Song of Songs

Shalom everybody. Once again, it’s showtime. That is to say – concert time. Last Friday (June 26th), my choir, the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir, of which, as you know, I am justifiably proud :-) , ended the 2014/15 season with a concert entitled Jerusalem Luminosa.

The concert, conducted by Kate Belshé, who is now celebrating (I hope!) the completion of her first year as our musical director, took as its main theme the Song of Songs, with settings in Hebrew, German, Latin,  and English, from various times and countries, of the great Song of Solomon. The original idea was to celebrate the music of the House of David, father and son,  and so the programme incorporated settings of psalms, in English, Latin and Estonian. However, as Kate developed the idea, adding works that were based on, and inspired by, these two great books of the early Kings of Israel, the concert broadened into a celebration of composers from the far north, with works by the Norwegians, Edvard Grieg, Egil Hovland, and Ola Gjeilo, as well as the Estonian Cyrillus Kreek.

As you can imagine, singing in so many different  – and unfamiliar – languages presented its own difficulties. We are quite familiar with English, Latin and German, of course, not to mention Hebrew, and have sung many times in these languages, but I don’t think we have ever attempted Estonian, Norwegian and Danish before :-)  – and kudos is due to Revital, Shmulik and Carmiya for their work on preparing the programme, with translations into Hebrew and English of whatever language the songs were written in. Here I must mention a rather amusing story which highlights the perils inherent in the art of translation. One of the songs performed was Quam pulchra es, by the Englishman John Dunstable (c.1390 – 1453), or, as it is sometimes written, Dunstaple. This is a 3-voice setting in Latin for alto, tenor and bass of selected verses from Song of Songs 7, and was performed by six members of the choir. However, I was startled to read the English translation of the last words of verse 12 as “There will I give my breasts to you”. I looked at the original Hebrew. There, the word translated as “breasts” is “dodim” (דודים), usually translated as “love”, as it is, for example, in the King James Version and also in the New English Bible. I looked at the Latin, to which Dunstable set the song. Lo and behold! In the Latin, the word used to translate “dodim” is “ubera“, which does, indeed, mean “udders” or “breasts”! How did the Latin translator arrive at such an error? I looked again at the Hebrew. In my copy of the Bible, the word דודים appears in full script, with the letter vav (ו) after the initial dalet (ד). But it is also possible to write the word without the letter vav, substituting a small dot above and between the first and second dalet.  In such a case, if one overlooks or omits the dot, one is left with the word “dadim” (דדים – breasts, nipples) rather than dodim (love). I suspect this is what happened here to the Latin translator. Thus, the English translation in our program was faithful to the Latin mistranslation to which Dunstable set his music, rather than to the original Hebrew.

And now, without further ado, let me invite you to share some of the highlights of our concert :-).

We started off, appropriately enough, with Gjeilo’s “Prelude” which, was psalm-like enough, with its “Exultate, jubilate” – although, as you can tell from its repeated references to the Trinity, it is not actually taken from the Book of Psalms.

 

I have mentioned, on several occasions, our increased exposure to American music since Kate took up the baton as our conductor. The following two pieces are good examples. The first, “I am the Rose of Sharon” is by William Billings (1746-1800), known as the father of American choral music. I have to admit to not having liked this piece at all when I first heard it – but it has since grown on me, so much so that it is now one of my favourites!

 

 

In complete contrast is the following contemporary setting, by Nick Strimple, of Psalm 131:

 

Some of the works presented, such as Cyrillus Kreeks’s “Taaveti Laul no. 104” (Psalm 104), or Melchior Franck‘s “Fahet uns die Füchse  (“Catch us the little foxes”) were straightforward settings of the Biblical text – in this case, Song of Songs 2: 15-17.  Others, such as Grieg’s “Hvad est du dog skjön“, (“How fair is thy face”) were based on old Scandinavian hymns, sung for hundreds of years in Danish and Norwegian churches, which used Biblical imagery to illustrate Christian themes.
Oh, but you are beautiful,
you most living God’s Son!
O you, my Shulamite, yes mine,
all that I have is also yours.
…..    O so come dove!
In the cleft of the rock is peace and safety.
Oh, but you are beautiful.
you most living God’s Son!
O you, my Shulamite,
all that I have is also yours.
This hymn, sung in Danish, to a text by the Lutheran cleric and hymnodist Hans Adolf Brorson (1694 – 1764) is here performed by the choir with baritone soloist, our very own David Goldblatt:

 

Again by Grieg – in Norwegian , this time – here is another of our baritones, Louis Sachs, leading the choir in “I Himmelen”  (“In Heaven”). Both pieces are from Grieg’s “Fire Salmer” (Four Psalms).

