Celebrating Remembrance


By Joseph Leichman

Published August 14, 2008, issue of August 22, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Yizkor, the memorial service chanted but four times in the course of the Jewish year, was composed in the wake of the Crusades, nearly 1,000 years ago. The spirit that spurred its creation has long since vanished.

Undaunted, bassist David Chevan has tried to recapture it.

Together with his band, the Afro-Semitic Experience, and renowned cantor Alberto Mizrahi, Chevan is releasing this month “Yizkor: Music of Memory,” an album of jazz improvisations based on the Yizkor service and some of the Psalms.

The main motivating force behind the project, Chevan said, was the desire to preserve and reanimate the tradition of hazanut, or cantorial singing. The art was long the dominant musical style in synagogues the world over, but in recent decades it has been phased out by many communities.

“A lot of synagogues want to get as far away from cantorial singing as possible,” said Chevan, a professor of music at Southern Connecticut State University, in a telephone interview with the Forward. “They see it as something that pushes people away from Judaism and religious practice, but for generations the cantor served as an intermediary between the congregation and the Lord.”

Cantorial singing is something that Chevan associates with his “grandmother’s generation,” whose traditions, he said, he was hoping to honor with his new work.

The album begins with the piece “Adonai, Mah Adam” (“My God, What Is Man?”), and then moves on to treatments of Psalms 16, 121 and 123. A highlight is the fourth track, “Yizkor for Martyrs.”

During the Crusades, when some Jews chose death over baptism, the community “needed a unique way of marking and remembering [the deceased],” Chevan said. The prayer takes its name from the word zachor, Hebrew for “remember.”

Chevan is no stranger to sacred music. The Afro-Semitic Experience, which the bassist co-founded with pianist Warren Byrd in 1999, has performed sacred and secular material from both the Jewish and African-American traditions. Their 2005 album, “Plea for Peace,” covers a broad range of material, from Duke Ellington’s “Almighty God” to Yisroel Schorr’s “Sheyiboneh Beis Hamikdash” (“When the Temple is Rebuilt”).

To infuse the work with traditional depth, Chevan invited Mizrahi, the hazan at Chicago’s Anshe Emet synagogue. One of the world’s most accomplished cantors, with equal fluency in Ashkenazic and Sephardic styles, Mizrahi has more than 25 recordings to his name, and has sung at the White House and with the New York Philharmonic.

The Afro-Semitic Experience was uniquely suited to the “Yizkor” album, Chevan said, because “each of us comes from a very strong spiritual background, like Gospel Baptist and Jewish. One [of us] is even a Yoruba priest.”

The album is nothing if not diverse. Cantorial melodies, exotic rhythms, Indian Raga (a classical Indian style) and other styles combine to form a surprisingly nonmournful “lament.” Chevan’s rendition of Pslam 23, for instance, has a swinging beat and optimistic character — unexpected attributes for a work of remembrance.

In Judaism, Chevan said, “the emphasis, a lot of the time, seems to be on ‘Cry!’” But I sometimes feel the need to celebrate.

Joseph Leichman is a freelance journalist and musician. He blogs at www.verbalcalorie.com.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • Was Israel really shocked to find there are networks of tunnels under Gaza?
  • “Going to Berlin, I had a sense of something waiting there for me. I was searching for something and felt I could unlock it by walking the streets where my grandfather walked and where my father grew up.”
  • How can 3 contradictory theories of Yiddish co-exist? Share this with Yiddish lovers!
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.