Volume Introductions

Introduction to Volume 4

Cycle of Life in Synagogue and Home: Prayers and Celebrations Throughout the Jewish Year

by Neil W. Levin

V1NOT ENTIRELY UNLIKE MANY OTHER FAITHS and ritually oriented belief systems, especially those with some foundations in biblical as well as early postbiblical Judaic developments, Jewish religious life is marked by a regular, recurring rhythm—encased within time and its various enclosures. It is a rhythm that runs parallel to the unfolding of human existence and to an earth-centered cosmic order. It is a rhythm of prescribed dates and hours, comprising the daily, weekly, monthly, annual, and human life span observances, rituals, liturgical occasions, celebrations, ceremonies, remembrances, and study sessions. All of these events and occurrences may be understood as part of the overarching cycle of Jewish life. 

Hebrew liturgy, apart from silently recited devotions, nearly always implies musical delivery. Long-standing tradition as well as ever-evolving creative energy have attached to every event in this cycle of Jewish life some form of musical expression—ranging from relatively simple modalities of weekday prayer and talmudic study to elaborate, artistic compositions.

This volume addresses music associated with the major liturgical elements of the Jewish religious cycle: synagogue services and their individual prayers; home and extra-synagogul observances for Sabbaths Passover, Hanukka, and Purim; simḥas (joyous occasions) such as weddings and dedications of new homes; and funerals and memorial services.

There are a number of differences—easily recognizable even to the untrained ear—between the conventional and the modern musical styles that we find in the collective repertoire attached to each of these synagogue and Jewish life-cycle occasions. At one far end of the spectrum is the eastern European–based hazzanut of American experience. At the other extremity are the radically divergent and sometimes experimental expressions found in contemporary popular idioms of innovative services (mostly within the Reform movement since the 1960s/1970s, but more recently adopted in synagogues of the Conservative movement) as well as in the religiously neutral medium of informal concert environments. Separating these two often artificial boundary lines is a wide field of gray shades. One finds a considerable amount of overlap—particularly in those settings for nontraditional contexts that nonetheless echo elements of cantorial heritage. It is thus not always possibly neatly, or with mutual exclusion, to categorize music of Judaic function according to the commonly accepted labels affixed to the principal organized religious streams among American Jewry—viz., Reform, Conservative, orthodox. All the less so since each so-called branch or wing (if one is willing to abide the potentially divisive formalities of contrived institutionalized labels) embraces its own internal subdivisions, diverse orientations, and individual preferences, thanks to the historically typical autonomy of American synagogues. (America has no counterpart, for example, to Great Britain’s Chief Rabbi, whose jurisdiction actually embraces only those orthodox congregations belonging officially to the United Synagogue of the Commonwealth—not even independent orthodox synagogues.)

This autonomy is reflected by a tradition of stylistically unrestricted (by any official body or agency), unmonitored musical preferences or selections. The pluralistic phenomenon is obvious, for example, in any comparative consideration of congregations affiliated with the Conservative movement (i.e., the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism) as well as independent ones whose service formats follow similarly traditional but nonorthodox paths. From its inaugural pitching, the Conservative tent has accommodated a broad range of musical practices. At one edge, there have always been Conservative congregations whose musical dimensions differ little from traditional orthodox counterparts in terms of mostly unabridged standard liturgy and its cantorial and choral delivery. At the opposite pole is the substantial number of Conservative congregations whose acceptance of the organ on Sabbaths and other holy days, and, more recently, of other musical instruments, has enabled and encouraged repertoires and liturgical interpretations that were at one time aimed more directly at Reform services. Between these two borders there lies a rich variety of styles and aesthetic orientations (as there does within the full gamut of the music that has been inspired by Reform worship as well). Many of the settings here by composers such as Mark Silver and Max Helfman occupy part of this middle ground. 

To the extent that we are actually able to distinguish between cantorial and choral styles that are appropriate mainly for orthodox or aesthetically similar traditional services and those that are more at home in Reform and liberal Conservative contexts less wedded to European conventions, the liturgical pieces in this volume belong mostly to the latter category. The concert works here, too, such as Samuel Adler’s The Flames of Freedom and his To Celebrate a Miracle, Jack Gottlieb’s Love Songs for Sabbath, or Michael Isaacson’s Aspects of a Great Miracle lie outside the realm of cantorial tradition. A prominent exception is found in the section devoted to marriage services, which features elaborate cantorial renditions alongside other, more restrained and more modern settings. This juxtaposition provides an illustration of divergent approaches to the same occasion and its liturgy. Similarly so in the section of music for memorial events and funerals.