 

 

As I said, the programme was built around the Song of Songs. I would hardly be human if I were able to resist bringing you this next piece, the cantata Shir Hashirim, a setting by the Israeli composer Yechezkel Braun (1922-2014) of Song of Songs 3. At twelve minutes long, it was the longest piece performed at the concert.

Oh – I almost forgot to mention it. The soprano soloist here is Yours Truly:

 

 

 

As we sang the final chorus, “Go forth, O ye daughters of Zion,
and behold king Solomon with the crown wherewith
his mother crowned him in the day of his espousals,
and in the day of the gladness of his heart,” I imagined the author, riding in triumph right here, through the streets of Jerusalem, three thousand years ago. How glad he – and his father, King David – would have been to know that three millennia later, their songs were still being sung by Jews, in his – our – ancient capital!

I will leave you, as we left the audience in Christ Church, opposite the Tower of David, with a song for the Sabbath -“Shabbat Hamalka” (שבת המלכה – Shabbat the Queen):

 

Shabbat Shalom                                  שבת שלום

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Ars Gratia Artis

I remember once reading an anecdote about one of the ancient Greek dramatists (alas, I cannot remember which one) who, summoned before the audience to explain – and possibly change – a point in one of his plays which had displeased them, refused and declared: “I do not write my plays so that you can give me lessons, but so that I can give you lessons.”

I mention this as a preamble to the subject of today’s rant – namely, the function of the Arts.

Anyone who has been following the running battle between the new Minister of Culture and Sport (Culture and Sport? We used to have a Minister of Education and Culture!) Miri Regev and the cadre of mostly left-wing leaders of the arts in Israel, will immediately understand what put this subject into my head.

In short, for those of you who do not live in Israel, Ms. Regev, who used to be the Chief Military Censor and later, the IDF spokeswoman, has been accused of using her new position to muzzle artists, because of her announcement that government funds will no longer be available for plays and films which slander and delegitimise the Jewish state, with specific reference to a play based on the writings of a convicted “Palestinian” terrorist, who participated in the murder of an Israeli soldier. The said terrorist was, apparently, himself involved in the writing of the play. She also threatened to withdraw government funding for the Jerusalem Film Festival if a new film about Yigal Amir, the murderer of PM Yitzchak Rabin, was screened at the festival. Another of her “crimes” has been to threaten to withdraw funding from a Jewish-Arab children’s theatre, founded by an Arab actor and director and his Jewish wife, ostensibly because he refused to appear in the “Occupied Territories”. I have to say here, if the only reason is that he personally refused to appear in the “Territories”, then this seems unnecessarily vindictive. If, on the other hand, he is refusing to allow his theatre (an otherwise praiseworthy endeavour, one assumes),  to appear there, it would be unreasonable to expect the taxpayers – who include residents of the “Territories” – to fund a theatre group which refuses to appear before them.

As I have not seen the play about the terrorist, or the film about Yigal Amir (nor, I suspect, have many of the parties to the debate, including Ms. Regev herself), I am not going to discuss them, although I will say this: the question at hand is not the permissibility of staging or screening them, but merely whether they are entitled to government funding. The left-wing self-appointed guardians of culture and “free speech”, believing that the function of the Arts is to castigate and correct Society’s faults, would appear to be in agreement with Sir Humphrey (“Yes, Minister“) who sternly admonished his subordinate: “Bernard, subsidy is for art, for culture. It is not to be given to what the people want! It is for what the people don’t want but ought to have!”

However, this is not my topic. My topic is a question which has arisen as part of the debate, and that is: what is the function of the arts? Both sides in the present debate have talked much about their perception of this function and both sides seem to take it as given that the function of Art is to educate. One of the most common mantras appears to be, that it is the duty of the arts to hold up a mirror to Society and show us where we are at fault. The Left-wing Cabal thinks that the government is obliged to pay to be lectured by its opponents and shown how evil and horrible Israeli society is. They also think that Ms. Regev thinks that the duty and function of the arts is to serve as propaganda for the government.

But does Art have to have “a function”? What about pure entertainment? (“Oh, yes,” I hear the left-wing intellectuals sneer. “Bread and circuses for the masses”.)
Is there such a thing as “pure” entertainment? What one person sees as pure entertainment, another person might see in a completely different light. For example, when I listen to a beautiful piece of classical music, I feel uplifted. I feel joy. Some might say that this is precisely the function of music.

