Archive for the ‘Rome’ Category

Il Vaticano


So, I know that you are all wondering-what about the pope.  He didn’t make it to the concert, clearly.  How about the papal audience?  Most of our trip benefits were arranged through Cardinal Keeler, the Cardinal Archibishop Emeritus of Baltimore.  Unfortunately, Cardinal Keeler fell ill right before our departure and consequently was unable to come to Rome.  Because he was our primary contact here, plans began to fall through left and right.  My heart so went out to Cantor Claire Franco and Gunther Lawrence who had dedicated untold hours into this trip only to have this happen now.  Strings were pulled, pulled, and pulled again, allowing a small portion of people in the group to get VIP passes to the weekly papal audience.  Everyone else would get general seats with the rest of the crowd.  Debate went back and forth about who the lucky few would be.  A lot of non-Cantors paid very dearly to attend this trip.  They should surely get the tickets.  But, wait- this is supposed to be a cantorial mission.  Cantors should go.  A compromise was reached.  Some people graciously gave up their place and the group that ultimately went was a mixture of cantors and lay people.  There were, however, enough cantors to sing when, and if, we were acknowledged by the Pope. 

Our group name would surely be on the list.  I was 101117_102853granted the honor of being in this section in large part due to my association with George Bryant, my accompanist from the synagogue who had joined me on this journey.  As one of the ones who had paid for the trip, and a Catholic, he would go.  I got to go with him.  I cannot imagine what an amazing experience it must be for a religious catholic like George to stand so close to the pope.  Of course, George had done it before!  He was here with his choir 17 years ago.  They were acknowledged and they sang.

The scene at the Vatican was amazing.  Thousands of faithful pilgrims had flocked here to catch a glimpse of the Pope.  Groups in the VIP section were practicing their songs.  Bands of musicians in the general crowd were practicing as well. 


We were debating what to sing if we got called.  Should we send the simple message of Oseh Shalom or Shalom Aleichem, or should we wow them with the magestic beauty of the Kol Haneshamah section of Lewandowski’s Halleluyah.  Many of us were concerned that the other pieces would not be loud or powerful enough to leave an impression.  but we settled on the Kol Han’shamah section of Lewandowski’s Hal’luyah.  We decided to practice to see how it sounded.  When we finished, the entire section burst into applause!  Later when I went to the front to take some pictures of the Pope’s chair, a man took me aside to ask if I was part of that wonderful choir.  He wanted to know who we were and where we were from,  I told him that we were a group of Jewish Cantors, clergy in charge of music, from America.  He responded, "That was JEWISH MUSIC?!?"

The pope came out in his Pope mobile to the adjurations of the crowd.  When he arrived at the front, he sat in his chair and delivered a sermon about Saint Julianna (I think).  It was all in Italian and I only understood bits and pieces of it. Still, it was mesmerizing because his speaking voice is so lovely, so gentle, so kind. 

After he finished speaking, Cardinals introduced the pilgrims from various countries divided by the language that they spoke.  The Pope responded to each one by welcoming the group in their native tongue and speaking a little bit again about the Saint.  I heard that the Pope speaks twenty languages (I looked it up later and it’s only 10.)  I heard him speak Italian, German, French, Spanish, Portugese, and English (not in that order).  As various communities were named, many sang or played instruments for the Pope.  When the Cardinal got up to announce the English speaking pilgrims, we took our pitches for our song and prepared to greet him.  Unfortunately our name was not called.  Maybe, we thought, he was naming only catholic pilgrims at the point and others would be named at a later time?  Unfortunately not. 

We need to give the Vatican the benefit of the doubt and know that something went wrong in the communication, not that we, as Jews, were being snubbed.  I understand that things at the Vatican can, at times, be disorganized, and it is easy for things to be overlooked.  So, we never met or sang for the Pope.  We knew from the beginning that nothing was totally guaranteed, but of course, we were disappointed. 

In thinking about it now, I wonder if we miss the point by being disappointed.  Gunther said that we made history on this trip.  We were the first group of Jewish Cantors ever to be invited to perform in a Basilica.  We had interfaith conversations and our music and voices were heard and respected.

