I am a film producer and CEO of AskAbigail Productions. Currently working on a documentary film/musical theatre production about the life and times of Moshe Kraus, a musical child prodigy and a legendary cantor/hazzan/Jewish prayer leader whose life spans the history of Jews in the twentieth century.
“It was that power of words, the gift of language, that was the greatest gift of all that G-d gave to Adam and Adam alone.
This then becomes the “Gesher tzar me’od”– the very narrow bridge – that crosses the abyss between finite humanity and the infinity of God.
In short, Judaism is an ongoing conversation between that once-and-once-only divine voice that sounded at Sinai and the human interpretation of those words that has continued in every generation since. It is a great conversation that never ended.
The whole of Judaism is that ongoing “conversation” between Israel and God as to how we understand God’s word for all time to make it God’s word for our time.”
The “Torah” is considered to be G-d’s communication with man. Prayer is supposed to be man’s communication with G-d. The Torah and the Jewish prayer book – the siddur – are the source texts for all Jewish culture and civilization.
In the book of Genesis, the Torah documents G-d “speaking” with people. G-d is reported to have “conversations” with Adam in the Garden. He had quite a few conversations with Abraham throughout his life. And, G-d spoke to Rebecca when she asks about the struggling twins in her belly.
And the children struggled within her, and she said, “If [it be] so, why do I live?” And she went to inquire of the Lord.
And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two kingdoms will separate from your innards, and one kingdom will become mightier than the other kingdom, and the elder will serve the younger.” (Toldot verses 22-23)
When it comes to Jacob and Joseph, “communication” comes through dreams. However, Isaac speaks with G-d through a supplicating prayer.
And Isaac prayed to the Lord on behalf of his wife because she was barren, and the Lord accepted his prayer, and Rebecca, his wife, conceived. (Toldot verse 21)
Is it possible to communicate with G-d?
Some say that all of the Book of Genesis comes to teach us that yes, G-d is available to each of us, individually, in our personal struggles and especially in the intimate struggles of the family.
Yael Zoldan speaking about her children’s’ book on prayer, When I Daven, says that “the very basics of prayer can be shared, even with the very young. By introducing elementary concepts such as acknowledging the gift of life, being in touch with your senses, observing the world around you, thankfulness and gratitude, preschoolers can develop an appreciation of what we do when we pray each day”.
The ongoing conversation, the communication with The Divine is the essence of prayer. And, the Cantor is considered to be the messenger of the people in voicing their thoughts and feelings in the public space.
In the Jewish faith, the cantor’s role is to lead communal prayers in the synagogue – to be the congregation’s messenger. He “speaks” to G-d on behalf of those assembled. He “gives voice” to their prayers.
The siddur, a Jewish prayer book containing a set order of daily prayers, compiled over millennia, has traditional music attached to each prayer. But, the melodies vary significantly according to each community’s musical tradition. European cantors borrow from the Hasidic tradition and also the European classical and operatic musical modes.
The United States too has a unique tradition of Jewish cantorial services. For instance, I discovered at the convention that Leonard Bernstein and Arnold Schoenberg, each individually, was commissioned to compose for synagogue services in the early 1900s. Since World War ll, the US has created a tradition of participatory singing in the synagogue borrowed from folk-singing, with star names such as Shlomo Carlebach, Debbie Friedman, and Joey Weisenberg.
The video below showcases one of the most familiar prayers in the Jewish canon, sung only once a year on the Jewish New Year, on Rosh Hashannah.
Cantor Paul Heller of Belsize Square Synagogue in London sings the traditional words of Unetaneh Tokef at the European Cantors’ Convention open-mike concert. He begins by saying that this prayer is particularly appropriate to the new year’s beginning (January 2020). In hindsight, it almost seems prescient.
“As a shepherd seeketh out his flock and causeth each one to pass beneath his crook, so dost Thou G-d, review, number, and visit every living soul appointing the measure of every creature’s life and decreeing their destiny.”
On Rosh Hashanah, it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur, it is sealed.
“How many will die and how many will be born. Who will live and who will die. Who after a long life and who before his time. Who by fire and who by water. Who by sword and who by beast. Who by famine and who by plague. Who will be impoverished and who will be enriched. Who will be exalted, and who will be degraded…
But teshuva/reconsideration, tefillah/prayer, and tzedaka/righteous actions, have the potential to annul the severity of the decree.”
Note how the audience can’t help but join him in the familiar final refrain of teshuvah, tefillah and tzedaka, which comes to remind us that our future depends not only on G-d but also on our own behaviour – reconsideration, prayer, and acts of righteousness.
