Keeping a Dying Musical Tradition Alive With Passion

By Talia Bloch

Published May 28, 2004, issue of May 28, 2004.
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What’s in a name? Sometimes a great deal. Take, for example, Ralph Selig, the son of German-Jewish émigrés. In German, the phrase “Seliges Angedenken,” means “of blessed memory,” and it is perhaps no accident, then, that Selig has become a one-man-act advocating for a tradition that threatens to die out with his parents’ generation: German-Jewish liturgical music or chazzanut.

The 41-year-old Selig displayed an astonishing collection of recordings of a musical movement that took shape in the 19th and early 20th century, in a recent interview with the Forward. It was a fusion of traditional Western European Jewish liturgical motifs with the prevalent classical music style of that time that soared in popularity with the Reform movement, but its further development was brutally cut short by the Holocaust.

On June 13, for the first time in its 50-year history, the Leo Baeck Institute in New York, an archive and research center for the history of Jews from German-speaking lands, will host a concert featuring major works of German-Jewish sacred music. And the event will be directed by Selig, who believes, ultimately, in the power of the performance.

“People say to me, ‘Why do you have this music? What’s the goal of all of this?’ The goal is very simple: It’s to get this music performed,” said Selig. “That’s the key.”

Selig is a professor of mathematics and computer science, but music is clearly his first love. Give him any Jewish liturgical melody, it seems, and he can tell you the tradition in which it originated and who composed it. But his special passion — one that borders, he admits, on obsession — is German-Jewish chazzanut.

In the late 19th century, as the Reform movement was coming into its own in Germany, there was a struggle between those who wanted to retain traditional liturgical modes and those who sought to modernize. Salomon Sulzer, who served as a cantor at the Seitenstettengasse Temple in Vienna from 1826 to 1890, engineered a compromise by taking the traditional Southern German nussach, or liturgical mode, and putting it into the framework of 19th-century compositional style, using an organ, a choir and, at times, the German language. Several decades later, Louis Lewandowski, the choir director at Berlin’s New Synagogue, drew on Eastern German nussach for modern compositions, to become a force felt throughout the Ashkenazic liturgical world.

Selig said he always wonders what would have happened to this music had the Holocaust not intervened. Though a number of German Jews immigrated to the United States, the emphasis in American synagogues has been on participation. German-Jewish compositions are generally not participatory, and to the American ear they may sound like they belong in a concert hall, not a synagogue service.

Even the experts may be unfamiliar with them. Cantorial training at the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and at the Reform Movement’s Hebrew Union College is a combination of traditional Ashkenazic nussach, with its roots lying in Eastern Europe, and modern compositions that emerged from American folk music of the 1960s and 1970s. At these institutions, German-Jewish chazzanut is taught only in the odd course or two. And although parts of all synagogue services may use German-Jewish melodies — for example, the “traditional” Shema melody that contemporary Jews of all denominations recite is a Sulzer composition — usually they are folklorized and congregants are usually not aware of their provenance.

This is why, approximately 10 years ago, Selig began collecting this music. His mother and father were from Berlin and Mannheim, Germany, respectively. He had grown up attending Congregation Habonim, a Conservative synagogue founded by German Jews in 1939 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The synagogue had an organ and a choir and maintained the liturgical tradition of the German Liberal movement — an outgrowth of the German Reform movement and a close cousin of the American Conservative movement — under the leadership of émigré Cantor Erwin Hirsch, one of several cantors who brought their tradition with them to the United States.

“Shortly after my father died, in 1987, we left Habonim for a few years, because it was very emotional to go back and listen to this music,” said Selig. When he returned in 1993, Selig realized that the congregation was dying and that the traditions with which he had grown up would be lost. He began asking Hirsch about the origins of the music. “And to every question I asked, the answer was, ‘I don’t know,’” recalled Selig, who soon set about obtaining recordings of each piece sung at Habonim. Hirsch knew the composers, but seemed uninterested beyond that.

“Not only did I want recordings, but I wanted the music — not Xerox copies, the original music. I started calling every cantor in New York City, and I made it my business to go visit every cantor,” Selig said. “And every cantor in New York City was absolutely floored that there was someone out there who was even remotely interested in this stuff.”

They were so surprised, remembers Selig, that they began giving him all the music they had languishing on bookshelves, in synagogue basements, in the backs of closets. Soon he found himself with first editions of works by Sulzer, Lewandowski and others. And because prayer books varied from community to community in Germany, the trick, Selig realized, was to collect music, recordings and prayer books.

Within a decade, Selig had acquired an enormous collection, which he now houses in an attic furnished sparsely with metal filing cabinets and plastic storage boxes lining the walls. When Selig plays his CDs, the room fills with rich baritones, plaintive tenors and the resonating tones of an organ.

“Ralph is unique,” said Rebecca Garfein, one of three cantors who will sing at next week’s concert. “He is not a cantor, but he’s so knowledgeable on the subject he should have a degree in it.”

Not only is he knowledgeable. He’s also very loyal. Selig believes that, against all odds, this music will survive.

“We will always come back to good chazzones,” he said, pronouncing chazzanut the traditional Ashkenazic way.

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