When I spoke with that reporter before my trip, I told her that I hoped we would make the world a more peaceful place.  She thought I was naive, I think, but I don’t care.  Every journey begins with a single step.  When children learn to walk, they don’t just stand up and start running.  They take a few tentative steps, they fall down, they cry, they get back up and keep walking.
I’m ready to keep walking.  Will you join me?

P.S.  This is not the last post about the trip.  I promised sound recordings of rehearsals, more pictures, and a copy of the program.  These will come in the next few days.  A documentary was made about our journey in addition to a recording of the concert.  We are looking for donations to help underwrite the production of this historic film.  If you enjoyed reading about my trip, I hope you will consider helping to underwrite the productions.  There will be more word in upcoming posts on how to do that, although I am sure that a donation to the American Conference of Cantors, earmarked for the production of this film, will end up in the right place!




To G-d’s Ears – Part II

I managed to pull myself together before we walked out and began to sing. Cantor Lauren Bandman, who is fluent in Italian, introduced our program beautifully and we began our concert with Shalom Aleichem of Sharlin. I noticed that the Monsignor of this basilica was sitting in the front row. When the concert began, he looked like he was attending one of the many concerts that he is required to attend for his job. He was listening politely, but didn’t seem particularly engaged. The three highest level officials to make it to our concert were this man, the American Ambassador to the Vatican, and the vice chair of the Italian office on interreligious issues. I wanted this to touch them, to not be just another concert. Would we succeed?

The second piece was Hinei Mah Tov by Sulzer. It was at this point that we heard the organ for the first time… while singing! It was lovely, as was the piece. If you haven’t heard this piece, you should try to find a recording. It really sounds like it was written to be sung in a Cathedral. It has a High Church kind of sound and it was lovely. Cantor Jonathan Grant sang the solo with delicate grace. Delicious! About 20 seconds after we finished the last note, the sound finally died. During that time it just reverberated around and around the Basilica. This can be lovely, or it can sound like mud. In this case, it was lovely.

The third and fourth pieces were Adon Olam of Salomone Rossi (Cantor Lori Corrsin, soloist) and Etz Chayim of Naumbourg (Cantor Todd Kipnis, soloist) These were done in a smaller chorale, so I got to sit for a moment and just soak it in. Lovely!

The fifth piece shifted the style to give our audience a taste of the chassidic sound – Charles Davidson’s L’cha Dodi. I think I caught the Monsignor crack a slight smile. Did I see him moving a little to the music? I’m not quite sure… This was a tough piece to perform effectively in such an echoey space, but with Cantor Barak’s joyful and animated conducting, I think we actually pulled it off! The soloists were Cantors Gail Hirschenfang, Tracey Scher, Peter Halpern, and Richard Cohn.

Next we sang Modim / V’al Kulam. The soloist for Modim was Cantor David Berger. The words just dripped from his mouth like honey! The piece segued into V’al Kulam with Cantors Lauren Bandman and Nancy Kassel taking the lead. It was so delicate, so sweet. Exquisite.

Sim Shalom of Janowski, with Cantor Roz Barak chanting the solo was, for me, a show stopper. You should have heard the echo at the close of the final chord! It was magic.

Throughout the program, different Cantors got up to announce some of the pieces and explain their liturgical context. It was now my turn to discuss the next two selections, Yihyu L’ratzon and Elohai N’tzor. Here is what I said:
The central section of the prayer service concludes with our most important prayer, the prayer for peace, which you just heard. It is at this point in our worship that we turn our thoughts to G-d individually, rather than collectively.

Prayer takes two forms – keva, the concrete, written text of the prayers, and kavannah, the personal intention that each individual brings to the text. At its best, prayer is a perfect blend of the two – the mouth reciting the keva while, inspired by the text, the mind and heart add the personal dimension, the kavannah to the rich written word. After the communal prayer for peace, then, we have a moment for pure kavannah – pure intention – personal prayer. Following that we recite the words of this next prayer, “yihyu l’ratzon.” The translation of this short prayer is, “may the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable before You, oh G-d, my Rock and my Redeemer.”