If you believe there are rules to writing music that can’t be broken… you’re going to be a boring composer.
Frank Zappa took the sounds of the twentieth century and transformed them into music. Although I had no prior connection to Frank Zappa or his music, I recognized our world in his work.
A second program I recently viewed was the CBC radio interview with Yo-Yo Ma on music’s power to “comfort, give solace, and transition us from life to death.” During the pandemic, Yo-Yo Ma regularly played his cello live on social media. Listening to him play his cello on this program left me with chills of recognition. He explained that the vibrations of sound really do “touch” us in a very physical way.
Music is the sound of life. It adds emotion, nuance, and meaning. The Torah itself has a prescribed score for every single word in it. When the reader chants the Torah’s text for the congregation, he follows a prescribed scored notation, which powerfully enhances the text’s meaning and is inseparable from it. The melody, coupled with the text, creates resonance and meaning which neither alone can carry. It is parallel to the notion that the “Oral Torah” (the Torah legacy initially passed on orally from Sinai) and the written Torah (the actual text on parchment) are inseparable and need to be studied and understood together to achieve full clarity of meaning.
Joey Weisenberg has written the definitive book about Jewish music, The Torah of Music. He has collected all of the Midrashic, Mishnaic and contemporary texts referring to music. He has lyrical chapters on music – its varying moods and purposes on the character and function of specific instruments – and the uses of the voice.
“I wrote this book as a chizuk or strengthening of the spirit for musicians, community leaders, and others who, like myself, would like to learn more about the story of music as a Jewish spiritual practice and play some part in its unfolding narrative… I’ve found that singing has transcended barriers in the Jewish world, and increasingly outside of the Jewish world as well. Across all lines, music speaks and resonates and connects and deepens our human experience.
Music is a wordless prayer that opens up our imagination of the divine source of all life. Music, the most immaterial and ephemeral and yet most eternal of all the art forms, represents our connection to the Divine, to each other, to everything. We can’t see music, and we can’t grasp it in our hands, but yet we can feel it working through us and in the world. As our musical dreams go to work, we might similarly be able to imagine encountering the Divine “The Holy Blessedness that is over and above all blessings and songs.” (The Torah of Music)
The 2020 European Cantors’ Convention in Hanover, Germany, allowed me to experience some part of the Jewish soundtrack. Sponsored by the Jewish Music Institute (JMI) of London, the convention was truly a remarkable experience where I got to witness and listen to the art of the Cantor. I share some snippets below.
Cantor Daniel Mutlu of Central Synagogue in Manhattan during a tutorial for cantors starts with “es amo yevarech be’shalom” (His nation he will bless with peace) and then moves into the familiar hymn, l’cha dodi, welcoming the Sabbath Queen – the feminine aspect of G-d, Shechinah – as part of the Friday night service.
Svetlana Kundish, a female Cantor serving in Germany, shares a prayer for G-d to protect us from the dangers of the night, at an open-mike concert. This piece was composed in the 19th century by the legendary choirmaster Louis Lewandowski for his Berlin synagogue, complete with choir and organ. This music is no longer popular or very familiar but still remains quite beautiful.
In this third piece, Chazzan Asher Heinowitz of Yeshurun Synagogue in Jerusalem sings a classic Yiddish lullaby. This was part of a memorial concert to honour International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 26, 2020.
Shlof-zhe mir shoyn, Yankele, mayn sheyner, Sleep already, my Yankele, my pretty,
Di Eygelekh, di shvartsinke makh tsu, the eyes, those darkish eyes. do close
A yingele vos hot shoyn ale tseyndelekh, a little boy who already has all his teeth
Muz nokh di mame zingen ay-lyu-lyu? the mother still has to sing ay-lyu-lyu
A yingele, vos hot shoyn ale tseyndelekh, a little boy who already has all his teeth
Un vert mit mazl bald in kheyder geyn, and with any luck will soon be going to heder-school
Un lernen vet er khumesh un gemoro, and will be learning khumesh-bible and gemoro-talmud
Zol veynen ven di mame vigt im on? Still cries when mother rocks his cradle
A yingele, vos lernen vet gemoro, a little boy who will be soon learning Humash and Gemoro – Bible and Talmud
Ot shteyt der tate, kvelt un hert zikh tsu, as his father swells with pride listening to him recite
A yingele vos vakst a talmid khokhem a little boy becoming a talmid khokhem-a clever student
Lozt gantse nekht der mamen nisht tsuru? Still does not leave his mother any peace all night.