Some of the Passover seder settings here also reflect the melos—and even the unabashed entertainment compass—of the now mostly outmoded traditional communal seders that were once held at hotels and Jewish resorts, to which cantorial and choral performances were central. Although there is no denying that these events were driven in part as commercial ventures, they nonetheless provided innocent pleasure, emotional satisfaction, guided ritual participation, and a sense of communal celebration for thousand of attendees over the years. At one time these seders featured such high-profile cantors as Samuel Malavsky, Moshe Ganchoff, Moishe Oysher, and Richard Tucker, together with buoyant choirs and child soloists. For the most part and for the longest run, this phenomenon flourished in venues not far from New York City—and, by extension, in Miami Beach, where the world-renowned opera star and singer of Jewish folk and theatrical repertoires, Jan Peerce (who, unlike his brother-in-law, Richard Tucker, was never a cantor per se by training or calling), conducted such seders annually to great acclaim. These enterprises catered typically to a clientele hungry for bits of cantorial, liturgical, and even Second Avenue Yiddish theatrical nostalgia. With less commercial success and within a shorter time frame, they were also sometimes imitated in other cities. In their popular appeal and star attraction, however, as well as in their focus on musical performance, they differed in essence from the more functional communal seders held under the auspices of Conservative and Reform synagogues—and, more recently and out of other, didactic considerations, sponsored by local HABAD/Lubavitch organizations.

Apart from the above sections, traditional hazzanut, with its European grounding, its virtuoso displays, its dramatic grandeur, and its inextricable choral elements, is reserved for Volume 14: Golden Voices in the Golden Land.

One key to appreciating the contents of this volume—the individual pieces as well as their flow within each section—lies in its juxtaposition of constrasting styles, musical languages, artistic approaches, and liturgical interpretations by composers who represent four generations of American Jewry. They exemplify eastern, Central, and Western European as well as Israeli family backgrounds and cultural orientations; and they symbolize a variety of paths in the music world.

At the same time, the volume shadows chronologically the Jewish liturgical music developments in America from roughly the 1920s to the 21st century. In this sense it is an extension of the latter part of Volume 1,—which looks at the music of Classical Reform in the late 19th and early 20th centuries—picking up where that earlier exploration concludes. Also, the three Reform services in Volume 3 (the Sabbath eve, Yom Kippur afternoon, and “modern” Torah services) should be considered together with this volume in any stylistic-chronological survey. Every piece in those services, as well as a few in the “classical” Conservative Rosh Hashana musaf service (also in Volume 3), could have been included here as well. 

Without negating artistic individuality, which often defies both period labeling and group association, we can discern among these composers and their music several distinct trends, schools, and aesthetic inclinations that correspond more or less to particular time frames.

The first such truly 20th-century (i.e., post–World War I) time frame, which spans the 1920s and 1930s and extends into the 1940s, encompasses the music here of Lazare Saminsky and Abraham Wolf Binder. Unlike many of their 19th-century predecessors who composed and arranged for the American Reform Synagogue, they possessed working familiarity with mid-to-late 19th-century European synagogue music. That awareness shows in their work, yet without slavish imitation. Binder, in addition to composing many original pieces (the best of which are often his “miniatures,” such as his exquisite Etz ḥayyim hi for the conclusion of the Torah service in Volume 3), extracted excerpts from compositions by some of the leading figures in eastern as well as Central and Western European synagogue music and incorporated them—sometimes in appropriately simplified arrangements—in the third edition of the Reform movement’s Union Hymnal (1932). He and Saminsky consciously revisited modal and melodic elements of tradition, which they recast and echoed in new compositions with cautious and conservative allusions at the same time to contemporary harmonic language and stylization. Along with the earlier settings of Edward Stark (in Volume 1), their pieces bear the stamp of a Judaically reverent ethos more suited to the modern synagogue than most of the favorite repertoire that prevailed throughout the 19th century (and lingered through at least the 1920s) in American Reform services. In their pursuit of a workable blend of authenticity and originality, they represent not only a turning point in congregational tastes and expectations, but also a genuine transition from the 19th to the 20th century. It might even be said that they were instrumental in “Judaizing” the aesthetics of American Reform worship. Virtually none of the music in the latter part of Volume I (once again, with the exception of Stark’s) remains in the standard repertoire of Reform services by the first decade of the 21st century—outside, possibly, a few die-hard congregations and choirs in the Deep South and perhaps Texas that have retained a few reverberations of their classical Reform habits out of a sense of continuity or nostalgia—or both. On the other hand, many of Binder’s and Saminsky’s settings are part of a living continuum and can be heard today as part of a larger repertoire that spans the 20th century and its many subsequent developments.