The song that follows in tonight’s program, “Elohai N’tzor,” is an example of a personal prayer that was provided to us by our Rabbis, and then written into the prayerbook as a meditation. In it, we pray that we will speak well of others and remain silent in the face of derision, humble in the presence of all, and that our hearts will always be open to Torah. The prayer concludes with the same words as the yihyu l’ratzon prayer that I just discussed.

This text is almost never sung aloud. The modern composition that we will perform for you is a lovely meditation on this text.

Yihyu L’ratzon by Bloch was haunting in this space. There is no other word to describe it. Cantor Richard Cohn, as conductor, brought out every nuance of sound, every crescendo, every dynamic change. Stunning.

Elohai N’tzor of Danny Maseng was the next piece. I was part of a wonderful trio for this one (along with Cantors Susan Caro and Rosalie Boxt and David Berger on guitar) and had the honor of a solo at the end. The music was accompanied by guitar. I was very concerned that this would fall quite flat in the space, but it really didn’t. It was a little delicate gem in the middle of the program.

There were 17 pieces in the concert, in addition to an encore, so I won’t describe all of them. I will post a copy of the program when I return home and can scan it into the computer. I will let you know, though, that I had the honor of a second solo in the Braun V’ahavtah.

I also want to tell you about another special moment in the concert: the world premiere of a piece written just for this event: Eric Contzius’s Mah Ashiv L’Adonai (Psalm 116). The piece was written in a mixture of Hebrew and Latin and was an amazing blend of styles from gregorian chant through a more modern Jewish sound. It is gorgeous! One of my favorite pieces in the entire program. We had to wait (a LONG time) to start the piece because an ambulance was passing by outside and making QUITE a racket! It was well worth the wait! We could have been a little more together during the first few notes of the piece, but otherwise it was really special. I am hoping to do the piece again in collaboration with some church choirs. Congratulations to Cantor Erik Contzius on a true masterpiece!

The closing number of the concert was Cantor Benjie-Ellen Schiller’s Hall’lu – complete with guitar and tof! After our standing ovation, we did the Lewandowski Halleluyah as an encore. The audience loved it. They applauded for quite a long time. I almost wished we had another encore planned!

Now, music aside, I want to tell you the moment that I knew that our concert had “worked.” Remember when I told you about the Monsignor? Well, towards the last couple of pieces in the concert, he took out his own personal camera and started snapping pictures. He would not have bothered documenting this day if he hadn’t been effected by it. Right?
What did I think?

We did it.

This is me standing with Monsignor Renzo Giuliano after the concert.

Light, Language, Learning … L’chaim!

to speak the lean and simple word;

give us the strength to speak
the found word, the meant word;

grant us the humility to speak
the friendly word, the answering word.
And make us sensitive, God,
sensitive to the sound of the words

which others speak
sensitive to the sound of their words
and to the silences between.

-Sheldon H. Blank, Mishkan Tefillah p.166

Today was a wondrous day of words, both spoken and sung. Our day began at the Pontifical North American College. The non-cantors in our group had discussions with the seminarians while the cantors went into the auditorium for our first rehearsal. It will be a stunning achievement to pull together so much beautiful choral music with only two days of rehearsal time, but this was a room full of amazing talent. The sounds of the voices of 20 cantors, no matter how jet-lagged, was really exquisite. It was strange to sing all of this Hebrew music in a room colored very blue in honor of the Virgin, and with rather prominent crosses and statuary. In generations past, we would almost certainly not have been welcome, we would have been targets for attack! Today we were welcomed in to sing and rehearse, to converse and to dine.

