A couple of months ago, Chazzan Emanuel C. Perlman was visiting the Vatican with his lovely wife, Janice. They toured St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel and other museums and Catholic holy sites, but the Chizuk Amuno cantor couldn’t help but notice an abundance of Jewish iconography seemingly everywhere there.
“I said to my wife, `This place reminds me of the Holy Temple,’” Chazzan Perlman told me recently. “All I saw were Jewish symbols, nothing particularly Christian, and I began to realize how sad it is that we Jews don’t appreciate what we have. Others do, but we don’t. We’ve run away from tradition and brought secular things into our synagogues. Why? Because we’re insecure.”
Manny Perlman is a warm, friendly, engaging man, but he’s also a passionate and indefatigable crusader for tradition. In particular, he considers himself the preserver of the chazzanut, the grand style of cantorial music and performance as typified by such “golden age” cantors as Yossele Rosenblatt, Leib Glantz, Richard Tucker and Jan Peerce.
The essence and art of being a chazzan is something very dear to Cantor Perlman’s heart. It’s in his blood and in his soul, and it’s something that he promised those who came before him – like my late friend and neighbor, Cantor Saul Z. Hammerman – that he will cherish, perpetuate and fight for.
And even if that kind of synagogue worship music is not your particular cup of tea, you can’t help but be impressed and inspired by Chazzan Perlman’s intensity, commitment to integrity, and devotion to keeping this part of our musical heritage alive and strong.
Everywhere in shul life today, we see this style of music being discarded, jettisoned and denigrated. Younger people, we’re told, don’t want an operatic kind of performance at synagogue; they want music they can relate to, something they can sing along and clap with, whether it be Jewish summer camp music, folk, rock, reggae, ska, jazz and even rap.
Chazzan Perlman says he enjoys and appreciates those kinds of music, too. But he says they have their place, and synagogue worship services ain’t one of them.
“I love the Beatles!” he told me in his office, with a great sense of urgency and frustration in his voice. “I’ve played their music in a band with my brother, I’ve taught a class on them. They’re wonderful! But they’re not my God, and they don’t belong in shul! And that’s next, Alan! You’ll see, people will want to bring the Beatles into services!”
(Hmmm, I’m trying to imagine “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” played at Shabbat services.)
“We live in an era when Yankee Stadium isn’t even the same place where Babe Ruth played,” Chazzan Perlman continued. “People want to move on and remove and repackage. We grew up with Cracker Jack, and you loved that toy. But now, that toy would be just a throwaway.”
He employs yet another analogy: “Upstate New York is one of the most beautiful places to drive through in the world. But some people would rather fly to upstate New York than drive in the autumn and look at all of that gorgeous foliage and just enjoy it. People want shortcuts today. But sometimes you have to say no, to yourself and others. … We’ve become a society where there’s 500 channels and nothing on. People are constantly changing the channel. We want what we want right now.”
The diminishing interest in chazzanut music and the growth of the “Kumbaya” shul mentality reflects a major change among Jews today in general, he charges. It reflects a lack of knowledge and appreciation of our heritage and legacy.
“We need to become more Judaically and Biblically literate and embrace our heritage,” Chazzan Perlman says. “People can tell me who they’re favorite singers are off the top of their heads, but who’s your favorite prophet? Your favorite Biblical figure?
“I feel we have to go back to the virtuoso days of cantorial prayer, to explore where we came from.”
While listening to the chazzan on this subject, I couldn’t help but think about a mega-church in suburban Chicago I visited a few years ago. This church looked more like the Mall of America than a house of worship, and its membership may have exceeded the population of France. One of the secrets of its success, I was told by the church’s leadership, was that the old hymns and liturgical music – considered antiquated and uninspiring by these Baby Boomers—were thrown out for a decidedly more hip, contemporary Christian rock sound.
At one point during my visit there, I sat down with a group of four or five 20-something males who belonged to the church. Several of them had tattoos and nose rings, as well as ripped jeans and T-shirts bearing the names of various mainstream hard-rock bands. All of them were quite courteous, respectful and highly enthusiastic about the church and its impact on their lives.
But when I asked them if they enjoyed the church’s weekly rock music performances and selections, they looked at each other and fell silent.
Intrigued, I pressed on. After all, the Christian rock performances that were an integral part of the worship services there were supposedly tailored for young guys like them. And everyone knows that music of all types can be a great portal for spiritual discovery and growth.
Finally, one of the young men said to me, “Um, we like it OK but it’s really for the, um, older people here.” (Translation: fossils like me.) “Don’t get me wrong,” he said, “we all like rock and hip-hop and stuff like that. But we listen to it all the time – at work, at home, in the car, in our social lives. We just wish that when we were in church, we could hear the old-time hymns and music that’s been around for so long. That’s what we want to hear in church, not the same old stuff in our daily lives. In church, we don’t want to rock out. We just want to be inspired and moved. We want to feel something.”
