To be a Jewish musician is easy, says Matthew Lazar, but to be a Jew and a musician is sometimes difficult
Nevertheless he has overcome many hurdles over the years as he guided the world-renowned coeducational Zamir Chorale as its director and conductor — in an age when modern Orthodox Jewish sensibilities shifted fundamentally to the right.
Zamir Chorale was founded by Stanley Sperber in 1960. He made aliya in 1972 and passed the baton to Lazar.
At the 50th anniversary dinner Oct. 30 at the Park Avenue Synagogue, Lazar lamented just how difficult it has become for Jewish musicians.
“When we started out it was possible for mixed singing, for men and women dancing together, for yeshiva sports teams to have girl cheerleaders. How times have changed!”
Rabbi Haskell Lookstein of Kehilath Jeshurun and former dean of Ramaz School asserted, “I absolutely identify with the whole idea of men and women singing together in chorus and performing together on stage. I was insistent on coeducational choirs at Ramaz and Kehilath Jeshurun.”
He deplored the silencing of women’s voices which he called “one of the most terrible developments in Judaism.”
He has actually seen it in his own family. His granddaughters were musically gifted who sang beautifully until they hit the sixth grade. Then they were expected in their modern Orthodox school to stop singing.
“How could you not sing? How could you not sing Jewish music?”
Rabbi Haskell described his Friday night table alive with music. “But it’s the grandsons who are singing. My granddaughters — you can hardly hear their voices. That’s very sad.”
The rabbi praised Zamir for having transformed Jewish music for the entire community.
Theodore Bikel presented Lazar with a specially embroidered talit. Bikel placed his hands on Lazar’s head and said, “I will invoke my privilege as a kohen and bless you.” He pronounced the priestly blessing in Hebrew.
The next day Zamir presented its 50th anniversary concert at Carnegie Hall, where Elie Wiesel presented an award to Lazar.
“You created links between Jews in America and Israel,” Wiesel said. “You have perpetuated the ancient music of the Levites.”
“Elie Wiesel is the only Nobel laureate who is also a choral director,” Lazar noted. “He conducted choirs in Paris after the war.”
Tim Boxer is editor of 15MinutesMagazine.com.