Over the course of the last few days, we have heard, over and over again, the demand that Art and Politics should be kept separate. When it comes from the Left, this usually means that the political party in power (the Right) should do nothing to prevent left-wing writers, actors and film-makers from presenting works deeply critical of Israeli society and even of Israel’s right to exist. As far as these people are concerned, “do nothing to prevent” means “continue to fund, at the taxpayers’ expense”. When it comes from the Right, the Separation of Art and Politics  means: “Feel free to say whatever you like, but do not expect government funding for propagating your views”. But is it even possible to completely separate Art and Politics? Much of the greatest Art has been either overtly, or covertly, political. When we listen today to the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves from Verdi’s “Nabucco”, we may be hearing just the music, but Verdi’s fellow Italians heard a call to rebellion against the Austrians who, at that time, occupied large parts of northern Italy. Not for nothing did Verdi’s very name become a symbol of Italian nationalism, being an acronym for the words “Vittorio Emanuele, Re d’Italia” (Vittorio Emanuele, King of Italy). Beethoven’s Eroica was political. Goya’s painting “El Tres de Mayo 1808” and Picasso’s “Guernica” are overtly political. Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” is political, as is much of the work of the great 19th century British novelists, such as George Eliot. A work does not have to be about politics to be political and any work which holds up a mirror to social injustice is at least covertly political.

But to get back to the subject of “pure” entertainment. What about the most popular musicals of the twentieth century. Probably the first to come to mind are those of Rodgers and Hammerstein. Can we say these are “pure” entertainment?

The most well-known, possibly the most popular, is “The Sound of Music“. But, with the rise of Nazism and the German-Austrian anschluss as its background, politics is surely part and parcel of this work, despite the saccharine sweetness of the Von Trapp children as they sing: “So long, farewell, auf wiedersehen, goodbye”.

Very well, then. How about “South Pacific“? No, strike that one too. The spectre of racial prejudice raised by the romance of Lt. Cable and the native girl, Liat, or by Nellie Forbush’s revulsion on learning that her love interest, Emile de Becque, is the father of two mixed-race children may only be hinted at very delicately by Messrs. Rodgers and Hammerstein, but the explicit message of “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear, You’ve got to be taught from year to year, It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear” is too strong to be ignored.

Okay. Strike Rodgers and Hammerstein.

Phantom of the Opera” anyone? Is there a hidden message there? Perhaps something about looking beyond physical appearance? That is certainly an important educational message, for anyone who can look beyond the Gothic romanticism.

Chicago“? That surely has something to say about the fickleness of the public and the hollowness of fame.

But wait! What about Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s “Cats“? Surely that’s “pure” entertainment. I can’t see any hidden agenda there. And the icing on the cake is, it combines Music, Literature (the poems of T.S. Eliot which served as the basis for the libretto) and CATS – three of my greatest passions (see previous post) – as well as dance, for an evening of spectacular theatre.

Perhaps Messrs. Goldwin and Meyer had it right after all, when they chose their motto – Art for Art’s sake.

 

Posted in Art, Music, Philosophy, Politics, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Music, Secret Gardens and Magic Lanterns

As my faithful readers know, Music is my Great Passion. Music – and Cats.

Let me start again.
As my faithful readers know, Music and Cats are my twin passions. And Literature.

I beg your pardon. I’ll just start over from the beginning.
As my faithful readers know, my three great passions are Music, Cats and Literature. Oh – and Gardens.

All right. Let’s try again.
As my faithful readers know, my four great passions are: Music, Cats, Literature, and Gardens.
And exploring hidden and hitherto unknown beauty spots of Jerusalem.

Oh, hell! Okay. One more time…
Among my great passions are Music, Cats, Literature, Gardens and exploring hidden and hitherto unknown beauty spots of Jerusalem.

Having properly introduced the subject, I can now tell you that over the last couple of weeks, I have been able to indulge many of these passions.

