Music and Memory


Music and Memory

The dangerous state of Zionism invites us to cherish the diaspora as Jewish cultural and religious homeland.

December 16, 2014

This book review is from the Fall 2014 issue of The American Prospect magazine.


My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel

By Ari Shavit

Spiegel & Grau. 445 pp. $28


At Home In Exile: Why Diaspora Is Good For the Jews

By Alan Wolfe

Beacon Press. 296 pp. $28


Our choir rehearsals start about a month before the High Holidays, toward the end of summer. The lake is getting colder, the swamp maples have started to turn red, and the lines of cars clogging the roads in midcoast Maine have thinned. We rehearse in the synagogue in Rockland, a working-class town not yet completely transformed into a destination for vacationers. The synagogue is a small clapboard building on a side street a couple of blocks from the ferry terminal. Thirty years ago, when I first went to services here with my father, an east wind blew the smell of the fish-processing plant into its open windows. The congregation was small; a few of the children and grandchildren of eastern European immigrants who found their way to Maine and established the synagogue in 1912 kept it going.

It is a surprise to discover an outpost of the diaspora in a place defined by lobsters and Protestant rusticators. It is even more surprising—and the congregation’s original families would have found it as alien as the taste of lobster—to hear the music we sing there now. But the synagogue is thriving in large part because of the music, which my father brought to Rockland.

Though the choir is more than 20 years old, we need our rehearsals. This is not music to perform without preparation: It has complicated modulations and tricky entrances. It’s what you would expect to hear in a concert hall; you could imagine that Schubert wrote some of it, or Mendelssohn, or even Verdi. In this former Baptist church, we sing great 19th-century choral music—not masses or requiems or choruses from operas, but settings of the Hebrew liturgy. We sing a cappella, four parts, sometimes five or six. There are only a few other places in the world where this glorious music, once sung in synagogues all over central and western Europe, remains part of a service. It has been forgotten, almost.

I have known this music all my life. These were the services my grandfather and my father sang, preserving what they inherited and adding their own compositions—and for much of my life, I have been afraid of losing it. When I was a child, I sat in the choir loft in the grand German synagogue in Baltimore, Maryland, where my grandfather was the cantor, and my father, a composer, conducted the choir. I squeezed onto the ledge of the balcony, behind the first tenor. The music contains my family’s history. It is central to my Jewish self.

I have attributed the disappearance of the music to three factors: first, to the Holocaust, which wiped out the communities and the synagogues that were home to the music; secondly, to a post-Holocaust aversion to anything polluted with the German culture that had fostered the Jewish enlightenment; and, finally, to America, the land of the future and of assimilation, which offered freedom and opportunity at the price of eradicating Jewish identity and tradition.


(Photo/Aaron Levin)

The former home of the Chizuk Amuno congregation in Baltimore, where the author's grandfather, Abba Joseph Weisgal, served as cantor. Today it is known as Beth Am Synagogue.

This winter, I read My Promised Land by Ari Shavit as I imagine many Jews read it—with a profound sense of recognition. In his aching, passionate account of the transformation of an idea—Zionism—into a nation, Shavit confronts the paradoxes of forgetting and remembering, of blindness and vision, that the making of the state of Israel required. He looks clearly at how early Zionists, fired by desire for a homeland, overlooked and later displaced the Arabs who already lived in Palestine; he recounts his military duty in a Gaza prison camp and pieces together the story of the destruction of the Arab town of Lydda in 1948.

Shavit also looks at how Jews transformed themselves into Israelis. He devotes a chapter, “Housing Estate, 1957,” to one of the prefabricated apartment blocks erected in the new state to house Jews of the diaspora, from European Holocaust survivors whose children practiced the violin for hours a day to refugee Jewish Iraqis. Many could not wait to shed their old names and the old image of Jews as weak and cowardly Talmudic scholars. But many others abandoned precious parts of their identity—their culture, their history, their religious practices—in order to conform to the Israeli ideal and erase traces of the diaspora. While he accepts that the project of homogeneity was once central to the success of the new state, Shavit argues that it is critical to remember what was obliterated and ignored, who was devalued—Jews from Muslim countries. He tallies the breadth and the implications of forgetting; his book recounts the tragic cost of building the Jewish state, as well as its great achievements. He fears for the future and understands that to survive, Israel must remember and confront both the bitter and the sweet.

