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  • Remembering a Musical Great: Bonia Shur

    Posted on September 5th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder 3 comments
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    Bonia Shur, Director of Liturgical Arts, passed away Thursday, August 30, 2012, Erik Contzius offers this personal remembrance.

     

    The world, the Jewish world, and the music world has lost a special soul. Bonia Shur was a unique shining star whose fire burned brightly. He

    Cantor Bonia Shur

    dedicated himself to the Jewish liturgical arts. Bonia could have easily used his talents to create commercial success. Instead, his Judaism and love of prayer spurred him to compose for the sake of Heaven. I was privileged to have known the man behind the works.

     

    Just after my Investiture from HUC-JIR, I took a position at Temple Israel in Omaha, Nebraska. My rabbi, Aryeh Azriel, was a very enthusiastic and creative partner. He insisted that I go in the middle of Sukkot (in my first year as a cantor, mind you!) and spend several days studying with his good friend, Bonia Shur. I had met and worked with Bonia briefly my first year in Jerusalem (he was a visiting composer-in-residence), and I was taken by his composition and energy. Aryeh’s offer to me was like asking if I wanted a brand new car and here are the keys! So Aryeh called Bonia, made the arrangements, and I was on my way to Cincinnati, with really no idea what to expect.
    Bonia was truly a gracious host. He gave me a wonderful tour of the Cincinnati campus (I remember distinctly him pointing out a block of sidewalk in which someone had indicated, in Hebrew, not to urinate on the grounds!), and made arrangements for me to stay in the dorms there. Since it was during Sukkot, he and Fanchon hosted an annual meeting of the second year students at their house. Bonia and I went together to the supermarket and picked out food for the evening. He mused over the quality of the grapes, and actually fed me one! At their home, we prepared for the festivities. It was an evening of music, story sharing, and sitting on large, inflatable exercise balls!
    Back at the college, Bonia was preparing for the annual performance of his Hallel Psalms (one of his greatest works, in my opinion) and he invited me to join the choir of rabbinic students and ringers. I was more than happy to oblige. In our downtime from rehearsing, he exposed me to the depth and breadth of his work, sharing with me his opinions on composing for the synagogue. I drank in his wisdom and was taken by his deep commitment to artistic integrity.

    Although the visit was short, it left a lasting impression on me. Following that trip, Bonia and I were bonded in a relationship of sharing music and more. While in Cincinnati, he and I talked about the need for a new setting of the Mi Shebeirakh, and he composed a work in Hebrew and English which embodies the hope that one needs when praying for the sick. When Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, I composed a setting of Shalom Rav, which was incomplete until Bonia arranged it for me. I sent him my new compositions, and he sent me his. I appreciated his feedback on my work, and I loved being one of the first to look at a new Shur manuscript.

    Cantor Erik Contzius

    I was always impressed by his active mind. Late in his life, he took to using computers, and I wound up being his long-distance tutor in Finale (a computer program for engraving.) I sometimes fielded four or five phone calls from Bonia with the preface, “Just one more zing!”
    More than a composer and philosopher, Bonia was a thoughtful and caring human being. If you connected with him, it was with love. Bonia always asked about my family and my well being out of true concern. When I was going through my divorce, Bonia would check up on me to see how I was faring. And he was always encouraging. He egged me on to compose more. When I sent him one of my CD’s, he said, “Zere’s too much! Always keep people wanting more! Don’t give it all away!” He was always wise.
    I learned that when he passed, he was holding the copy of his Hallel Psalms in his hand, newly published by Transcontinental Music. Bonia was so prolific and I am saddened that his compositional voice has been extinguished. But I have been influenced so much by this mountain of a man. I can only hope that my composition work, greatly shaped by his guidance, will sound echoes of Bonia’s life, such that his voice will continue to sound strong.
    May Bonia live on in his music and all who loved him.
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  • Singing the Praises of our Mothers: A Tribute to Women Cantors

    Posted on August 10th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 1 comment
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    Cantor Barbara Ostfeld

    Hebrew Union College has been in the forefront of  educating and empowering women to take leadership roles in Jewish life. 36 years ago, the HUC-JIR’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music invested its first female cantor. Their voices have changed prayer for all of us, women and men alike. This week’s guest post by Cantor Erik Contzius describes a tribute to the voices of Jewish women throughout the ages.