Last Thursday, for example, my choir, the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir, under the baton of Kate Belshé,  gave a concert in the Community Garden of the Jerusalem Natural History Museum in the German Colony, one of my favourite Jerusalem neighbourhoods. The concert was part of a fundraising effort to help finance the restoration of the garden’s historical ornamental pool. Since the Community Garden, though familiar to Jerusalemites living in the neighbourhood, is not exactly on the regular tourist track, (although the museum itself is a popular destination for local school trips), this concert was an opportunity to indulge most of my aforementioned passions :-)

First of all, as I said, there is the garden itself – an almost secret garden, whose existence is not widely known:

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Then there was the music. Raul, from the bass section, filmed the whole concert in video, so I can share some of it with you. Please bear in mind that, beside the noise made by the many children in the audience, the acoustics of an outdoor concert – unless you have the advantage of an acoustic shell, such as in London’s Kenwood Gardens – are unlikely to be the best.
Come now, and join me, in the garden.

Here is “Tsipor Shniya” (ציפור שניה – “Second Bird”), with lyrics by the Bialik Prize and Israel Prize-winning poet Nathan Zach, set to music by Misha Segal:

I saw a bird of great beauty.
The bird saw me.
A bird of such great beauty
I shall see no more
Till the day I die.
A quiver of sunlight passed me then.
I spoke words of greeting.
The words I spoke yesterday evening
I shall not speak again today.   

And now we switch to Latin, for a setting of Psalm 150 by the  Brazilian composer Ernani Aguiar:

I mentioned in one of my previous posts that, since Kate took over as our conductor, we have been singing quite a lot of American choral music. Here we are, performing Randall Thompson’s “Glory to God in the Highest”:

What better way to end than with a traditional Israeli Hora from the 1930s –  “Sovevuni” (סובבוני – “Spin me round”) by Ya’akov Orland (lyrics) and Mordechai Zeira (music), arranged for choir by Yehuda Engel?

Spin me round….Dance for me, one single song ….This is the song, this and no other,   There is no other song, ever….It will not change….By night, quietly, the dance  flares up again. All our lives are a burning torch….in our glowing night….     

Well, there you have it. One concert, which catered to all five of my passions: music, fine literature, gardens,  and hidden beauty spots. You will just have to believe me – as I have no photo to prove it – when I tell you that there were several cats roaming around the garden, some of them sitting listening to our concert ;-)

One the way home from the concert, I passed by the Shalom Hartman Institute which is, itself, surrounded by a beautiful garden:

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Although I saw no cats there, we did meet up with a quartet of very handsome dogs:

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Yet another garden of whose existence I have known for years, but had never before visited, until a couple of weeks ago, is Ganei Rechavia, on the corner of Shmuel Hanagid and Narkiss Streets, a hidden oasis in the heart of town, just two minutes walk from the busy King George – Ben Yehuda intersection. This is actually a private garden, I believe, for the use of the residents of the surrounding apartment buildings, but although it has a gate, it is not locked.
20150521_125123 Gan Rechavia 20150521_125114 Gan Rechavia

Here I found, not only cats and kittens aplenty, but also, unsurprisingly,  beautiful, delicate butterflies:

20150517_172855 Cat in Gan Rechavia

20150521_124308 Gan Rechavia

20150521_124353(0) Gan Rechavia

20150607_123043 Butterfly in Gan Rechavia

20150521_124353 Gan Rechavia

Finally, this post would not be complete without a mention of this year’s Festival of Light in Jerusalem, held, as usual, in and around the Old City.

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Here, besides the various constructions, such as the colourful jellyfish which greet the visitor on entering the Jaffa Gate

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or the circle of angels on the plaza at Zahal Square,  whose invitation to join them and become part of the display, it would prove hard to resist,

one might find, among the many contributions by artists from Israel, France, Holland, Germany, Brazil, Japan, Singapore, Austria and (surprisingly) Turkey, a display constructed of hundreds of lampshades, painted by children from all quarters of the Old City. Closely observed, one can see that these are ordinary lampshades of the kind that was very common in the middle years of the twentieth century:

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When one steps back, however, and looks at the whole, the effect is of dozens of Chinese lanterns, filling what has so often been a battleground, with the light of hope.

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Nor was there any lack of music.

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Music was everywhere, even on the steps leading to the Kotel (the Western Wall):

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The Kotel is a garden. Between its stones grow moss and hyssop – but also flowers:

Western wallflowers

And when, on the way back, the desire to escape the crowds led me away from the marked route, down darker streets and past hidden courtyards,

Dark streets   Alleyway

Hidden Armenian courtyard
still, one could turn a corner and stumble across a musician.

And what could be more fitting, here, in the City of David, than to find a harpist

Play on your harp

and, moreover, one who declares (see the handwritten notice beside her):

I PLAY TO MAKE YOU SMILE AND BRING PEACE TO YOUR HEART?

Shabbat Shalom to you all.

