Hearing God in Music

I’ve just returned from spending the past two days at the 19th annual North American Jewish Choral Festival in upstate New York. I am an officer of the

Zamir Choral Foundation,

which sponsors the festival, and spending time there is something I look forward to every year.

This year, as always, I am so proud of what it has accomplished.

This festival- the only one of its kind in the Jewish world- brings together many hundreds of accomplished and aspiring singers of Jewish choral music from around North America, and a few from Israel as well, to sing and celebrate the best of Jewish music.

In a world where Carlebach melodies are reverentially considered high art, this festival uses the vehicle of choral music to remind the Jewish world that there is culture beyond the easily singable melody. Not that there’s anything wrong with singable melodies- I love them like the next person- but there’s more and better music out there, part of our cultural legacy. And this festival is a resounding reminder of just how incredibly beautiful that music can be.

The festival has a little of everything. There are pick-up choirs that rehearse together for three days and then perform on the last day. There are master classes with great singers and conductors, and performances by some of the most prominent performers of our time. This year, Theodore Bikel entertained us all with his amazing Yiddish and Hebrew repertoire, and some French, too! There are premieres of new music commissioned by the Foundation, and, of course, there are also chances to network with other like-minded people and to create new friendships. At this year’s program, Dr. Ruth Westheimer received a special award for her devotion to the Jewish cultural arts and support of the Zamir Choral Foundation and its work. All of this is the brainchild of my dear friend Matthew Lazar, a musical giant whose incredible energy has transformed a “nice dream” into an overpowering reality.

But I think what consistently amazes me the most about the festival is its transdenominational appeal.

In a Jewish world so fractionalized and contentious that sometimes even simple conversation becomes impossible between Jews of different ideological stripes, the Choral Festival uses the medium of music to transcend senseless hatred and find common ground.

There are religious services of every stripe available, and I would wager that other than a place like the GA, this is one of the few venues in the Jewish world where Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews not only attend the same conference, but actually interact and learn to enjoy each other’s company and passion for Jewish life.

Both literally and figuratively, they make beautiful music together. In harmony. Jewish texts come alive in ways that speak to all participants without concern for turf or legitimacy. In ensemble music, no one note matters more than another, for all of them are a part of a whole that is simply incomplete without all the others.

Block that metaphor, you must be saying… but really, the metaphor is exactly and entirely what today’s Jewish world needs. Music provides us all with a common vocabulary that transcends words. Soaring harmonies set to sacred texts and Hebrew folk songs can take you places that you never dreamed of. It’s all the power of great music, with the power of Judaism factored in.

Matthew Lazar does what no one else in the Jewish world does today, fusing his passion for great music with an unequaled devotion to the Jewish people, the State of Israel, and Judaism itself. And he does it with style- great style and class. Both he and the festival are precious gifts to us all.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.