The next developmental stage is represented by the music of a coterie of émigré composers, all but two of whom were refugees from the Third Reich either directly or, as a result of their accurate intuition, a bit earlier. This group, which spearheaded and pursued what has since been assessed as a period of artistic renaissance in synagogue music, includes Hugo Chaim Adler (and, by extension into the next generation, his son Samuel Adler), Hebert Fromm, Heinrich Schalit, Isadore Freed, Julius Chajes, Herman Berlinski, and Frederick Piket. Max Helfman, who immigrated earlier and who, alone among these composers, came from an eastern European orientation, should also be considered part of this phenomenon. He played a prominent role in creating a sophisticated, tradition-based (but not tradition-bound) repertoire for worship outside the orthodox cantorial world, although some of his settings (his Hashkiveinu  and Sh’ma kolenu, for example) have found resonance in traditionally oriented synagogues—including even some within the modern orthodox fold.

Conversely, Max Janowski, who was educated in Germany (solely as a classical pianist) and who also immigrated to the United States in the late 1930s when he was unable to return to Germany after a sojourn in Japan, falls outside this league. Although he composed prolifically for the synagogue beginning in the late 1940s, he was never part of that émigré (or any other) school or coterie, nor did he consider himself so associated. To the contrary, he displayed complete indifference to the work of other émigré composers, operating in a self-imposed vacuum without collegial communication or interaction with any of them. Indeed, in harmonic simplicity, structural innocence, and scarcity of cultivated counterpoint, his synagogue settings bear no stamp of that circle’s influence or the advances it promulgated. In the context of his own chosen path, however, many of Janowski’s pieces have an indisputable and enduring charm. Although the largest part of his oeuvre (liturgical as well as concert works) was heard during his lifetime principally in the greater Chicago area, where his own choirs were ubiquitous (and in Milwaukee, where he also held a permanent post), a good number of them gained popularity across the country. A few are now staples in Reform (and some Conservative) repertoires on a national level. Most prominent in that latter category are his Avinu malkenu—probably his best-known piece and arguably his most inspired one—which he developed (originally as an arrangement) out of a theme furnished him around 1951 by Pavel Slavensky, the cantor at Chicago’s Temple Sholom; and his subsequent Sim shalom, which is built on the same four-note motive and is in some respects self-borrowed. Unfortunately, some of Janowski’s most interesting and beautifully crafted settings never became familiar outside the Chicago area; a few of these were recorded by the Milken Archive and appear in this volume.

All of the émigré composers from Western or Central, German-speaking Europe who participated in the mid-century renascence were professionally educated in the canon of Western music and in the techniques of serious composition—in addition to their schooling in Western culture and, in some but not all cases, sound exposure to basic Judaic learning. All of them wrote secular classical music, all were accomplished pianists, and some were proficient on other instruments as well. At the time of their immigration, none would have been considered a parochial liturgical musician, synagogue involvements notwithstanding. Hugo Chaim Adler, for example, was the Chief Cantor at Mannheim’s prestigious Liberale synagogue prior to his emigration following Kristallnacht; but he was equally respected as a highly cultured figure in the secular music world and as the composer of cantatas, oratorios, song cycles, and other works.

Samuel Adler, who was only ten years old when his family resettled in America in 1939, has recalled how his father was pleasantly surprised (“shocked,” in his words) to find—in New York, at least— a remarkable and unexpected receptivity to serious new music for the synagogue. This contrasted sharply with what Hugo Adler had viewed as a staid, unimaginative, and even reactionary status quo vis-à-vis synagogue music among German Jewry since the last decade of the 19th century. (There were, of course, a number of exceptional enthusiastic reactions to Cantor Emmanuel Kirschner’s extensive contributions to new synagogue music in Munich in the 1920s, Cantor Leon Kornitzer’s learned compositions in Hamburg, and Jakob Dymont’s artistically unified and harmonically sophisticated complete Sabbath service for orthodox worship in Berlin—among others.)

Adler Sam on SS Manhattan
A New Beginning: Ten-year-old Samuel Adler (center) arrives in the United States on the SS Manhattan, January 22, 1939.

In a paper delivered at a scholarly conference on Jewish music at the University of Potsdam in the summer of 2010, and cosponsored by the Abraham Geiger College in Berlin, Adler elaborated:

One week after we arrived, my father received a call from Cantor David Putterman, and then calls from Cantors Adolph Katchko and Moshe Rudinow—three of the most prominent [modern] cantors in the United States at that time—asking him to arrange works for them and commissioning him to write new works for the Park Avenue Synagogue, Temple Anshe Chesed, and Temple Emanu-El. He was shocked to say the least. Here was a climate fertile for new music for the synagogue, with cantors—and perhaps congregations—eager to try new sounds, perhaps sounds of their own day; and with concerns about expert treatment of traditional material. 