Vel kosten noch fil Mame’s treeren It will cost your mother still many a tear
Bis vonen felt a mensch arof fun dir Before you will become a “mentsch” – an upstanding adult!
I hope to share more of these clips from the convention with you soon. After participating In the Cantors’ convention, I do believe that this work deserves a wider audience. Perhaps a documentary showcasing the cantors’ art based on the European Cantors Convention would be a worthy endeavour. Would this be of interest to you?
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks (Z’L) has pointed out that there is no word for “history” in the Hebrew language. The word that comes closest to the notion of history in Hebrew is the word “Zachor” – the injunction “to remember.”
The Torah has two commandments around the word “Zachor”. One is Zachor et Yom haShabbat, – remember the Sabbath Day and to keep it holy: The second one – Zachor et Amalek – Remember Amalek! Below is the translation of the Torah verses that recalls Amalek.
“You shall remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you went out of Egypt, how he happened upon you on the way and cut off all the stragglers at your rear when you were faint and weary, and he did not fear G-d. So it will be, when the Lord your G-d grants you respite from all your enemies around you in the land which the Lord, your G-d, gives to you as an inheritance to possess, that you shall obliterate the remembrance of Amalek from beneath the Heavens. You shall not forget!” (Deut. 25:17-19).
These verses are chanted annually in the synagogue on the Shabbat before the holiday of Purim. Below is what it sounds like.
Jewish memory of the last five thousand years is embedded in our texts and our holidays. The following documentaries and talks by current scholars about our recent world history brings the recent past vividly to mind. As you read this blog, I think you will come to realize why it is so important “not to forget what went before.”
STALIN’S RISE TO POWER
Stephen Kotkin has published two volumes on the life and times of Josef Stalin (1878-1953) based on his own research into recently released Soviet archives. I have enjoyed watching him interviewed by Peter Robinson of the Hoover Institute’s Uncommon Knowledge.
In the first volume, we learn that Stalin was not the product of an abusive home. He was educated in Catholic elementary and high schols because these were the best schools his parents could afford in his neighbourhood. His path was open to becoming a Catholic priest. But as a young man, he became enamoured with revolutionary Marxist ideology and made a career of being an anti-czarist activist. Before 1917, he was exiled and imprisoned by the Czarist police five times.
In 1917, the czarist regime was overthrown, and a provisional democratic government was installed. Stalin was close to the group around Lenin that overthrew the provisional government. In spring of 1922, after Lenin engineered a coup replacing all independent parties in the provisional government with the Communist Party, he appointed Stalin as his manager and right-hand man. Officially, Stalin became the Secretary-General of the Communist Party.
Six weeks later, Lenin had a stroke from which he never recovered. This left Stalin’s opening to maneuver himself into the role of a dictator by ruthlessly destroying anyone apposed to him or his ideas. Stalin was able to do this because he was a workaholic with great people skills and managerial prowess. With no one looking over his shoulder, he was ruthless and used “every underhanded method and then some” to justify his ends. He used manipulation, torture, and outright murder of any potential rivals to maintain his autocratic power.
In the name of his communist Marxist ideology, Stalin and his collaborators engineered collectivization of farmlands, the elimination of private property and personal freedom, which lead to poverty and death from starvation for tens of millions of people before World War ll. The name given to these events is the Holodomor.
It seems that although Stalin was idealistic, one of his ideas was that the end goal justifies any means, and secondly, he recognized absolutely no restraint in his quest for personal power.
THE RISE OF THE NAZIS
This month, I also had the opportunity to study Hitler’s ascent and reign via the excellent documentary series Rise of the Nazis on PBS. So far, I have watched two episodes bringing us up to 1938.
In 1930, Germany was a liberal democracy. Just four years later, democracy is dead, and a single party, the Nazi party, rules the country. Hitler is the autocratic ruler and his collaborators, Ernst Röhm, Hermann Göring, and Heinrich Himmler, control all German national institutions:
The police, the army and the courts – Heinrich Himmler controls the police.
Herman Goring creates his own espionage cadre called the Gestapo.
Ernst Rohm is in charge of the SA, the Storm Troopers.
In the first episode, we meet the chief actors vying for parliamentary power in 1930. General Kurt von Schleicher, an ally of the right and himself a politician, fearing socialist and left-wing parties enlists Hitler thinking to take advantage of his popularity and his private militia power base, the SA (the Storm Troopers).
