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Temple Emanu-El and American Jewish Culture

Elliot Gertel
May 7, 2015

Forces of Preservation of Classical Reform Judaism

by Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel

1.20.09 Temple Emanu-El.inddCLICKING ONTO a recording of a religious service on the web site of New York City’s Temple Emanu-El (officially, Congregation Emanu-El of the City of New York, established in 1845) is a cultural event. In architecture, liturgy, music, and ambiance, Temple Emanu-El is unlike any other synagogue anywhere.

After nearly a century of pioneering weekly radio broadcasts, the temple now archives Friday night and Saturday morning services, one week at a time, on its impressive website, along with a listing of the composers of music in those services. Emanu-El has always had a superb professional choir and talented cantors, accompanied by one of the nation’s finest pipe organs, built by Casavant Freres in 1929. The most recent cantor, Lori A. Corrsin, who just retired, was tireless in continuing the synagogue’s impressive traditions, providing an inspirational and educational repertoire of outstanding synagogue music, classic and contemporary, formal and folk, all with glorious musical settings. The website provides biographies of all the composers, many of whom have long ago disappeared from the musical repertoire of most American synagogues.

Emanu-El continues to use the old Union Prayer Book (1895, 1940) and to conduct services in the classical Reform style. There is a dignity and integrity in the congregation’s devotion to its own traditions and to those of 19th-century American Reform Judaism.

To my knowledge, New York’s Emanu-El and Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue (Congregation Shearith Israel, established 1654) are the only synagogues in the country that have preserved their respective liturgies and musical repertoires for over a century, though Philadelphia’s Congregation Adath Jeshurun (in Elkins Park, Pennsylvania) has used its own unique prayer book and melodies, with some modifications, for just as long. For almost eighty years, Chicago’s KAM-Isaiah-Israel Congregation has held firm to the music of its longtime resident composer, Max Janowski, at the core of services.

These are the only congregations in America that have achieved such continuity out of a rare commitment to preserve a unique culture in an American Jewish climate that, in both its religious and secular manifestations, has valued homogenization and mimicry.

NY-BQ456_RABBI_G_20120511203541CONGREGATION EMANU-EL deepened its devotion to Hebrew, the State of Israel, and all forms of Jewish culture under the influence of recently retired longtime rabbi, David M. Posner. He preserved the uniqueness of the congregation’s aesthetic, and fused, seamlessly, with deep learning, engaging wit, and fine intellect — as well as a sincere passion for Jewish culture, both historic and contemporary — the German Jewish character of the congregation with the East European and Israeli and other heritages of most of its members. The 2012 retirement service honoring Rabbi Posner and Sylvia Posner is, in and of itself, one of the great cultural moments of American Jewish history, both in its embodiment of the classical Reform service and of the pursuit and appreciation of Hebrew and Yiddish culture.

The Union Prayer Book offers beautiful English translations and paraphrases of the ancient Hebrew prayers. The language is elegant, and the theology, though rationalistic, conveys a deep mystical faith in a unique mission for the Jewish People to reach and to appreciate all peoples. The language, though archaic and without any political correctness, actually taunts any p.c. policing and charges of anachronism because it emerges from impeccable, yeoman liberal credentials. Ironically, the Union Prayer Book is one of the last regular exposures of American generations to King James style rhetoric.

The video of the 2014 installation service for Rabbi Joshua Davidson, Emanu-El’s gifted young spiritual leader, is also culturally significant, both for some of its banter and because it raises the question of what the next stage in Emanu-El’s history will look like. The event was most respectful of the cantorial art. It didn’t hurt that Rabbi Davidson’s wife, Mia Fram Davidson, is a talented cantor, and enhanced the service with her participation.

After a lay leader joked about Rabbi Peter Rubinstein of New York’s Central Synagogue being “reunited with his beloved Union Prayer Book,” the guest preacher couldn’t help calling it a book that he had once memorized and then left behind. Rabbi Rubenstein insisted that synagogues “need now to evolve into a new iteration, need to rethink all matters of membership and program and mission and especially vision, and need to be outrageously bold and audaciously courageous... Unless we attempt to do it all, we will do nothing.” Under Rabbi Davidson’s leadership, Emanu-El has begun to experiment with alternative Sabbath and Festival services outside of the main sanctuary.

Emanu-El’s neighbor, Central Synagogue, offers one of New York’s best-attended contemporary-style Friday night services, and its High Holy Day and some other services feature many of the classics. For decades, Central was home to the brilliant composer, Lazar Weiner, who did much to advance Yiddish as well as liturgical music. Indeed, by the mid-20th century, most of the major Reform congregations, and some Conservative, throughout the United States and Canada, engaged outstanding choirmaster/composers. Much original Jewish music was commissioned and performed at synagogues. One could say that the countercultural movement (led by Shlomo Carlebach and Debbie Friedman and others) was of good quality because the culture countered was of excellent quality, often so avant-garde as to be intimidating to congregants and their children. But there was a lot of singable, authentic music generated in that period that merits continued use. A review of posted videos and mp3s on web sites of Reform synagogues today would indicate that most use the same music all the time, with little or no repertoire of classics and of challenging new compositions. Most Conservative synagogues have followed suit.