Adler’s paper, however, was titled “An Aborted Renaissance” because, as he illustrated amply, the optimism of those heady days within modern American Jewish music circles was relatively short-lived. By the late 1960s the seeds were already being sewn for its dissolution in the face of more populist leanings, a new resistance to formality, the expanded public attraction to pseudo-folksong as a misguided expression of spirituality, and a blurring of distinctions between prayer and aesthetic congeniality—all of which were emerging as deflective directions.

Nonetheless, that ebullient renaissance—along with the work of the composers who promulgated it—had a decades-long impact on the musical ambience of most Reform and much Conservative worship. In many cases, echoes persist and, in some of these services, related repertoires of that period have even recently been revived and reintroduced—even if now in combination with less sophisticated subsequent music. A large number of the settings in this volume from that period remain secure in Reform and Conservative synagogues throughout the United States, especially on the High Holy Days. Most important, that exciting and artistically fruitful period of development is permanently ingrained in the heritage of the American Synagogue.

To varying degrees, the composers in the vanguard of that rejuvenation tried to capture modal essences—in their accompaniments, solo lines, and choral writing. Overuse of triads, dominant seventh chords, leading tones, and banal cadential progressions are routinely avoided in their music in favor of open fifths, superimposed as well as judiciously employed parallel perfect fifths and fourths, and modal cadences and semicadences. Moreover, much of their overall choral sound seems to have been suggested by emblematic organ sonorities and overtones. For solo or other melodic lines they consciously revisited and reconsidered some of the traditional Ashkenazi prayer modes. Not content, however, to perpetuate the typical 19th-century reliance on so-called common practice—especially late Romantic-era—harmonic procedures for those modes, which more often than not had produced a stale effect, many of these composers attempted instead to work out harmonic as well as contrapuntal approaches more appropriate to the modal framework. In those efforts they were able to use their thorough knowledge of contemporary harmonic advances as well as of pre-Baroque music of the Western canon. Many of the settings by these composers are characterized by astutely sparse harmonic usage, creatively manipulated pedal points and overtones, implied accompaniment to modal lines, cautious emphasis on simple but effective contrapuntal techniques over conventional homophony, and forceful unison or octave passages and phrases—all of which provide clarity as well as power. 

Through his father, and then in the course of his own maturation as a composer, Adler was personally acquainted with all the composers associated with that renaissance of the 1940s and 1950s. In his assessment, it was his father (Hugo Chaim Adler) who remained closest to his German synagogue roots in creating his settings in America. In contrast, he views Fromm as more adventurous, in his attempt to flesh out a fresh harmonic system based on linear foundations. Yet Fromm did not allow himself to become confined to any one all-embracing theoretical system, and in his quest for modern expression, he was ever mindful of the necessary balance between artistic originality and liturgical purpose. In a paper he delivered at a symposium held in New York in 1964 at a meeting of the now defunct Jewish Liturgical Music Society of America, Fromm attempted to set forth some of his objectives and self-imposed guidelines in composing for the synagogue:

Synagogue music has to fulfill a function and must be more—some may prefer to say less—than a subjective, rhapsodic outpouring…. Among desirable features I would name a satisfying interpretation of the text, unburdened by an overdose of personal emotion, a lucid musical texture, and a length properly designed for the overall structure of the service…. Here, the fundamental question arises: tradition as against free creation. Old wine in new bottles, meaning traditional modes in modern garb … meaning independent melodies in contemporary settings. 

On his choice of particular modes and his predilections for certain melodic traditions, Fromm expanded:

I have gone both ways. When using traditional modes I reserve the right of musical selectivity, since not all traditions are of equal merit. The ahava rabba mode [characterized by, among other features, its lowered second and raised third], more suitable for the intimacy of folksong than the scope of prayer, appears sparingly in my work—no matter how much the augmented second may appeal to the nostalgia of congregants for whom Judaism is a sentimental rather than an invigorating experience….

The Chants of the Near East come closest to my ideal of liturgical melody: supremacy of the text, idiomatic inflection, and, above all, a loftiness of expression which honors the timeless holiness of the words….Remolding this type of melody for use in our synagogue presents a challenge to the contemporary composer, demanding flexibility and a resourcefulness for which no models exist. 

