Jewish Music Week: Cantor rocks it out in shul, music from Theresienstadt comes alive and popular Israeli songs are celebrated
June 19, 2012 | Jewish Tribune
Davida Ander Tribune Intern
TORONTO – From pop tunes in shul to music from Theresienstadt concentration camp to the history of Israeli popular songs, the variety of morning programs offered at Jewish Music Week brought entertainment and discussion.
For Eyal Bitton, hearing tunes like Do-Re-Mi, Sunrise, Sunset and Blowing in the Wind in synagogue is not out of the ordinary.
The cantor, composer and playwright shared his adapted pop music prayer tunes at Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue as part of the recent Jewish Music Week.
Attendees were presented with “kosher” pop music and then asked to identify the tunes. After playing the guessing game, participants were asked whether they preferred the newer tune version or the traditional one.
Some were not pleased with the incorporation of lighthearted, modern tunes into services, saying that the nostalgia-ridden songs took them out of shul headspace or were inappropriate.
“As long as you’re not into a rapid rock beat,” one listener called out at the start.
“Oh just wait,” Bitton responded before performing prayers to Rolling Stones’ and Beatles’ songs, as well as tunes from The Brady Bunch and James Bond.
Bitton has found that combining traditional and modern music has uplifted the morale of shul-goers.
“I have to recognize that the congregant is living in the western world and exposed to certain musical styles and the music that I choose has to fit their ears, otherwise it is too foreign. By taking a melody that people already know, [I’m] trying to encourage communal singing.
“As a cantor, I want to stand on my head. I want to do whatever it takes to make my congregation feel excited about services,” Bitton said during his lecture and performance.
The event featured Beth Emeth cantor David Edwards, who sang an excerpt of prayers from Friday night services.
Bitton does themed Shabbats, some of which have been ABBA, Folk, Broadway and Hollywood, at Beth Jacob Synagogue two to four times per year.
In Theresienstadt, one of the inmates explained the importance of music by saying, “Music is life.”
This spirit was captured at Kensington Place, where a variety of songs composed within Theresienstadt were performed.
Aliza Spiro, the musical director of Jewish Music Week, introduced each song and gave in-depth background information.
Downtown Sound, a choir made up of four singers from the Beth Tzedec Singers, sang songs with richness and kavana (a Hebrew word for intention and meaning), but with their noses buried behind their binders.
They included music by composers Viktor Ullmann and Hans Krása, musical adaptations of the writings from the underground magazine Vedem and the book of poems I Never Saw Another Butterfly, songs from the Brundibár children’s opera, and the surprising insertion of a song written and performed by Spiro called Bless the Children.
Theresienstadt inmates George Brady and John Freund unexpectedly showed up at the event. Brady was one of about 100 teenage boys who secretly produced the weekly, hand-copied magazine Vedem (meaning In the Lead), from 1942-1944.
Despite poverty, fearful conditions and a lack of musical instruments and rehearsal facilities, Theresienstadt musicians captured sentiment and spirit in their songs that was recaptured at the short event.
Well-known Israeli songs such as Kum V’hithalech Ba’aretz, Al Kol Eleh and Machar were given new meaning at a fast-paced and slightly chaotic singalong at the Prosserman JCC during Jewish Music Week.
Cantor Benjamin Maissner briefed attendees on the back story of musicians and their songs, racing through the development of popular song in Israel.
Maissner distributed a comprehensive book of songs containing Hebrew and transliterated versions of Israeli songs about pioneers, war and peace, Jerusalem, influential composers and songs of love.
He explained how folk music transitioned into pop, and the obstacles for folk songs such as increasing song genres and the dilution of Hebrew songs with English words. As time progressed, the Israeli songs became less nationalistic and less spoken in the plural voice, such as in the song Anu Olim Artza, (We are Going Up to Israel).
“It is only a short while ago that the uniqueness of the Israeli folk song was discovered and seriously considered as an art form and a legitimate chapter in the musical history of Israel,” Maissner said.
Attendees learned bits of history and stories about the conception of songs such as the fact that Naomi Shemer’s Lu Yehi is a translation of the Beatles’ song Let it Be. Shemer invented the melody on the way to the recording studio.
Sandy Rapp attended this event and others at Jewish Music Week.
“For any of these events…I will come away from it and I’ve learned something new. It’s not only about the events, it’s more educational than entertaining,” she said.