Shavit and his family spend every summer in England, where his great-grandfather, Herbert Bentwich, was a successful lawyer and ardent Zionist who first visited Palestine in 1897. Just half a century later, Palestine became Israel, and for the first time since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, Jews had a physical homeland. Jerusalem is no longer located only in memory or in prayer.

Israel was always a state of mind where the diaspora lived; now it is also a political state. Diaspora has become a choice, and for 66 years, the Jewish nation and the Jewish diaspora have flourished, symbiotic, interdependent, drawing strength from each other. But that is changing. Settlements in the West Bank, oppression of Palestinians, a government increasingly ruled by extremists: Many Jews in the diaspora—as well as many Israeli Jews—no longer support these politics, and they are voicing their opposition.


Moses Mendelssohn, father of the Jewish enlightenment movement in 18th-century Berlin

In his dense, dry study, At Home in Exile: Why Diaspora is Good for the Jews, Alan Wolfe argues that the diaspora (his ideal liberal diaspora), with its diversity, universalist values, and openness to the secular world, is now more necessary than ever. In his book, both history and polemic, Wolfe unravels arguments for and against the diaspora, from the 19th century to the present day, from the early Zionist dream of Palestine as a home for the oppressed masses of eastern European Jews—bankrolled by prosperous, Western Jews (a view supported by Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis)—to contemporary writers like A.B. Yehoshua who believe, like Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, that only in Israel can a Jew live a fully Jewish life.

Wolfe reminds us that negation of the diaspora is as old as Zionism. If a Jewish homeland exists, the argument goes, why should Jews want to live outside that homeland? The debate about the relationship between Israel and the diaspora—and about the legitimacy of the diaspora—has not diminished, he believes. Wolfe links the question to another rift in Jewish thought: between universalism—the idea that the humane values of Judaism can and should benefit secular society—and particularism, which holds that Jews are responsible only to themselves (the fundamental question of “Is it good for the Jews?”), and that they must defend themselves against the inimical outside world.

Wolfe’s definition of universalism invokes the Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment movement founded by Moses Mendelssohn in Berlin in the late 18th century. A charismatic philosopher, Mendelssohn fought for legal emancipation; he encouraged Jews to study German, Hebrew (not Yiddish), and Jewish history, to venture into the gentile world of ideas and culture, to embrace the Europe where they had lived for a thousand years. The Haskalah inspired a  flowering of Jewish talent—Heinrich Heine and Felix Mendelssohn (Moses’s grandson)—an influx of Jews into liberal politics, and, with the Reform Judaism movement, a loosening of the strictures of religious life. It came at a price—assimilation and even conversion; both Heine and Felix Mendelssohn became Christians. In eastern Europe, with its strong rabbinic and Hasidic traditions and its unrelenting anti-Semitism, the influence of the Haskalah emerged in Jewish schools, in democratic and socialist political movements—and in Zionism.

While Zionism was of a piece with European nationalist movements and their need to legitimize the present with a return to the ancient past (the first modern Olympics were held in Greece in 1896, a year before the first Zionist Congress), Jews were, consistently, the victims of those movements. The Zionist project gained momentum and urgency with the realization that life for Jews in eastern Europe was becoming untenable. Some Jewish thinkers argued that Zionism required a new kind of Jew, not the craven creature of the diaspora, but tough and secular, prepared to make the desert bloom and, if necessary, to vanquish enemies.

Only a small number of Jews moved to Israel at the turn of the century, however: 75,000 between 1882 and 1914, compared to the millions who immigrated to America, bringing their politics and their Zionism, and flourished. Wolfe dissects the changing attitudes of American Jews toward the Zionist project. Many leaders, including several prominent Reform rabbis, were outspoken in their opposition to a Jewish state, both from their pulpits and through their involvement with Jewish organizations. America was where Jews had found peace and fulfillment: Palestine seemed to them like another shtetl.