Posted in Art, Daily Life, Music | Tagged , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

When Is An Antisemite – An Antisemite?

You’ve all heard the hoary denials – I am not an antisemite, I am simply a critic of Israel’s policies. Or (if they are even slightly honest) – I am not an antisemite, I am anti-Zionist, because Zionism is racism.

I have written, on more than one occasion, about how anti-Zionism is so very often used as a cloak for antisemitism. A person who would deny to the Jewish nation, a right they would grant to any other nation on earth, is, ipso facto, discriminatory and racist. Racism against the Jewish people is antisemitism, whichever way you look at it.

Ah, but what about Jewish anti-Zionists, they will say? How can they be antisemites?

Well, yes, I’m afraid some of them most certainly can.
Throughout history, some of the most vicious enemies of the Jewish people have been those who were, at least, born Jews. In some cases, Jews who converted to other faiths tried to “prove” their loyalty to their new religion by being “holier than the Pope”, informing on fellow Jews, spreading infamous blood libels about their former co-religionists and so on. For others, I can find no logical explanation for their hatred of their own people.

Let me give you a modern day example from a Seattle-based blogger called Richard Silverstein. For those of you who have never heard of him (the majority, I suspect), Silverstein is a self-proclaimed Jew who is so obsessive in his hatred of Israel that he does not hesitate to descend to the use of the most outrageous blood libels, both against the Jewish State and against the Jewish religion. For example, he recently implied  that “halachic norms that are in practice today and endorsed by some rabbinic figures” include “collecting Palestinian foreskins as battle trophies”!!! (I will refrain from giving the link, so as not to drive any more traffic than is absolutely necessary to his pathetic little blog, but I have a screenshot, available on request.) He offers no source or evidence for this outrageous claim and when I tried to comment, in order to demand such proof, I was ignored (or possibly blocked. Dickie dislikes dissent).
By the way, I don’t know about you, but on reading this, I began to wonder.  After all, are the “Palestinians” not, by and large, Muslims? And, as such, are they not circumcised and therefore, ipso facto, foreskinless?

In the past, Silverstein has not hesitated to use all the most common  antisemitic tropes. Expressions such as “Court Jews”, “fat cat Jews”, “yet another wealthy GOP Jew”, trip easily off his tongue, playing up the traditional antisemitic stereotypes of “rich Jews” oppressing “poor Gentiles”. Expressions such as “wealthy Jewish corporate executives”, “the Republican Jewish Coalition…a political country-club for the fat-cat set”, are all calculated to reinforce the idea that a cabal of wealthy Jewish capitalists are pulling the strings behind world government in general and American government in particular. Silverstein cynically harps on the theme, much beloved of antisemites, that American Jews have, at best, divided loyalties and, at worst, are more loyal to Israel than to the United States.

Nor does Silverstein confine his blood libels to those modern-day Jews who support Israel. Not so long ago, I was astounded to read that, according to this supposed Jew, the Jewish festival of Purim celebrates an act of genocide committed by the Jews of the ancient Persian Empire against their non-Jewish neighbours. For those not familiar with the Book of Esther, I will remind you that the Persian Grand Vizier, Haman, schemed to commit genocide against the Jews of the Persian Empire and, to that end, tricked the Persian King, Ahasuarus, into signing an order for their destruction, to be carried out on the 13th day of the month of Adar.  Esther, the Queen, who was herself Jewish, revealed Haman’s evil plan to the King, who found himself in a quandary. Once the King had signed a command, it could not, according to the law of the Medes and Persians, be changed. So the King did the next best thing and signed another command, giving the Jews the right to defend themselves if they were attacked. They did so, and slew several thousand of those who came to slay them. Any honest person would call that self-defence. The Richard Silversteins of this world, however, call that “genocide”.

This is what he writes:

“there’s a dark underlying savagery to this holiday.  That’s because, according to the      Book of Esther, the king’s advisor, Haman, plots the extermination of the Jews of              Persia. He fails and in the process it is his entire family and supporters who are wiped      out on scaffolds erected throughout the kingdom, originally meant for the Jews.
There is no other way to describe this than genocide.”

In short, it is hard to escape the suspicion that Silverstein hates, not only Israel, but the Jewish people and the Jewish religion, since he does not hesitate to defame both.
Is he then, one of those self-hating Jews who lead the clarion calls for the destruction of the only Jewish state in the world?
Personally, I hesitate to call him a self-hating Jew. For one thing, Silverstein doesn’t hate himself. In fact, rarely have I come across a blogger more in love with himself. If you want a definition of “narcissistic”, Silverstein is an almost perfect example.
For another, we only have Silverstein’s word – for what it’s worth – that he is Jewish at all.

