In Praise of a Jewish National Home

From the curator

From the earliest years of the Zionist movement—when many American Jews actually opposed the creation of a Jewish state—to the heightened pride, awareness, and sympathy that followed statehood and multiple wars, the relationship of the American Jewish community and Eretz Yisra’el has always been complex and multifaceted.

In Sing Unto Zion!, the Milken Archive presents a series of works that explore how the Zionist movement and the modern state of Israel have influenced music of the American Jewish experience. For the most part, that influence has been characterized by admiration and curiosity, and has spanned both the sacred and secular arenas.

While this volume includes such well-known composers as Leonard Bernstein and Kurt Weill, its towering figure in terms of influence is probably the less widely known Max Helfman. Through his work at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute—a workshop retreat for young Jewish artists—in the late 1940s and 50s, Helfman introduced scores of young artists to a nascent Israeli culture through his many arrangements of folk songs. Included in this volume are his Israel Suite—performed by the Vienna Boys Choir—and Ḥag Habikkurim (Festival of the First Fruits).

Though Brandeis-Bardin was among the most substantial, other institutions and organizations helped foster this relationship too. (See Neil W. Levin’s introduction to this volume for an overview of these entities, as well as an informative history of the Zionist movement in America.) The three sacred services included here—by Israeli composers Paul Ben-Haim, Marc Lavry and Yehezkel Braun—were born of commissions by American synagogues. Lavry stands alongside Darius Milhaud and Ernest Bloch in being commissioned by the venerated Temple Emanu-El of San Francisco (both the Bloch and Milhaud services appear in full in Volume 7.)

Aside from institutions and commissions, many American composers have simply been inspired by the land’s beauty and rich mixture of traditions. The suites by Julius Chajes and Walter Scharf stand out for their rich evocations of Israel’s natural features, while Sholom Secunda’s Yom b’kibbutz programmatically depicts a rather exciting “day on a kibbutz.” Leonard Bernstein’s Four Sabras is a set of short piano character pieces depicting stereotypical Israeli personality types.

Herbert Fromm’s Yemenite Cycle—composed after his first visit to Israel in 1960—reflects the broadening of Jewish musical horizons that many experienced as a result of encountering a diverse array of traditions in Israel. As Neil W. Levin observes in his note to that work:

Despite the fact that these traditions had flourished for a long time in their respective lands of origin, it is primarily owing to the emergence of modern Israel and the ingathering there of communities that many of these oriental Jewish repertoires first came to the attention of the West.

Other works that draw on folk material include The Pioneers, also by Fromm, the piano concerto by Jacob Weinberg, and two songs by Julius Chajes.

Finally, this volume would not be complete without some reflection of the darker aspects of Israeli life. Ezra Laderman composed his A Single Voice for oboe and string quartet as the events of the 1967 war unfolded. So great was that war’s impact on the composer that the energy of the events became infused into the work. Ruth Schonthal’s A Bird Over Jerusalem, which includes samples of Arabic popular music and machine-gun fire, is a meditation on the violence and human suffering that is unfortunately too common.

Anyone who has been there knows that Israel is a diverse, inspiring, and sometimes conflicted place. This volume shows how she has inspired musical responses ranging from awe and ambivalence to reverence and deep reflection.

—Jeff Janeczko


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