But when the horror of the Holocaust became known and Israel became a state, opposition dissolved. After the 1967 war, American Jews united in their financial and political support, adopting Israeli culture as their own and defending Israel against all criticism. Wolfe’s book draws an intellectual map—a map whose roundabouts, intersections, one-way streets, and dead ends he tries valiantly to chart—of the diaspora in America (specifically the diaspora of Ashkenazi Jews): the trek from the shtetls to the suburbs, religious practices that shifted focus away from God and toward self--fulfillment, from Judaism to Jewishness, from solidarity with Israel to dissent.

Defending the diaspora, Wolfe, like Shavit, returns several times to the centrality of memory. How to remember the diaspora? Was the diaspora a tragedy on repeat? A history of suffering and oppression, a disease of the spirit? Or a diverse and often exotic flowering? Did a people whose home existed only in memory learn to imagine in the real world a lifting of that oppression, the potential for a just and righteous future?


Abba Joseph Weisgal

My family’s beautiful, vanishing music, which flourished for just over a century, is a small story that traces the complex and fluid boundaries of Jewish identity and belief, in Europe, America, and Israel. It is a story of interconnection, like others that have occurred and been forgotten many times over the millennia in Spain, in Persia, in Italy. Ironically, the disappearance of our music is also a casualty of the project of Zionism.

My grandfather, Abba Joseph Weisgal, was born in Kikl, a shtetl halfway between Warsaw and Gdansk in Poland. He was the oldest of 11 children. His brother Meyer, ten years younger, became a pivotal American Zionist journalist, impresario, and the founder of one of the foremost scientific research centers in the world, the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. In Kikl, their father served as the chazzan, or cantor, and as the shochet, the ritual slaughterer. Though Kikl’s streets were muddy and unpaved, it was surrounded by meadows and close to a lake where the children swam.

By the time Meyer was born, Abba had already left home to apprentice with a cantor in Nieszawa, a town close to the ever-shifting German border. In 1905, the rest of his family sailed steerage to America, despite its terrible reputation as the breeding ground of the dreaded germs of assimilation. Abba, 19 and under the spell of Western music, went to Vienna to study with one of the students of the great cantor Salomon Sulzer. Meyer never completely forgave Abba for abandoning Yiddish and Hasidism in favor of what Meyer called in his autobiography a “Teutonic mode of worship.”

Sulzer, who became cantor in Vienna around 1826, revolutionized synagogue music. He harmonized them and structured traditional chants in the way his contemporaries, who in Vienna included Beethoven and Schubert, transformed folk tunes into high art. Famous for his interpretations of lieder, Sulzer became a part of Schubert’s musical circle. Schubert set several psalms in Hebrew for Sulzer’s choir. Gentiles as well as Jews attended Sabbath services to hear the music; in 1904, the celebration of the centennial of Sulzer’s birth had to be moved from the synagogue to a theater to accommodate the large audience. At that time, the Vienna Court Opera was directed by Gustav Mahler, a converted Jew, and cantors also pursued careers in opera.

Sulzer was one of a generation of great cantors nurtured by the Haskalah. The cantor Louis Lewandowski was born in Poland and arrived in Berlin in 1834. Felix Mendelssohn arranged for the boy to attend the Berlin Academy, where he became the first Jewish graduate. Like Sulzer, Lewandowski preserved the ancient melodies within the forms of 19th-century music.

Samuel Naumbourg had a similar influence on French synagogue music. Born in Bavaria, he became chief cantor of Paris in 1845. A prolific composer, his melodies share the ravishing lushness of French opera, two of whose most successful composers were Jewish: Fromental Halévy and Giacomo Meyerbeer (an early and ardent supporter of Wagner, but never mind). Naumbourg also edited a newly discovered book of Hebrew music by the Italian early Baroque composer Salamone Rossi. Rossi, a colleague of Claudio Monteverdi, became court composer to the dukes of Mantua in the early 17th century. He composed madrigals and sinfonias for the court and set Hebrew psalms and prayers in the same polyphonic style, with almost no reference to traditional chants. “The Lord has put new songs in my mouth,” he wrote, quoting Psalm 40. Naumbourg recognized that in Italy two centuries earlier, Jews found a moment of freedom similar to his own, when cultures interlaced and it was possible for a Jew to enter the secular world without abandoning his religious identity. A century after Naumbourg, in a post-Holocaust flowering of Jewish culture in New York, my father put together a new edition of Rossi.

