When Words Aren’t Enough: The Music of Elie Wiesel

I have, in past pieces, written about the Zamir Choral Foundation and its great work with both teens and adults. As an officer of the Foundation, I am of course a supporter of its programs and goals. But there are those moments when even I, who first joined the Zamir Chorale forty years ago as a college freshman, am still overwhelmed by the awe-inspiring moments that its remarkable fusion of music and love of Judaism can create.

Just last week, at the finale of the twentieth annual North American Jewish Choral Festival, one of those moments unfolded in the most subtle and understated of ways. And it was, indeed, awesome.

This year’s recipient of the Hallel v’Zimrah award- the Zamir Choral Foundation’s highest honor- was Dr. Elie Wiesel, Honorary Chairman of the Foundation. Most people think of him as a writer and speaker, but Dr. Wiesel is also a passionate lover of Jewish music, and a long-time supporter of the Foundation and its goals.

Actually, I’m not doing Elie Wiesel justice (as if I could with these few brief and modest words!). He’s not just a lover of Jewish music. He loves to sing, and he does so beautifully. Among the memories he carries within him of his life before the war, before he went to “those places,” as he refers to the camps, are the songs and melodies of the Wishnitzer Hassidim, whose religious world figured so prominently in his youth.

So how to you honor someone like Elie Wiesel, a Nobel laureate who has received so many prestigious awards from governments and heads of state around the world?

Well, if you’re the Zamir Choral Foundation, the answer is simple, yet unspeakably profound. You honor him by honoring the musical heritage he carries within him, and in so doing, you honor his memories as well. And that is exactly what my remarkable friend Matthew Lazar, the Founder and Director of the Foundation, did.

After a brief and moving presentation ceremony, he asked Dr.Wiesel to sing, and all of the assembled choral singers served as his m’shorrim, his choral accompaniment. The climax came when Elie Wiesel- he who has become an iconic representative of the horrors of the Shoah- sang Ani Ma’amin, the song that had been sung by so many Hassidim as they walked to the gas chambers. I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah….and though he might tarry, still, I believe.

I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house. And if there was, there surely wasn’t after the program concluded with Hatikvah.

It was a Zamir moment par excellence…

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