So, is Silverstein an antisemite?

Well, let’s put it this way: if something looks like $*** and smells like $***,  it probably is $***.

Posted in International Relations, Politics, Religion | Tagged , , , , , , | 14 Comments

Troubles Always Come in Threes

Help! I am having a Household Appliance Crisis!

The week before last, after a series of Serious Life-Threatening Illnesses, and in light of the absence of suitable transplant donors, my Vacuum Cleaner finally gave up the ghost.

Last Friday, it was the turn of my Microwave Oven, which had not been in the best of health for some time, but whose condition had not previously been considered life-threatening.

Since they say Troubles come in threes, I was wondering what would be next. This morning, on my return from a series of medical tests for which I was required to fast for 12 hours beforehand, and feeling desperate for a cup of coffee, I had my answer. I found my Electric Kettle, which, until yesterday, had been in (almost) perfect health, devoid of Vital Signs. After a thorough examination, resuscitation was attempted but the Patient failed to respond to treatment and I was forced to confirm its decease.

And I won’t even go into the Mysterious Disappearance of the Potato Peeler…..

Posted in Daily Life, Humour, Modern Living | Tagged , , , , , | 19 Comments

A Double Dose of Leonard Bernstein

As I mentioned in a previous post, last week my choir appeared in two concerts. On Sunday March 22nd, the massed forces of the Jerusalem Oratorio Choir and the Israel Chamber Orchestra, with soloists Daniela Skorka and Yair Polishook, opened the Jerusalem Festival of the Arts with Bach’s ever- popular Cantata no. 140 (Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme), under the baton of Na’ama Nazarathy-Gordon. Well, we were supposed to open with the Bach, but we played a trick on the audience by having the men of the choir “hijack” the show with a rousing rendition of Yehezkel Braun’s Vayimalet Cain (“And Cain Fled”), sung from the aisles to thunderous applause, before joining us on the stage for the rest of the concert.

After the Bach, we were joined by  the girls (and one brave boy!) of the Efroni Children’s Choir and together, we performed Fauré’s lovely Cantique de Jean Racine, after which the children sang the song Vois sur ton chemin from the film “Les Choristes“.

It was then time for a complete change of mood, as the women of the choir (and three brave men!) took to the stage to perform a short selection of songs from Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s colourful Romancero Gitano, arranged for a women’s choir and conducted by the equally colourful Flora Vinokurov. For these pieces, we were accompanied by guitar, violin, cello and harp, as well as by the mezzo-soprano Ella Wilhelm and flamenco dancer Michaela Harari. In the absence of any video-clips from the concert (I understand the committee is working on producing a DVD), the link is to a clip I found on YouTube, where the arrangement is, of course, completely different, but will serve as an introduction for those not familiar with the work.

The final item was Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, where the central section (Psalm 23) featured the delightful 12-year-old soloist Yael Shapira. The piece was written with a boy soprano in mind, but Yael was wonderful and, as I heard later from my guests, completely charmed the audience. The Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir has performed this piece before, but it was a first for the full Oratorio Choir, and it is by no means an easy piece to sing,  so the fact that Na’ama persuaded them (most of us, anyway) to learn the piece by heart and sing without notes was nothing short of miraculous. :-)  We performed the version for choir, piano, harp and percussion but apparently, we will be performing the piece again in the autumn, this time with a full symphony orchestra.

The following day, March 23rd, the Jerusalem Oratorio Chamber Choir appeared at the same venue, the Henry Crown Auditorium at the Jerusalem Performing Arts Centre, together with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, the Shahar Choir from Rehovot, the Ankor Youth Choir and members of the Tel Aviv Philharmonic Choir, soprano soloist Sharon Azrieli Perez  and the actor Richard Dreyfuss, in Bernstein’s powerful Symphony no. 3 – Kaddish, under the baton of Maestro Steven Mercurio.

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While the Kaddish has some things in common with the Chichester Psalms, such as the frequent changes of rhythm and tempo, it is a much more difficult piece, being (for the most part) in twelve-tone form.  Having to perform it one day after the Oratorio Choir’s Gala concert made for an extremely tight rehearsal schedule, with as many as four rehearsals a week (two for each concert) and one memorable week, a rehearsal every day except for Shabbat!  Moreover, we took this engagement upon ourselves at very short notice and had only six weeks to prepare. Had it not been for the determination and encouragement of our conductor, the indefatigable Kate Belshé, I don’t know how we would have done it!