Many of these sentiments and goals can be said to apply in various ways to Fromm’s fellow composers in that period of recrudescence. Yet each pursued his own individuality and his own creative impulses. Schalit remained more wedded to traditional paths, though his music sounds no less fresh and no less a product of the 20th century. Some of Freed’s settings appear more influenced by the work of French composers than the work of his colleagues, while Chajes was often—though by no means always—driven by a combination of contrapuntal motivations and echoes of Near Eastern, Palestinian Hebrew melos. Of all the composers in this group, Helfman was probably the most reflective of eastern European cantorial underpinnings and templates. But he succeeded remarkably well in reframing these features, conservatively but originally, in manifestly 20th-century conceptions.

Not collegially a member of that coterie, Lazar Weiner—like Samuel Adler (who, however, was directly associated and who, moreover, is sui generis in his equal recognition as one of America’s leading composers in the general secular realm)—must be viewed as part of that artistic continuum in terms of the sophistication and uncompromised taste of his liturgical oeuvre. His synagogue music, although it was never his primary generic focus, bears the stamp of that school’s ideals. Also like Samuel Adler, Weiner never bowed to any of the populist or otherwise diluted trends that began to define some congregational preferences after the 1960s. His prayer settings reveal the influence of Fromm, Freed, et al., for whom he had great respect. Yet these settings are unique in their blend of the intense lyricism that marks his vast opera of Yiddish art songs (for which he will always be best remembered) and his penchant for an astutely enriched and expanded brand of tonality. His harmonic language is capable of subtly dissonant effects that neither jolt nor fail to resolve to the satisfaction of attuned worshippers.

The early (1970s) synagogue music of Michael Isaacson, too, who was a protégé and pupil of Samuel Adler, exhibits lingering influences not only of his teacher and mentor but also of the composers associated with the mid-century renaissance. Isaacson later loosened that hold in favor of less rigorous expressions, which had come to resonate more easily within the American Synagogue by the turn of the century. But his more recent synagogue music is no less artful, and he has continued to eschew the adoption for prayer of what he considers simplistic pseudo-folk and pop fashion. Indeed, he has been outspoken in his advocacy of serious attention to synagogue music and in his condemnation of pandering to esoteric inclinations.

We can identify a third—albeit loosely related—group of composers who may be said to belong aesthetically,even if not necessarily chronologically, to a generation that succeeded what in retrospect can be considered the second, immediately post-classical phase of the American Reform worship format. Some of them, such as William Sharlin, Jack Gottlieb, Robert Strassburg, and Charles Davidson, who were composing well before the 1970s, created out of their own instincts a bridge to this new, less magisterial and less exalted third period. Others joined the roster from the 1970s on, but all of them were active during the last quarter of the 20th century—and many have continued into the 21st century, sometimes writing for Conservative as well as Reform services. They include Aminadav Aloni, Steve Barnett, Michael Horvit, Haim Elisha, Jerome Kopmar, Martin Kalmanoff, Stephen Richards, Benji Ellen Schiller, Simon Sargon, and Charles Osborne. In the aggregate, we can discern in their music more relaxed, less formal and reserved, less harmonically austere, and often more melodically transparent approaches to liturgical interpretation than the paths pursued by the aforementioned mid-century musical luminaries of the modern American Synagogue. Settings by this subsequent array of composers, which can be expertly crafted, easily appealing, and deeply inspired, vary in their level of artistic sophistication and in their degree of departure from the earlier formalistic ambience of the immediate post-classical phase of Reform worship that we have identified as the 1940s–1960s “renaissance.” (We must acknowledge, of course, the unavoidably subjective judgment involved in establishing any such lines of demarcation or stylistic boundaries, which are frequently porous.)

If lighter and less highbrow overall than the work of the composers of the postwar renaissance, this repertoire of our designated third phase is nonetheless for the most part still devoid of the casual inroads of film and other commercial arenas, folk rock and other popular song, and even subliminal echoes of a populist evangelical melos—all of which came by the late 20th century to inform yet another direction in liturgical expression that has gained enthusiastic acceptance in many nontraditional congregations. Our musical third phase, despite its capability of easy resonance, should be assessed separately from the informal, communally oriented styles introduced into the synagogue originally (beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s) by talented song leaders and songwriters who were often associated with summer camp, youth movement, and other similar Jewish social environments. Their encouragement of group singing as well as their popular sound fusions have appealed to many synagogue attendees. This phenomenon, which reflects certain sociological and cultural directions and forces among American Jewry (and in the realm of religion in America in general) is not an insignificant component of the composite American synagogue experience. It therefore cannot—and should not—be dismissed or bypassed in any objective survey of the development of Jewish liturgical music in the United States.

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