From Mourning to the Met – An Eleven Year Odyssey
Before this Sunday March 12 melts away at midnight, I take a few minutes to share some thoughts on a most remarkable journey that has been marked by Purim, after Purim, after Purim; 11 Purims to be exact. 11 years ago, on Sunday March 12 which was also 12 Adar, my father Merle Gordon, z”l, took his final breaths. 2 days later, on the 14 Adar, Purim 5766, after flying his body home to Akron, Ohio from his beloved second home in Sarasota where he died from cancer, surrounded by his family, we buried him. I remember being so touched by the many friends who made time during their Purim celebration to share in my grief. I also remember the mishloach manot being mixed in with the shiva snacks. Since that day, Purim just hasn’t been the same as the memories of my personal story collide with the narrative and traditions of our People’s Story.
This year Purim fell on March 12 making the memory of what happened 11 years ago even more poignant as secular and sacred time harmonize in that synchronistic way I treasure. I remember so clearly reflecting on the profound meaning of the number 12 as I eulogized my father 11 years ago. From our Jewish story we have our 12 Tribes, the clock is divided into 12 units, 12 months comprise a year, 12 inches make a foot, 12 equals a dozen, there are 12 signs in the Zodiac. There is something about 12 that makes it an archetypal number. How fitting that it is verse 12 from Psalm 30 that resonates so strongly for me tonight: “And, indeed, You did turn my mourning into dancing; You pulled off my sackcloth and girded me instead with happiness…” With one more verse the Psalm concludes, “that my soul sing out to You and not be silent, Adonai, my G-d, I shall declare my gratitude to You forever.”
In two weeks, on Sunday, March 26, surrounded by my family and closest friends, I will ascend to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House to accept the Zamir Choral Foundation’s Kinor David Award during HaZamir’s Gala Festival Concert. HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir, is composed of 400 Jewish teens from around the United States and Israel who belong to 35 chapters. I was instrumental in growing the HaZamir Israel program by creating a chapter in Cleveland’s Partnership city of Beit Shean on the Jewish Agency Partnership platform. Bringing together Vivian Lazar, the Director of HaZamir and Maestro Matthew Lazar, the Founder of HaZamir with the leadership in Beit Shean, we created the most meaningful musical “mifgash” imaginable. To those of us who care about healthy Israel-Diaspora relations amongst the next generation, about strong Jewish identities built on an understanding of our shared story, about exposure to Hebrew language and Israeli society for American Jewish teens and exposure to English and American Jewish life for Israeli teens, HaZamir is literally “music to our ears.” I am humbled to be honored for supporting this program which is literally a dream come true for me on the stage of the Met, surrounded by the awesome sound of HaZamir.
This road to receiving this honor is one that saw great change in my life as nine months after burying Dad, my mother Arlene Gordon, z”l, also died from cancer on December 15, 2006, just hours before Hanukkah was to begin. So, just as my father’s death has clouded the celebration of Purim, so has Mom’s death cast a dark shadow over the celebration of Hanukkah. I will miss them deeply in two weeks; yet, those who know my story know that Mom will be right by my side as it is her passion for the Beth El Junior Choral Society of the 1960’s in Akron, Ohio under Cantor Jerry Kopmar that is at the core of my love for Jewish choral music. It is ironic that while my mother was an effective public speaker, had great rhythm and was a dance major for her short time at Ohio State, she could not carry a tune. Her inability to sing was actually painful to the listener. However, she understood the power of a musical experience for young people and thus became Cantor’s chief supporter and number one choir mom and chaperone. When Cantor left for Dayton, Ohio in 1969 we were all heartbroken, knowing that we had lost a very talented Jewish educator and a maestro who was destined for greatness. Those who sang in Cantor’s choir in Dayton can attest to the greatness. I knew deep in my 11 year old soul that I had lost the precious treasure of the Jewish choral experience.
When Dad died, I dove into Jewish mourning practices and found myself in that dark place for 1 year and 9 months. During that time, I became very familiar with the Psalms and was always struck by the last two lines of Psalm 30 that I quoted above from Martin Samuel Cohen’s 2004 book, “Our Haven and Our Strength: The Book of Psalms” published by Aviv Press. I also became very familiar with the structure of the daily morning service and it wasn’t long before the men of the minyan crowd were encouraging me to step up and lead. While I had been preparing for that moment for years, working on my Hebrew and my chanting skills the more involved our family became in communal Jewish life, I didn’t anticipate using my “synagogue skills” as an adult orphan. I remember being so nervous when I first began leading the short final section of the service; I also remember how very good it felt to stand up and sing out loud again.
It was during the three months of ignorance between Dad’s death and Mom’s diagnosis in the spring of 2006 that HaZamir came to Cleveland, thanks to a family that relocated from Caldwell, New Jersey. During the mourning period, I stayed away from any public performances except if my children were in the concert or play. So it was that at my first HaZamir Gala Concert in 2007, I sat in the audience transfixed as the sacred sounds of my youth filled the hall and tears filled my eyes. What a thrill to see and hear my daughters Rachel and Sarah singing with the same passion that I sang with almost fifty years ago. The maestro/mastermind behind this remarkable Jewish high school choir, Matthew Lazar reminded me, of course, of my beloved Cantor Kopmar. Like Cantor, Mati believes that Jews should sing so what a delight to learn that every summer the Zamir Choral Foundation, which is under Mati’s direction, sponsors the North American Jewish Choral Festival for adults, like me, who love to sing Jewish choral music. At my first Choral Festival in the summer of 2008 in lovely Kerhonkson, New York in the fabled Catskills (my mother LOVED the Catskills), I remember saying, “I fell like I’ve joined my parents and gone to heaven.” What a true joy to have found the place where my soul does sing out to G-d, where I am not silent, where I am able to declare my thanks to G-d forever. When 500 adults assemble in the lobby of The Hudson Valley Resort and Spa on Wednesday night of our Festival and follow Mati’s lead as he conducts us in Louis Lewandowski’s setting of Psalm 150, I am able to declare my thanks in the midst of a mystical, magical, meaningful Jewish musical moment.
In less than two weeks, 400 Jewish teens are going to experience their own meaningful Jewish musical moments on the stage of the Met! While anti-Semitic incidences continue to disrupt daily Jewish life around the United States, HaZamirniks from around the US and Israel are preparing to sing sophisticated settings of Jewish music in voices loud and strong. To those who threaten to harm us, who try to keep us in a dark place of fear and uncertainty, HaZamir answers by instilling within each HaZamirnik a Jewish identity grounded in text, strengthened by community and bonded by the thrill of creating together the most beautiful Jewish music.
Which brings me back to that Purim 11 years ago, when a personal cloud descended upon me that forced me to find my strength through Jewish song. During those cloudy days, the world of HaZamir provided a ray of sunshine and hope, sustaining me and then leading me to this place in my life where these final two verses of Psalm 30 ring true. While there won’t be any verse 12 dancing on the stage of the Met, I am confident that Mom will be dancing Above as she celebrates the miracle that is HaZamir. However, there will be much verse 13 singing as 400 young Jewish souls sing out in gratitude. I look forwarding to joining that song, in memory of my parents, in honor of my children and my grandchildren, in solidarity with the Jewish People.