I would never have believed that I would actually enjoy singing atonal music – and to be quite honest, the bits that I liked best were the bits where the Speaker’s despair finally resolves into a re-affirmation of faith and the music turns tonal. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the piece, and with the concept, I should explain that the Kaddish is a Jewish prayer which is recited daily but which is particularly associated with the memorial prayer for the dead, although it never mentions the word “death” and is, in fact, a hymn of praise to the Almighty. In Bernstein’s version (dedicated to the memory of John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated shortly before the work was due to have its premiere performance), the original Aramaic words of the ancient prayer are sung by a soprano soloist, a boys’ chorus and a mixed choir, while a Speaker conducts a dialogue (or, more accurately, an argument) with God, in which he castigates the Almighty for failing to keep His covenant with His people, in a way which some have considered almost blasphemous and which made me feel pretty uncomfortable myself, wondering if God was going to punish us by striking us down with a thunderbolt any minute. The full text can be found here.

In fact, this calling of God to account, has more than one precedent in the Jewish tradition, the most famous probably being the Kaddish of Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, who called the Almighty to a Din Torah (דין תורה – a lawsuit) and demanded to know why God so punished and oppressed such a faithful people, and that He should immediately put a stop to it! It has been recorded many times, both in the original Yiddish (here sung by the great tenor Jan Peerce) and in translation – for example, this version, in English, sung by Paul Robeson. It is hard to escape the thought that the English text of Bernstein’s Kaddish, written by the composer himself, was almost certainly  a reaction to the Holocaust and the horrors of World War Two.

I have no film of the concert itself, so here are some clips from one of the rehearsals (credit to Raul Roitman, from the bass section of our choir). In this clip, we can see one of the most difficult pieces for the choir, where we have to enter, clapping, with perfect timing:

This next clip is the start of the Din Torah section. I have chosen to share it with you because it displays most clearly why some people may think that Bernstein went too far, as he calls the Almighty a “Tin God” and hurls the accusation at him that “Your bargain is tin.” I also show it because I think that Richard Dreyfuss was particularly good in this bit.

Now here is a bit from the section Kaddish 2, featuring the soprano soloist and the women’s choir:

And here is the Finale, where tonality returns (more or less) to the music, as despair turns to hope, and Speaker, choir, soloist and orchestra re-affirm their faith in God, praise His name and pray for peace:

The concert, which was in memory of the soloist’s father, Israeli-Canadian real-estate tycoon, architect and philanthropist David Azrieli, also included Ernst Bloch’s Hebraic Rhapsody for Cello, Schelomo, performed by Michael Fitzpatrick, and ended (by audience demand!) – as it had begun – with Ben Steinberg’s setting of the ancient Jewish prayer Shalom Rav (שלום רב – “Abundant Peace”), from the Shabbat Evening Amidah prayer, arranged and orchestrated by Maestro Mercurio:

Translation:

Grant abundant peace unto Israel thy people for ever;
For thou art the sovereign​ Lord of all peace;
and may it be good in thy sight to bless thy people Israel at all times and in every hour with thy peace.
Bless​ed art thou, O Lord, who blessest thy people Israel with peace.
Trans​lation from The Standard Prayer book by Simeon Singer (1915) (public domain)

Tomorrow evening is the Seder night, marking the start of the Pessach (Passover) festival. It’s a time that has often been chosen by our enemies to attack us, whether it was pogroms carried out by Christian worshippers whipped up to a fury against the “Christ-killers” by the anti-Jewish preaching of priests in their churches at Easter, or “Palestinian” terrorists butchering Jews gathered to celebrate the Seder in a Netanya hotel. It seems fitting, therefore, to end with this prayer,  especially since this year, the first day of Pessach falls on Shabbat:

Grant abundant peace unto Israel, thy people, for ever

Chag sameach – חג שמח

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Living in a PC World: Elections and Stereotypes

Well, we’ve reached the end of the race – almost. Tomorrow is Election Day in Israel, and I am still  (slightly) undecided as to who to vote for.
There isn’t one party which totally meets my “wish list”  – and I suspect the same is true for the vast majority of voters.
It’s a shame one can’t do “mix ‘n’ match” with the various party platforms, the way one does with clothes, tableware or bed-linen.

