September 24, 2004 Update

Letters from Israel

Friday, September 24, 2004
Erev Yom Kippur

Dear family and friends,

The holiday prayer book, though devoid of notes, is like a musical archive, each verse conjuring up the tunes which frame it.

We each have our own, deeply ingrained, "home" versions of the High Holiday prayers - arrangements and melodies we heard as children which will forever be our ideal yom tov davening, no matter how far we later roam.

I find there are so many that I can't remember, fragments of melodies for the Yamim Noraim and Shabbat davening which refuse to be recalled, which nag each time I see the familiar text. How did my grandmother sing that? What was my grandfather's nigun? Melodies that I fear may now be gone forever.

The modest, but moving service at our local synagogue in Israel is a far cry from my childhood's elaborate choral services, the prayers there dramatically framed by the cantor's operatic voice and the choir's harmonies.

Ashkenazi services in Israel tend to prefer functionality over passion or pageantry. Few synagogues of any sort retain a traditional chazan, and few congregants have the patience for the drawn-out cantorial melodies. Professional chazanim are a dwindling breed, their craft today reaching more people in the concert hall than in the synagogue. True, some chazanim do drag the service out too much, but so many more bring out the meaning of our prayers with their beautifully tailored melodies.

Even the recent growth of Carlebach-inspired singalong services remains a fringe phenomenon, and their melodies tend towards the modern rather than the traditional styles. At least they infuse the prayers with a depth of feeling often absent in ordinary synagogues. Still, it seems to me a shame to reject the rich musical tradition of the Ashkenazi synagogue in favour of the new and populist. Increasingly, even on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur only a few of the most classic old melodies continue to be universally sung.

My mother and her mother, a chazan's daughter, were both blessed with inspiring voices. In the build-up to the Days of Awe our home was filled with melodies for the Yamim Noraim: Old tunes, now long forgotten, which my grandmother learned in her youth in London's East End; Sfardi tunes from her schooling at Bevis Marks Jewish day school; Ashkenazi pieces from her home; and the traditional mainstream nusach of British Jewry. The nigunim of Shlomo Carlebach and Modzitz, Yossele Rosenblatt, Malovany, the Malevsky family and Koussevitzky - all were equally at home.

When my grandfather passed away over twenty years ago my family stopped singing the melodies from his shtetl, Sassov. When my grandmother passed away two years ago, my mother found it hard to sing the chazanut pieces she had adored so much. I can understand them. Last year it was hard to see the words and hear in my head my mother's voice, my grandmother's voice.

This year I find it's different. It's a comfort to think of those words in my grandmother's voice. At home I put on a classic chazanut recording of "her" music and listen to some of her favourite prayers. Somehow, instead of the deep voice of renowned Chazan Zawel Kwartin, I hear my grandmother's beautifully high soprano soaring over the notes in a style half-song, half-wail: "Haneshama lakh, vehaguf po'alakh...", the soul is Yours, and the body is Your creation.

I don't even have a recording of my childhood chazan, Moshe Korn, z"l, who formed my concept of what a chazan should sound like. He had a fantastic voice, rich and powerful, but more importantly, he had soul, and that, more than anything, was what made him an inspiring chazan. Each word, each oy, each trill, came from the heart. Sadly professional recordings were against his contract with the synagogue, so that wonderful voice was never properly captured for future generations.

Yom Kippur is a whole night and day of aural reminders of all that is now gone. In the last two decades of her life my grandmother's arthritis prevented her from walking up the hill to shul. She would spend Yom Kippur in prayer at home and we would take it in turns to join her, so that she wouldn't spend the day alone. I was often there for the end of Mussaf, Minha or sometimes Neila and she would go through the prayers aloud, singing in the mournful, plaintive voice she reserved for the Days of Awe. The amount of soul she packed into that prayer must surely have burst open the gates of heaven.

During her final few years she ended up spending a lot of time in hospitals. Gradually losing her sight, unable to read or watch TV, she would sing, and all the nurses would come running to find out where the incredible music in a strange language was coming from. They would stand in shock and awe at the door to the room, stunned at this frail little old lady who in her 90s could still melt hearts with her passionate song.

The week before she passed away, I was visiting her in hospital, more accurately singing at her bedside. Jason had just phoned to say that he'd been accepted to the Modi'in chazanut choir. As I told her the news, her withered, wan face lit up, glowing with pride. Finally, another man in the family to continue the tradition.

Once again Jason has been asked to be one of the chazanim for Yom Kippur in our neighbourhood synagogue. This time he will lead the morning prayers, and he has been busy practicing a selection of nigunim, inspired by his own very different synagogue heritage, but also by that of his sojourn with mine.

May we all merit this Yom Kippur to be stirred to a complete and sincere teshuva.

Gmar hatima tova and shana tova,


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Copyright 2004 by Leiah Elbaum.