After our rehearsal, we joined the seminarians for lunch. They said grace. I understand that we said motzi, but I missed it and so said it quietly to myself. Again, a strange experience to engage in prayer under the cross. This lunch was, by far, the highlight of my day. The food was okay, the company was spectacular. I sat at the table with Cantor Roz Barak, who has an amazingly beautiful soprano voice, a non-Cantor whose name I cannot remember right now (sorry!), and with a priest and two students: Matthew, Luke, and… Richard. (It would have been so funny if his name had been John!). Because it was quite noisy in the room, Roz, Richard and I had our own conversation. We discussed what lead each of us into this field, what the processes of study were to become ordained as priest and invested as cantor, how the various Jewish movements differed and what was the content of our worship, and the role of language in prayer. Roz and I were particularly interested to hear how seminary students felt about the loss of the Latin mass (which is actually still done sometimes, if not in full than at least in part). We talked about how Latin and Hebrew can serve as both barriers to prayer and as tools that can connect people. A Jew can go anywhere in the world and recognize the Hebrew in a service. The same is true of a Catholic when it comes to the Latin mass. We did not delve into any controversial issues. Is was just lunch, after all. It was a time to meet, to talk, to connect on our commonalities, rather than our differences. It was fantastic!

After lunch, we went to meet the chief Rabbi. Regarding yesterday’s post: either I misunderstood, or nobody else was listening. When I brought up the topic of tallit for meeting the Rabbi at breakfast, everyone was as perplexed as I had been about why we would wear a tallit for that occasion. Nobody brought one, nobody wore one, and it simply didn’t come up. The Rabbi was quite cordial. The synagogue was incredible! We had a tour of the Jewish ghetto and then returned to the North American College for another rehearsal.

Two things really struck me today. The first was how amazing it is that we live in a time of such open and kind dialogue. We went from lunch with the priests to the tiny ghetto where Jews lived in too-close quarters, with constant threat and pressure to convert. We rededicated a holocaust memorial IN the seminary. The seminarians were as eager to learn about us as we were to learn about them, not because they wanted to convert us, but because they saw themselves in us.

The other has to do with kashrut. One of the effects of the laws of kashrut is that it keeps communities separate. It sounds like a strange thing to say, but being prevented from breaking bread with others helped keep Jews from assimilating. Reform Jews keep many different levels of kashrut. Reform Judaism is all about making informed choices about our traditions, and doing those things that are inspiring and meaningful to us as individuals. Obviously, we could not expect to be served a kosher meal when eating at a Catholic seminary. They didn’t serve us pork, but they did serve pasta with cheese followed by meat. I just didn’t eat the meat. The priest was fast to offer to see if he could get me fish, but I was perfectly content with pasta. It’s Italy! I could eat pasta for every meal!! Because my level of kashrut didn’t prohibit me from eating the pasta from the non-kosher kitchen, I had the chance to get to know this wonderful priest. I was also able to do that without compromising my own religious convictions.

Tomorrow is concert day, so I will sign off for tonight. Thank you for all of yesterday’s wonderful and thoughtful comments! I’d be especially interested to hear your views on Hebrew and Latin prayers. Do you find that they unite people from different communities or alienate those who do not feel that they can access the language. Have transliterations of Hebrew in the new Reform prayerbook changed your opinion at all? How have you felt attending synagogue or church (if you are Catholic) in other cities and countries?

Buona Sera da Roma

Good evening everyone! It has been a great, but exhausting first day in Rome. I departed the US as Shabbat came to a close. I said the blessing, “hamavdil bein kodesh l’chol,” the blessing that ends Shabbat and praises G-d for creating a distinction between the holy and the profane – the sacred and the everyday. It was a strange blessing to say as I embarked
on a journey that was anything but profane or everyday. It is a sacred and unique mission, the first of its kind.

It was interesting on another level, though. I was going to the Vatican, a city that is for millions, the most sacred place, but for me holds secular rather than holy value. I would be performing sacred music in a sacred place, but the music and place were unconnected with one another and the setting would not be worship. I would be meeting one of the holiest men alive, but a man who is, to me, just a man, albeit one with a great deal of power and influence. I would be working on a sacred mission of peace that would be watched through secular political and media lenses.