Hitler and his cronies first became known to the German public during what is now referred to as the 1923 Beer Hall Putsch, which was an attempt at seizing the reigns of power via the armed violence of the Storm Troopers (SA). Goring and Himmler escape, and Hitler is tried and imprisoned.
Hitler was sentenced to prison for five years but served only nine months in the relative comfort of Landsberg castle. He used the time to dictate the first volume of Mein Kampf, his political autobiography, and a compendium of his multitudinous ideas.
Hitler’s ideas included inequality among races, nations, and individuals as part of an unchangeable natural order that exalted the “Aryan race” as humanity’s creative element. According to Hitler, the natural unit of humanity was the Volk (“the people”), of which the German people were the greatest. Moreover, he believed that the state existed to serve the Volk, i.e. Weimar Germany. In Hitler’s Germany, all morality and truth were judged by these criteria. (Source: Britannica)
Hans Litten is also highlighted in the series. Litten was a German lawyer from an established German family. His father, Fritz, was a distinguished jurist, dean of Königsberg’s law school who later became rector of that institution. His mother, Irmgard, was from an established Lutheran family in Swabia, the daughter of Albert Wüst, a professor at the University of Halle-Wittenberg.
The 1924 court case against Adolf Hitler and other events convinced Litten that Germany was approaching a hazardous period. His perception that right-wing radicals were literally getting away with murder – unfettered criminal violence in the pursuit of power – convinced him to become a lawyer.
In May 1931, Litten summoned Adolf Hitler to testify in the Tanzpalast Eden Trial, a court case involving two workers stabbed by four SA (Storm Troopers). He cross-examined Hitler for three hours, finding many points of contradiction and proving that Hitler had exhorted the SA to embark on a systematic campaign of violence against the Nazis’ enemies. This was crucial because Hitler was meanwhile trying to pose as a conventional politician to middle-class voters and to maintain that the Nazi Party was “strictly legal.”
Although Litten manages to expose Hitler in this trial, with some success, once Himmler and Goring were appointed to manage the Nazi forces, all German national institutions were corrupted. Litten himself is imprisoned in several Nazi concentration camps and continuously and mercilessly tortured. He is also declared a Jew and imprisoned in the Jewish prisoner wing. His father was a Jew who had converted to Lutheranism.
The second episode exposes the competition between Goring and Himmler for Hitler’s approval after Hitler aquires his positon of Chancellor and sole governing ruler of Germany. Himmler expands his power by acquiring methodical control of all provincial police departments and announcing the creation of Dachay as a place to house/imprison enemies of the state, the thousands arrested by the SS immediately upon Hitler accessing autocratic powers. Goring advances his own power base by creating the Gestapo, a private espionage unit. Their own personal pursuit of power then lead them to collaborate with each other in order to denouncing Ernst Rohm and his Storm Troopers to Hitler. Ernst Rohm and his storm troopers are also imprisoned in concentration camps and systematically murdered in the Night of the Long Knives.
This episode ends with the little known story of Joseph Hartinger, Deputy State Prosecutor, who when called to examine the death of four prisoners at Dachau reported to have been shot while trying to escape, notices that all four are Jews and that they have all been shot in the same way at close range. He collects his evidence and writes his detailed report expecting those responsible to be condemned and brought to trial, but his superior refuses to sign off on it. Shocked, he decides to take it further up the chain of command on his wn intitiative, but Himmler is warned, and the report arrives at the highest court and gets locked away in a safe. We know this because the report was discovered by the American armies and was used as evidence at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial, which began November 20, 1945.
These Nazi leaders were personally ambitious, cruel and murderous. They managed to seduce and to intimidate much of the German populace with their racial theories, blaming all of Germany’s ills on Jews, communists, socialists, capitalists, and anyone else who was not a “pure German and Nazi sympathizer.”
In another PBS documentary, China Undercover, FRONTLINE investigates China’s oppression of the Uyghur Muslim minority in Xinjiang province. The documentary exposes China’s alarming use and testing of surveillance technology.
The regime’s growing capacity to survey an entire population, using surveillance technology and concentration type camps visible via satellite to punish and imprison should cause global alarm. Cameras are placed everywhere and allow the regime to keep a close eye on all its citizens, even identifying them by analyzing facial structure. The country’s faithful soldiers systematically download peoples’ phones and label their houses with barcodes. They enlist Chinese families to invade the homes of Uyghur families and “becoming a part of uyghur families” on holidays, eliminating any possibiliity of privacy or resistance.
This reality seems to be even worse than the dystopia depicted in George Orwell’s classic novel 1984.
Why Is the Injunction to Remember – Zachor – So Important?