The music of 19th-century composers like Sulzer, Lewandowski, Naumbourg, and others, including the Kapellmeister at St. Stephen’s cathedral in Vienna who also wrote extensively for the synagogue, formed the foundation of what my grandfather and my father sang all their lives. In 1908, Abba became the assistant cantor in the Moravian town of Ivancice, about halfway between Prague and Vienna; graves in the Jewish cemetery there date to the 15th century. The cantor, another of Sulzer’s pupils, encouraged him to compose. Abba married the cantor’s niece; my father, Hugo Weisgall (he added a second “l” to his name), was born in 1912.

Three years after World War I, in which he served in the Austro-Hungarian army, Abba, my grandmother, my father, and his baby brother, Freddie, sailed for America. Abba auditioned for the job of cantor at Chizuk Amuno in Baltimore, and the congregation hired him on the spot. His sparkling baritone lifted into tenor; he was handsome, with thick hair and a lush mustache. He dressed elegantly, he carried a cane, he enjoyed a glass of schnapps. His nusach, or chanting, despite his brother’s fears, was tinged with irresistible Hasidic ecstasy. When he sang, he talked to God, and he knew that God heard. He had a gift for melody; he was egotistical, stubborn, deeply kind, and utterly lovable. He sang in that synagogue for the rest of his life.

Cantor Salomon Sulzer

The 1920s and 1930s were the golden age of cantors in America, but Abba’s nusach did not feature the same hermetic eastern European wailing of his youth and of the millions of Yiddish-speaking immigrants in America. The last of the great cantors in the line that descended from Salomon Sulzer, Abba sang in a more austere, less showy way; it was a dialogue with the choir. Abba’s solos were virtuosic cadenzas, melodic riffs, jazzlike in their inventiveness. Abba and the choir sang the entire service. Every once in a while the rabbi interrupted to read a paragraph in English or to deliver his sermon (which the members of the choir—and the grandchildren of the cantor—considered intermission; we retired to the choir loft’s anteroom to tell jokes and play checkers).

But Jewish life in America was changing, becoming more homogeneous, leaving parts of the past behind. My father, a founder of the Cantors Institute at the Jewish Theological Seminary, said to me once that he found students had little interest in learning the 19th-century central European musical canon. When in 1968 Chizuk Amuno moved to a soaring, Le Corbusier–style complex in the suburbs, Abba refused to go; he would not drive on the Sabbath. The new building was not a shul, a place for study and worship, it was a Sanctuary, with a capital S. (Wolfe is fascinating on these synagogues.) Out of gratitude—and guilt—the congregation kept the old building in town for Abba. A stubborn old man who refused to change with the times, he was put out to pasture. Grime stained the limestone walls and clogged the blue and gold stained-glass windows. My father had finally moved us to New York, but we drove back to Baltimore for every holiday. Then, in 1974, a group established a new congregation in the old shul. Abba was its chazzan, and the rabbi was a distinguished scholar. In the choir loft, we broke with tradition and listened to his sermons. When Abba could no longer sing, my father acted as chazzan.

After Abba died, my father went to the leaders of the little congregation in Rockland, Maine, and offered to be their cantor. For a few years, my brother and I were the inadequate choir, keeping the music on life support, struggling to sound like ten men. Despite us, attendance increased. People came to hear my father. It turned out that there were a lot of Jews living in midcoast Maine. A generous and eloquent rabbi from Portland began to lead services with my father. A member of the congregation, a pediatrician with musical training and perfect pitch, started a choir.

Membership grew, and in 2005 the leaders of the congregation decided to hire a rabbi. Our music offended her; it did not sound Israeli. That is true; it was dripping with diaspora. We sang less. Eventually the rabbi departed. We are still singing. But I worry. We sing only a fraction of what there is. I hear only in my mind many of Abba’s great set pieces, or Ne’ilah, the aching Yom Kippur closing service. At Passover, we struggle to remember the dozens of family tunes we sang and wonder how much our children will be able to keep.