Just when I thought these two realms couldn’t get any more mixed up, I began to think about the attire that we were being asked to don for various occasions. In our first meeting today, we were asked (women and men alike to don tallit and yarmulke for: our meeting with the chief Rabbi of Rome and tour of the Rome synagogue, our meeting with the pope, and our concert. Of these three, none falls at a time when one would traditionally wear a tallit and none is a prayer service. Talk about mixing sacred and secular! A tallit is not like Catholic vestments. It is not a part of our everyday street clergy attire. Yet, if you are in a culture where religious leaders are identified by their clothing, doesn’t it make sense that we should have some way to identify ourselves as religious leaders? When in a Rome….

I am conflicted over these questions, and have begun raising them with my colleagues. It will be interesting to see how the discussion plays itself out over the next couple of days. I will respect the decisions of the organizers of this sacred event. But I am fascinated to hear what you think:
For the pope: tallit and yarmulke, just yarmulke, or up to the individual?
For the chief rabbi: same question as above, but what about the question of women. If the women cantors arrive in yarmulkes, will that distract from our mission by alienating the Rabbi. We have been asked to wear long skirts in order to respect his sacred space. Isn’t wearing a yarmulke going to somewhat cancel out the gesture of goodwill? Would wearing a tallit at the wrong time of day and in a non-prayer service risk making us look ignorant or, worse yet, that we were trying to offend?
For the concert: should we wear tallitot in order to create the visual impression of clergy for our non-Jewish audience?

P.S. I blame all bad writing on jet-lag!
P.P.S for TBT people… See anyone familiar?

Up and Down… Down and Up

“Jacob left Beer-sheba, and set out for Haran.  He came upon a certain place and stopped there for the night, for the sun had set.  Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place.  He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of G-d were going up and down on it.”

(Genesis 28:10-12)  The above is a fresco of this famous Biblical scene that is housed at the Vatican.  The story of Jacob’s ladder is famous and beloved.  My personal favorite lesson in this story is that the angels are going up and down the ladder, not down and up, as you might expect.  The angels’ home base is here on earth.  Going up and down the ladder, they bring an awareness of G-d’s presence to our everyday existence.  Thus Jacob remarks, “G-d was in this place and I did not know it.”

Where was this place where Jacob discovered G-d?  In the middle of nowhere.  It was not a place that he knew.  It was on the way between Beersheba and Haran.  It was on the journey.  I spoke with a Journal News reporter today about my upcoming trip to the Vatican.  She asked me about the often strained relationship between Catholics and Jews.  I spoke (perhaps naively, one might think) about building bridges of peace on our trip.  She replied, “Well, that’s optimistic.”  Yes, perhaps, but a journey begins with one step followed by another and another.  With luck, there are angels on our path, going up and going down, translating our words and our songs into a concrete stone – a cornerstone of peace, Jacob’s pillow, a foundation where dreams are made.  And G-d will be in this place.

Let the Countdown Begin…

I took this picture when we went to Italy on our honeymoon.  I am so excited to be going back to sing!  I arrive next Sunday morning.  I will be posting pictures, sound files (from rehearsals), and news from the trip.  I hope you’ll keep following me on my interfaith journey!

It’s Getting Exciting

Hey folks!  I am really starting to get psyched about this trip to Rome!  I’ve finished fund raising (thanks to ALL who contributed).  I’ve purchased my tickets.  I’ve received the music in the mail (time to get to work on that).  I started discussions with my local Catholic church about doing some joint programming.  I purchased a doodad that will allow me to easily transfer pics from my camera to my mobile devices so that I can blog my trip with pictures every day!

Today I caught sight of the preview video for the documentary that they will be making of our trip.  I saw it on the ACC page on facebook.  If you aren’t a friend of the ACC, come check it out!  Just search for American Conference of Cantors on facebook and become a fan!

Here’s the preview:

Now, true to form with this blog, I need to come up with an idea for a knitting project to take with me to Rome.  The project should be small and portable, and should somehow relate to the theme of faith and building bridges between communities.  Please make some suggestions in the comments!!