From Opera to Yiddish Songs, Joy for the Ears


By Masha Leon

Published September 24, 2004, issue of September 24, 2004.
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“It’s an amazing honor for us to be part of this, the most diverse and largest Jewish festival in the world,” Moishe Rosenfeld told the audience at the 92nd Street Y’s launching of “A Cantorial Celebration of Yiddish Art Song,” which he produced as part of the September 7-14 New York Jewish Music & Heritage Festival, celebrating the 350th anniversary of the first Jews in America.

Among the Jewish art song composers showcased at this unique September 8 event was legendary composer (and director of the Workmen’s Circle choruses) Lazar Weiner (1897-1982), whose work dominated the evening. Ida Rae Cahana, senior cantor of New York City’s Central Synagogue, sang Weiner’s “Dos Gebet”(“A Prayer”) and his “Volt Mayn Tate Raykh Geven” (“If My Father Were Rich”). Cantor Rebecca Garfein of Congregation Rodeph Sholom, also in New York City, performed Weiner’s “A Nign” (“A Tune”) and Abraham Ellstein’s “Vos Iz Gevorn Fun Mayn Shtetele?” (“What Has Become of My Home Town?”). Cantor Martha Novick of Temple Emanu-El in Westfield, N.J., included Weiner’s “Lekoved Shabes” (“For the Sabbath”) in her program.

The 92nd St. Y’s cantor, Dan Rous, chose Sidor Belarsky favorites, including “Dos Lid Fun Besarabye” (“The Song of Bessarabia”). And cantor Robert Abelson of New York City’s Temple Israel interpreted Moses Milner’s “In Kheyder” (“In the Hebrew Schoolroom”) and Weiner’s “Yosl Klezmer” (“Yosl the Musician”). Cantor Lori Corrsin of Temple Emanu-El (NYC) performed sparkling renditions of Maurice Rauch’s “Shifrele’s Portret” (“Little Shifra’s Portrait”) and “Esterke.” (“Little Esther”).

Cantor Jacob Ben-Zion Mendelson, president of the Cantors Assembly of America (and, according to program notes “called mentor by an entire generation of cantors”), recalled: “When I was a young man, Lazar Weiner grabbed me by my red tie and poked me. ‘What are you doing?’ I winced. He poked me again and again. ‘My red tie!’ I exclaimed. ‘Aha!’ Weiner responded. ‘Aha! Colors! You must sing with colors!’ It was a lesson.” Mendelson’s rendition of “Zokhreynu L’Khayim” (“Remember Us for Life”) seemed to transport the audience from the Y’s Kaufmann auditorium to a virtual synagogue. He signed off with Sholom Secunda’s “Dos Yiddishe Lid” (“The Jewish Song”).

Rounding out the program was the Alicia Svigals String Quartet, which presented a klezmer work commissioned by Kronos Quartet. The New Yiddish Chorale, directed by Zalmen Mlotek at the piano (who also masterfully accompanied each cantor), revved up the audience with its upbeat medley of Israeli Pioneer Songs and Michl Gelbart’s searing “Hulyet, Hulyet, Beyze Vintn” (“Rampage Rampage, Raging Winds!”).

Without exception, each cantor’s Yiddish articulation passed my Livishn (Yiddish) muster. The evening was a joy for ear and soul.

* * *

At the champagne-sipping reception crush at the September 8 opening night of Richard Strauss’s opera “Daphne” at Lincoln Center’s New York State Theater, I exchanged small talk with incoming NYC Opera chairman Susan Baker (Goldman, Sachs & Co.), who fondly remembered my late son-in-law, Marc Cohen, when both worked at Kidder, Peabody, & Co; gala chair Nomi Ghez (a board member of the Jewish Museum) and her husband, Dr. Michael Siegal, a cardiologist, who were kvelling about their daughter, an oboist about to audition with the San Francisco Symphony; World Trade Center developer Larry Silverstein; mail-order maven (and Israel Philharmonic Orchestra supporter) Lillian Vernon; indefatigable 94-year-old Kitty Carlisle Hart; Louise Hirschfeld, whose late husband was legendary illustrator Al Hirschfeld; and dancer-choreographer Marge Champion, who, with her late husband, Gower Champion, transformed American dance. Champion and I reminisced about the October 1986 Astaire Awards dinner at The Plaza honoring Bob Fosse, at which Ginger Rogers upstaged all the women in their “little black dresses” by arriving in a “Gone With the Wind” peach organza crinoline dress!

Irwin Schneiderman, outgoing NYC Opera chairman for the past 10 years (“on counsel” at Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP; noted for his pro bono work and involvement in numerous nonprofit organizations; calls himself “a kid from the Jewish ghetto”), told me about his Brooklyn, N.Y., past. “I spent my young years in Brooklyn… Williamsburg, Brooklyn Heights.… My father was born on the Lower East Side in 1888… I went to P.S. 210, Boys High School, went into the navy, then to Harvard (’48) on the G.I. Bill of Rights… and that changed my life.”

* * *

Aryeh Mekel, newly appointed consul general of Israel to New York, was among the 500 guests at the September 5 “Celebration of the Land, on the Land,” launching of the Children’s Center Facilities Dedication campaign at the Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, N.Y.

The evening’s “eye candy” was a 400-seat couch along two sides of a huge tent designed by congregant Michael Stern (of Michael Stern Productions), replete with cushions and pillows in shades of orange, green and hot pink. As the Sheva orchestra of Israel played, guests wended their way toward the dedication across a floor painted in colors to match the pillows.

“This is a magical evening,” said Rabbi Marc Schneier, founding rabbi of the Hampton Synagogue and its affiliate, The New York Synagogue. “This center will be the promised land for our children and our children’s children.… We will be dedicating this facility to the one-and-a-half-million children who perished in the Holocaust, and through our families will keep their memory alive.”

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