Chazzan Manny Perlman couldn’t have said it any better.
So much has been said and done this week regarding the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks (if you watched the Ravens-Steelers game, you’d have seen that commercial in which the Budweiser Clydesdales poignantly bow their heads in the direction of Ground Zero) that lost in the shuffle has been that today is the 18th anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords.
Maybe that’s because it’s something most of us – on both sides of the aisle—would probably like to forget.
For me, it’s something I’ll never forget. I was sitting in a crowded, darkened office at the Associated, huddled with federation employees around a big TV set. Of course, there was nervous chatter and jokes. No one knew what to expect. Were we watching history? Another false start? Bill Clinton’s greatest folly? (Of course, that came later with “Lewinskygate.”)
When Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands, largely with the prodding of the genial, avuncular Clinton, a roar swelled up from the ranks of the Associated employees sitting on the floor. None of us could believe what we were seeing. I suspect many of us dared that day to dream, to cast off our cynicism, to believe that peace was actually within reach. After all, if Rabin and Arafat could shake hands …
Of course, like a lot of things in life, it wasn’t meant to be. In some ways, things have certainly gotten worse. Now, we face a situation in which the Palestinians will soon bring to the world body a unilateral proposal for statehood, one without any direct negotiations or accord with the Israelis or approval from the Americans.
And what we can expect from all of this – maybe even a war, God forbid – seems as hazy and unclear as in that darkened room at the Associated in September of ’93.
When dealing with people and human nature in general, I’ve often told family members and friends, “Expect the least from people and you might get more than you ever expected.” (I’m sure I stole that from someone.) We all keep expecting the Middle East scenario to turn itself around, that everyone will reach an accommodation just out of sheer exhaustion from fighting and arguing for so long.
At this point, I strongly suspect that the world – even American Jewry in general—is sick and tired of the Israelis and Palestinians and their never-ending saga, their long-playing comedy of errors. That’s probably why other matters have kept the statehood issue, for the most part, in the back pages, near the horoscope section. Who wants to deal with this one?
Let’s just hope things don’t soon escalate to the point where the subject once again has the world’s full and undivided attention.
Lately, I’ve been listening to a quirky-yet-fascinating 3-CD box set I stumbled across at the Central Branch of the Enoch Pratt Free library – truly one of our city’s greatest treasures – called “People Take Warning! Murder Ballads & Disaster Songs, 1913-1938.”
I know what you’re thinking – fun stuff. This guy must be loads of laughs at cocktail parties.
Lady Gaga or Katy Perry this ain’t.
Don’t ask me what draws me to this kind of old-time music and its rather grim, ironic, archaic tunes of death, destruction and disaster, recorded by long-deceased, usually-quite-obscure-in-their-day performers. Call it “O Brother Syndrome.” It’s like listening to the distant voices of anguished spirits, or as music journalist and cultural critic Greil Marcus calls it, “the old, weird America.”
But if you love “roots music,” this 2007 collection – featuring 70 recordings and co-produced by Henry “Hank” Sapoznik, the great proponent of traditional Yiddish and American music – is absolutely amazing stuff. Most of the songs are about the sinking of the Titanic (quite a national preoccupation!), train wrecks, plane crashes, mine explosions, earthquakes, floods, famines, fires, hurricanes, dust storms, droughts, and of course, that old standby of human nature, homicide. (Interestingly, one of the tracks is a chilling 1913 recording of the El Malei Rachamim prayer performed by the illustrious Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt, specifically for the victims of the Titanic.)
In their own way, these songs were the Twitter alerts, Facebook postings, and CNN or MSNBC breaking news headlines of their era. They were melodic messages in a bottle, informing the public of some calamity or atrocity, often within days and geographic spitting distance of the tragedy. These fabulous, scrappy, twangy artists – on their banjos, harmonicas, jugs, kazoos, Jew’s harps, etc.—let people know what was going on, without any sugarcoating or holding back at all, and usually even threw in a moral or two about fate or one’s ethical conduct. Brilliant stuff.
So what does this all have to do with 2011?
We are in the midst of being bombarded with the painful, haunting images of 9/11. With the 10th anniversary upon us, that horrible day hangs heavy in our psyche and in our souls. The media is already revisiting this topic with photos and images of the towers, aflame and in rubble, almost as if we’ve somehow forgotten what 9/11 looked like, as if it wasn’t already indelibly seared into our brains, as if we could ever escape it.
