allowed to sing in the shower, off key, or in no recognizable key, with an obnoxious or imaginary melody, leading a group of men who could not even recite a kaddish together, let alone sing in unison. Being aware of my limited skill in correctly enunciating spoken Hebrew, I have disqualified myself from ever leading the davening, but that has not always stopped others. (If anyone thinks that I am making a plug to return to the glory days of chazzanut, let me relate that when I began writing this, I was listening to a concert of such music on the classical music station here in the Land, and I turned it off; the sounds this chazzan was making was so awful, that if he were in the room with me, I would have emptied out all the money in my pockets and begged him to stop.)
An idea occurred to me as I contemplated the discrepancy between music’s inspirational potential and the sonic reality in Ashkenazic synagogues today: was that evening of musical bliss partly a reward for my enduring these many years of aural purgatory in silence? Never once contemplating throttling somebody braying at the bima? But there must be something deeper. Since we moved to the hills and valleys of Maale Adumim (a little bit east of Yerushalayim) I have begun joking that in the world-to-come no one will ever have to walk uphill. If you go from place A to place B, it will be downhill; when you return to place A, it will still be downhill (because the earthly laws of physics will not apply). Maybe in the world-to-come, whoever is leading the davening will have the skill and the musical knowledge of a Levite of old. Maybe we will create music that will outdo the musical sophistication of Bach and the energy and sincerity of the Negro spiritual. And may our praise to our Heavenly Father be sung by the All-Universe Chorus, millions of Jews here in The Land singing sweetly together, together, together.