Why is it so important to understand the history of Hitler, Stalin, and the current landscape? It shows us what can happen when individuals or institutions, unmoored from any moral compunctions, and often in the name of “social justice,” have the hubris to declare themselves keepers of the flame, and to claim supreme governing authority.
The Torah reminds us to work to eliminate these kinds of rulers, even after we ourselves are prospering, not to wreak vengeance but to create a safer world for all of us, one that is committed to the kind of justice that protects the weakest among us everywhere. Whenever we have the opportunity to review these events, we all become witnesses.
How do you get your news, and how do you process it?
We all know the problem, excess options and information coming at us from all sides.
As Rabbi Lord Jonathon Sacks would have said, in his booming voice: “We have been here before!”
Following the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, Jews worried that their information would be lost if they did not write it down. But, how do you write down all the information about a culture in an accessible form?
This was the birth of the Talmud. Today, the Talmud is six volumes, which takes seven years to read, if you read one page per day. It took six centuries to compile.
How did they do it?
First, they recorded the conversations and the names of those who were doing the talking. Then, they organized the material into six tractates that cover everything you may have ever wanted to know but had no idea how to ask. The voices of many, both elite and commoner, are captured.
I have dipped into it here and there. We studied a page in my Jewish history course at Hebrew University back in the day. I remember the first line of the page we studied: “Where do the rains come from?”. Yes, they deal with all kinds of issues.
During the pandemic, I have participated in a weekly Talmud class on Zoom with my niece, Ilana Fodiman Silverman, living in Israel in Israel teaches students from around the world. The other day, when studying the conversation on “What type of prayer should be said after a meal and whom you should or shouldn’t invite to join you in the prayer?” (Berachot 47 A), she mentioned that the Talmudic discussion reminds her of Dr. Seuss’ whimsical world of exploration. She says “Sometimes, the Talmud tests the breadth and depth of an idea by pushing the edges of possibility, by using our most imaginative selves to suggest scenarios and uncover its design.”
The Talmud is an acquired taste, and it is almost impossible to study without a knowledgeable guide. Some have described it as a “sea of knowledge” that you dip into from time to time. It reminds me of the internet today. Due to the internet, and another brilliant teacher, Rav Adin Steinsaltz, Z’l, who passed away very recently, anyone can now have daily access to the Talmud in English by subscribing to his website www.steinsaltz-center.org and their are many tallmudic study groups on Zoom. No one has to do this alone.
So how do I get my news during Covid-19?
Well, I am a regular listener of CBC Radio One – anytime I am eating or taking a break. My favourite programs are IDEAS with Nahlah Ayed, which explores “social issues, culture and the arts, geopolitics, history, science and technology, biology and the humanities”. But, in truth, I will listen to anything that’s on when I feel like a break, including The Doc Project by Acey Rowe, Tapestry with Mary Hines, Writers and Company with Eleanor Wachtel, The current with Matt Galloway and q with Tom Power.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, I subscribe to two newspapers: The National Post and The Gazette on weekends. I also subscribe to online Jewish media, including The Tablet, Commentary, The Jerusalem Post, The Forward, Jewish Journal (California), Honest Reporting, Algemeiner, Mosaic, Tikvah, CIJR BESA, ISGAP, and sites from Rabbinic scholars. These are some of my favourite Rabbinic sites which send regular email offerings:
I am also subscribed to Netflix and Cable TV, which offer many US channels, including PBS, Fox, and CBS. I reserve these for evenings when my energy is low.
I also participate in regular Zoom classes, some local and some international. Mondays, Rabbi Poupko gives a weekly zoom class. The first half is about the weekly bible portion (the Parsha), and the second half is his take on the news in Montreal, Israel and the US. Tuesdays, there are Zoom classes offered by JMI (Jewish Music Institute in London). Fridays, I am a regular participant in a class with a rotating roster of local Rabbis. I also participate weekly in classes with my Israeli Yeshiva Group Shiviti.
But as Shabbat nears, Friday evening to Saturday night, I stop all of the electronic inputs. I enjoy my festive meals, attend synagogue (that meets all the pandemic protocols), visit a friend living alone after the service, and read books that I have had on my shelves for years but never managed to get to.
We all want to live in a well-informed society. But today, there’s considerably more of it out there than we can ever absorb. I try to diversify my media diet to inform me in what’s truly going on out there. Still, in the end, I need to turn to someone like Rabbi Sacks to articulate the values that will keep me grounded, as he illustrates in this white-board animation, which puts it all into perspective, explaining how science and religion necessarily need to work together.