In a way, voting for a political party – any political party – means conforming to a political stereotype, at least in the eyes of the opponents of that party. It is like submitting to the PC Thought Police. The moment you tell someone you’re  voting for a particular party, you are  instantly tagged as a fascist/enemy of Israel/bigot/self-hating Jew/heartless capitalist/ bleeding-heart do-gooder/(take your pick).
Apparently it is impossible for one who believes in the right of the Jewish People to all of Eretz Yisrael  also to care for the downtrodden middle class who cannot make ends meet. If you oppose the proposed “Israel as a Jewish State” Bill, it can only be because you are a Leftist, self-hating Jew, not because you think it is totally unnecessary to state the obvious. If you think homosexuality is abnormal, but support the Civil Partnership Law, you are still a bigot in the eyes of “the enlightened” and a destroyer of Jewish Family Values in the eyes of the orthodox and if you think that Israel can exist as a Jewish State without abolishing the standing of Arabic as an official language – forget it. You are a racist in the eyes of the Left  (because only a racist would support the right of Jews to their own state) and a Fifth Columnist/Traitor in the eyes of the Right (because obviously, keeping Arabic as an official language weakens the “Jewishness” of the State of Israel).

I think that I, like many “floating” voters, will be deciding which slip of paper to drop into the ballot box, on the basis of “the lesser of two (or more) evils”. It has often been said that the Israeli voter is always voting against something, never for something. A perfect example of this attitude, carried to extremes, is the campaign slogan of the centrist and left-wing parties: “Just not Bibi”. It reminds me of the old joke about the Jew who is shipwrecked on a desert island and who, when he is rescued after 20 years of life as a hermit, proudly points out to his rescuers the synagogue he has built for himself, although, as he admits, he only prays there once a year, on Yom Kippur. As they all marvel at his ingenuity, he tells them: “Oh, this is nothing. Just wait till you see the other synagogue I have built, over at the far side of the island.”
“Why do you need two synagogues?” they ask him.
“That other one is the one I wouldn’t be caught dead in!” is the reply.

What I am trying to say is that the moment you announce your intention to vote for any particular party, after weeks of soul-searching and after finally arriving at the conclusion that Party X is not perfect (far from it) but that Parties A, B and C are worse, you are instantly tagged with all the stereotypes attached to the supporters of that particular party. And the PC Thought Police reinforces this attitude. According to their Orwellian agenda, it is not enough to support whatever cause is the “Flavour of the Day”. You must support it for whatever they have deemed to be “the right reasons”.

Nor is anyone willing to listen to a word  “the Other Side” has to say. For example, I have a friend from my choir who thinks I am a fascist and a racist, because I want Israel to be  “a Jewish state”. She thinks she knows what I mean by “a Jewish state” and won’t let me explain that what I mean by the term and what some others might mean by the term are not necessarily one and the same. She cannot conceive of the possibility that a person might believe fervently in the right of the Jewish People to their own state in all of Eretz Yisrael, while still respecting the civil rights of the Arab minority.

Likewise the question of same-sex marriage. Even if one agrees that people have a right to deviate from “the norm”, as long as they are not harming anyone else, one is still “a bigot”, if one does not believe homosexuality is “normal” , because for some people, if one uses terms like “normal”, one is making a value judgement. The common response of these people is usually something on the lines of “Who gave you the right to decide who is normal and who is not?” Try to explain what you mean by “normal” and they won’t let you get a word in edgeways, because you have already been branded a bigot and the democratic right to freedom of speech is only for those who happen to agree with what the self-proclaimed “enlightened” have deemed to be Politically Correct.

Hand-in-hand with this stereotyping of other people’s positions is the extremely defensive attitude concerning one’s own. My American-born friend from the choir who thinks support for a Jewish State is inherently racist, when asked what it was that drew her to make aliyah, does not recognise my innocent question as a perfectly genuine attempt to elicit from her an analysis of her view of the Jewish connection to Eretz Yisrael. What she hears is: “If you don’t like it here in the Jewish state, go back to the USA.” And she refuses to allow any further discussion, any attempt to explain that this was not my intention at all.

I hasten to add, I do not believe that this behaviour is uniquely Israeli. I fear it is a trait shared by a very large number of people the world over. On the face of it, it doesn’t seem to bode very well for the future of Humanity.
In fact, sometimes, I wonder how we’ve managed to survive this long.
And yet, in spite of everything, the Human Race has managed – somehow – to muddle through.

Just as I am sure that, despite the dire predictions of Left and Right, Israel will also pull through, whatever the outcome of tomorrow’s elections.

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