The Passover Hagaddah ends the same way Ne’ilah ends, with a declaration: L’shanah haba’ah b’Yerushalayim. “Next year in Jerusalem.” It was the last prayer my grandfather sang in a synagogue, the last prayer my father sang. Abba was a Zionist, and he wrote Zionist melodies for Hebrew prayers. With all the trees in Israel he bought in the names of his grandchildren, I’m sure that he subsidized an entire forest. But Abba was a child of the diaspora.


Cantor Louis Lewandowski

His music, his fragile hybrid, holds the diaspora’s sweetness, its contradictions. Abba’s music was too Jewish, and it was not Jewish enough. In America, Jewish composers of Abba’s generation—Irving Berlin, George Gershwin—were transforming American secular music. In 1926, Jascha Heifetz played Schubert, Beethoven, and Mendelssohn in the Valley of Harod, sanctifying the miracle the pioneers had wrought. My friend, the violinist Miriam Fried, was one of those children of the Holocaust who practiced in a tiny apartment and went on to have an international career. On the Sabbath, her father listened to a radio program that featured Lewandowski and other cantors—a memory, cut off from its origins as prayer. Though Zionism was a secular movement, Jewish religious music that echoed the secular world was suspect; it echoed the diaspora, too.

The diaspora was a condition of disputation, of possibility, of conscience. It was dangerous; it could lead to assimilation, or death. Salamone Rossi was probably murdered in 1633 when Austrian troops conquered Mantua and destroyed the ghetto. Some Venetian Jews had opposed Rossi’s secular-sounding settings; they saw in his death God’s punishment. Nobody dared anything like it until Salomon Sulzer came along two hundred years later. In Ivancice, the Germans rounded up Sulzer’s family and they died in Terezin. The facade of the synagogue there still bears bronze Hebrew letters spelling out the verse from the psalm: “Sing unto the Lord a new song.” The singers met a terrible end: Should that once again negate the beauty of the music?

This could be another story of loss. On the other hand, the music is still sung, and some has been recorded. Wolfe argues that we must reconstruct the memory of the diaspora and not live as if disaster lurks around the corner. Just now it may not be lurking in the American diaspora, but there are rumblings in Hungary and France. This is a story of contradiction; among the most recent diaspora Jews to make aliyah are ultra-Orthodox Americans occupying the West Bank.

Hugo Weisgall

In Baltimore, Abba lived as if the whole world were Jewish; he inhabited a dream diaspora. He walked to shul every day. He could have been in Moravia, strolling along Ivancice’s lovely, slow river, instead of around the Druid Hill Park reservoir. When Jews moved out and black families moved in, people warned him that he wasn’t safe there. But his new neighbors addressed him as “Reverend” and looked out for him, just as his old neighbors had.

The diaspora’s sweetness: Wolfe believes in it; Shavit is drawn to it. Shavit describes Devon the way the prophets described the Promised Land. The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid, Isaiah preached. He writes, “With its deep calm … England has all that we never had and all that we may never have: peace.” But he mistrusts that serenity; he suspects that in England’s green fields and beside its meandering streams, his Jewish identity, his restlessness and energy, will erode. It might, but it might not; the old and dire predictions that assimilation will wipe out the Jews have not come true.

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, Jeremiah lamented in Babylon, may my right hand lose its cunning. The Talmud was codified in exile in Babylon. Maimonides wrote in Arabic, in exile. But David, the sweet singer of Israel and a working king, composed on the job. He sang of green pastures and still waters, and he sang: The Lord trained my hands for war … I have pursued my enemies and overtaken them. David’s psalm is no longer a metaphor. A Jewish home, prospering, rich, and self-sufficient in an ancient, contested sliver of land—that is the dangerous reality of Zionism. Israel is again one among the nations.

On Yom Kippur, I recite, “Next year in Jerusalem,” but I really hope: Next year in Maine. At our seders, we always said it out loud: Next year in Baltimore. Next year in New York, in Massachusetts, in Maryland. Next year in Jerusalem, the state of mind, a place of peace. Next year we will sing, wherever we are.

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