AMONG THE MANY thought-provoking recent lectures in the video archive of Temple Emanu-El’s Skirball Center for Adult Jewish Learning is a May 19, 2014 lecture, “How We Pray Is Who We Are,” by Professor Lawrence Hoffman, of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. Hoffman asserted that a prayer book cannot be a cultural carry-over, but must reflect a congregation’s current beliefs and idiom. His assumption was that American Jews don’t appreciate the significance of the prayer book, which is “the most important book for Jewish history,” that they take it for granted: “It’s just handed to you, so you assume how important can it be because you get it for free.”

Hoffman told the Emanu-El audience that by still using the Union Prayer Book they are unthinkingly playing a role, like Shakespeare’s MacBeth, and have thus rendered themselves incapable of bringing the values of their prayer book into their lives, and even of finding a “moral space.” He melodramatically related to his listeners the political struggle that led to the domination of the Union Prayer Book (more a compromise than Hoffman suggested) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The struggle was between Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise’s moderate Reform and Rabbi David Einhorn’s radical Reform. Hoffman emphasized that both men understood that an “old time service meant old time Jews,” that the “Prayer Book determines how we pray, and how we pray is who we are.”

Of particular interest to cultural Jews, who may or may not be interested in theological debates, is Hoffman’s treatment of the subject of what he called the “noise” at services, the music and the general ambiance and demeanor. Hoffman declared point blank that davening (the classic East European way of praying) was never “a happy sound.” Jews in the shtetl, he maintained, were not happy. He regards classical hazzanut, the cantorial art, as nothing but kvetching or complaining: “They’re killing us. There’s no food today. God help me.” He said that out of nostalgia for the bad old days, socialist Jewish immigrants of the 1920s flocked to hear cantors who could happily make them sad again.

Hoffman singles out the cantorial piece for “Sheyiboneh beis Hamikdosh,” a liturgical plea for God to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem, which he attributes to Yossele Rosenblatt. Actually, it was another pious cantorial virtuoso, Israel Schorr, who wrote that famous and not unjoyful melody, along with a totally joyous rendition of the ancient morning prayer which includes the words, “Happy are we, how goodly our portion....” I, for one, would like to think that Schorr got it right in depicting with voice and music the simchah shel mitzvah or joy in Jewish life and observance of countless East (and, for that matter, West) European Jews. Many of the old cantorial recordings were profoundly educational in the engaging and memorable way that they depicted Talmudic texts.

It is unjust to East European cantorial art and to its importance in modern Jewish culture to dismiss it as a morose musical memorial to when Jews were “beaten down.” True, the sad and solemn pieces were popular. They brought uplift and inspiration in the way that many “Whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” pop songs in current American culture similarly touch millions today. And the cantors, the Jewish rock stars of their time, offered countless joyous and spiritually rousing recordings, such as Mordechai Hershman’s rendition of Schnipeliski’s wedding service and of Jacob Rappaport’s exquisite setting for the Talmudic discussion of commandments rewarded in this world and beyond. Indeed, there are times that I listen to affecting current pop mega-songs and am reminded of the “old cantorial” style and delivery.

HOFFMAN ALSO “deconstructed” the synagogue music tastes of West European Jews, with their emphasis on dignity and decorum which was so important to Reform Judaism (and, I might add, to German Orthodox and American Conservative Judaism.) He demeaned the universal melody for “Shema Yisrael” by Vienna’s Salomon Sulzer, regarded as the first major Western cantor/composer, as waltz wannabe. Why dismiss the aesthetic of sophisticated Viennese Jews, about whose synagogue service Schubert and Liszt raved in print? And are East European immigrants to be regarded as without aesthetics and a sense of cultural authenticity?

Why minimize Jewish cultural achievements in order to score points for changes in liturgical format and style? For secular Jews interested in Jewish culture, and particularly in having available the widest possible repertoire of synagogue music, Emanu-El’s service is a last bastion of high-level, regular performance of such music, and one of the last great venues for pipe organ music during religious services of any kind in America. (No one can claim any longer that the organ is “churchy” because most churches and synagogues are now “guitar-y.”) Popular services are no less “performance” arts, and are no more or less “spiritual” to cultural Jews. They may, in fact, seem less spiritual to those who seek more historically and stylistically variegated culture.

Another large, vital, and historic classical Reform synagogue, Chicago Sinai Congregation, published a new siddur which recast the Union Prayer Book and its theology in felicitous modern idiom. In its 155th year, Sinai remains successful and proudly “classical.” Most Friday nights at least three musical instruments — organ, piano, and keyboard — are utilized at services. In 2008, Sinai’s Rabbi Emeritus, Howard A. Berman, founded the Society for Classical Reform Judaism, dedicated to preserving the aesthetic of that stream of Jewish life by issuing CDs and a journal that now has a following in Israel.

New York’s Emanu-El Congregation has the resources to forge a rousing and aesthetically significant balance between Classical Reform presentation and contemporary expression, between formal and folk styles, at each and every service. But in the current religious climate of American Judaism, with leveling strategies for future synagogue culture, the input of secular, cultural Jews may be the only way to ensure the uniqueness of great congregations. The “re-iteration” of synagogues for a new era, about which Rabbi Rubinstein spoke at Rabbi Davidson’s installation, requires bold cultural checks and balances, both at services and at planning sessions, far beyond the usual synagogue constituents, and some plan to attract moral and financial support from diverse and eclectic sources.

Elliot B. Gertel is a retired pulpit rabbi who has been film and TV critic for the National Jewish Post and Opinion for 35 years. He is the author of Over the Top Judaism and What Jews Know About Salvation.