That was a deadline news day for us here, working on our annual Rosh Hashanah issue, and 9/11 meant watching the tragedy unfold on television as Americans and then getting down to journalistic business and writing about it all very quickly. No easy feat. It was a long day and night.
One thing I remember is chatting with an art department co-worker toward the end of the afternoon, when everyone was in high gear and deadline was looming. At one point, I noticed she’d placed a Post-it note on the edge of her computer screen, simply with the scribbled words, “September 11th, 2001.” When I asked her why she’d put that note on her screen, she replied, “I just want to have that date up there, to remember this day, so I don’t forget it.” I stared at her and said, “Kiddo, don’t worry, this is a date you’re never, ever going to forget.”
True enough. But at the same time, there’s a lot of overstating and grandstanding when it comes to 9/11, something we all have to be careful of because of the solemn nature of this historical event. Too often, we call 9/11 the day that changed our lives or changed America. It’s true that we’ve all been forced to become somewhat more vigilant and careful in our lives since that day, and our foreign policy has transformed drastically. Our confidence and sense of security was shattered.
But on a personal level, few of us – outside of those who lost loved ones that day—have experienced major changes in our lives as a result of 9/11. I remember a couple of friends, after the tragedy, remarking to me that they no longer enjoyed watching sports, because 9/11 compelled them to realize that athletic competitions had very little to do with the order of the cosmos. Despite their lapse into existentialism, I believe all of them returned to their obsessions with sports. Other friends mentioned to me that they decided to take big vacations after 9/11, again with the sudden realization that, well, life’s just too short.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying sports or taking vacations. Everyone needs their interests, hobbies and various distractions. After all, going to the movies was virtually a religion during the darkest days of World War II.
But we have to be careful about falling prey to melodrama, reactionary flag-waving and facile proclamations. 9/11 was a day that took our collective breath away and made us sit up and take notice, but for better or worse, we all returned to our same old habits and tendencies. In that respect, the terrorists didn’t win. We did eventually go back to normalcy. What we shouldn’t do is raise the specter of 9/11 for the justification for everything we do or utilize its power as a means of self-pity or soapbox sermonizing. Worse yet, for monetary profit – I don’t want to ever see a 9/11 department store sale.
So would the likes of Fiddlin’ John Carson, Ernest Stoneman, the Floyd County Ramblers, Charley Patton or the Skillet Lickers have recorded songs about 9/11 if they were still with us? My guess is they probably would’ve, but with a great sense of compassion and carefulness about not coming off as exploiting this solemn moment in American history. They might’ve sung about the enormous loss of life, the individuals who perished and the heroes who attempted to rescue those who were endangered, the spouses and children left behind and forced to figure out how to somehow go on with their lives.
Of course, it’s important to remember. But 9/11 is more than just a date or an anniversary. It’s something in our DNA, our American fabric. And we don’t need any songs or archival images of burning buildings to remember that.
I have a confession to make. I loved Rabbi Jacob A. Max. The Rabbi Max I knew was funny, warm, engaging, easygoing, thoughtful and the absolute definition of the Yiddish word haimish (loosely translated as folksy or comfortable). He was charm personified.
The thing to remember, however, is that things are not always as they seem.
We don’t like to accept that. It screws with our minds and messes up our narrow view of life. It upsets the apple cart. But it’s true.
And obviously there was a side to this genial man – a virtually ubiquitous figure in our community for more than five decades – that we never really knew.
Things are not always as they seem.
About a week after Rabbi Max passed away recently and I had written a fairly parve obituary about him, I got a note from a veteran local journalist, someone I know a little bit and who was in the news business when I was just a mere lad. In his quite cordial, collegial note, he questioned why I would mention in the lead paragraph of my obituary that, besides serving Liberty Jewish Center for more than a half-century, Rabbi Max was convicted in 2009 for molesting a female funeral home employee. The journalist’s friendly suggestion was to bury that piece of information lower in the story.
I don’t get it.
If I had written an obituary in 1994 about the passing of Richard M. Nixon, should I only have mentioned that he was the 37th president of the United States and initiated the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union? And not have mentioned that he resigned from office in the face of almost certain impeachment? Or should I have relegated that tidbit to the 14th or 15th paragraphs?
For a long time, Rabbi Max is going to be a source of contention and pain in this community. He has his diehard supporters, people who knew the Rabbi Max I knew and loved. But there are also his detractors, some of whom say they were inappropriately touched or handled by Rabbi Max. And they can’t be negated, ignored or disrespected.
Respect. People say let the man rest in peace; respect the dead. Leave him alone. Give him some respect.
Fair enough. But maybe we should cut ourselves a break too and simply agree to disagree about this complicated, enigmatic man who has left a lot of mixed feelings in his wake.
We’ll be sorting this one out for a while.