    -Ruth Abusch-Magder

    Cantor Erik Contzius

    36 years ago, HUC-JIR’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music  invested its first female cantor, Barbara Ostfeld. Since that time, women have greatly influenced the modern cantorate as well as the musical liturgy of the synagogue. Cantor Ostfeld was a true pioneer, becoming a role model to those women who immediately followed her through the halls of Hebrew Union College to today, where over half of the American Conference of Cantors (ACC) is comprised of women.

    In honor of this double-khai anniversary, the American Conference of Cantors honored those female cantors in the ACC who joined from 1975-1985 at the American Conference of Cantors-Guild of Temple Musician’s annual convention in Boston in June, 2011. All of these women, each pioneers in her own right, were acknowledged for their contributions as well as their trailblazing at the convention. Presentations were made, a special service was performed, and I was fortunate enough to be included in honoring these well-deserving women.

    I was initially approached by my friend and colleague, Cantor Claire Franco, who asked if I would compose a choral work in honor of the ACC’s “Imahot,” marking the occasion most appropriately with a new song. I was very flattered and honored, but initially felt uncomfortable—as a man, was it right for me to attempt to give musical voice describing the path these women traveled? Upon further reflection, in an age of post-modernism and perhaps post-feminism, I was able to reconcile being asked to write such a work, but under one condition: In lieu of selecting a text from our rabbinic heritage, which would undoubtedly be written by men, I sought to find a text in the female voice, by a female voice.

    Dina Elenbogen

    With the help of another friend and colleague, Rabbi Ruth Abusch-Magder, I was introduced to a very talented writer and poet, Dina Elenbogen. I explained to Dina the need for a text which would give acknowledgement to women claiming their own voice and place in the role of a Cantor. I described it as a journey towards empowerment, acceptance, and leadership. Despite having a limited deadline, Dina’s talent came through, and a poem was born which painted a very powerful image, one of female strength and artistry, equal but distinct from men, and as Dina was inspired by my ideas, I was in turn inspired by her words.

    The result of this combined effort was the work, “A Woman’s Voice” (to listen see below) The choral work, written for Soprano and Alto choir and piano, was premiered in Boston by the very women whom were to be honored. They gave life to Dina’s words and my music, and the congregation of cantors and synagogue musicians was very moved by the gesture.

    I’m only 42. It doesn’t seem that young, but in regard to the modern cantorate, it is. But what it means to me is that for most of my life, the cantorate has not been biased towards one gender or the other. In fact, having grown up with a rabbi who filled both the role of rabbi and cantor, I was unaware of the cantor as a profession until I met my first one at a regional NFTY convention: Cantor Pamela Siskin. I recalled this strong memory to the cantors I was conducting for the premiere performance and how that memory paved the way towards my entering the profession myself.

    I anticipate that the influence and uniqueness that women have brought to the modern cantorate, and therefore to Judaism entirely, will only be magnified in the next 36 years to come. And that special voice, a woman’s voice, melded with the men’s voice which already is here, will continue to make beautiful music for the Jewish people. As it is written: “Sing a New Song unto God.” The song has become new and will continually do so as long as we see both men and women for the equals they are.

    To listen to a recording of click on this link: A Woman’s Voice

    A Woman’s Voice

    In the beginning      a whimper

    Pounding of heart-steps

    Whispers of open fists

    Prayer notes in stone


    Pounding of heart-steps

    Chirps of morning songs

    Prayer notes in stone

    The language of angels

     

    Chirps of morning songs

    A girl stands at the threshold

    Hears the language of angels

    Her own music breaking

     

    A girl-woman stands at the threshold

    Chants the first words of Torah

    Her own voice breaking

    Into stones with burning names

     

    When a woman chants the first words

    She finds inside her own voice

    Stones with burning names

    A cry becomes a scream

     

    She finds inside her own voice

    A silence   a sigh   an exaltation

    A cry becomes a scream

    A song of abundance

     

    A silence   a sigh   an exaltation

    When a woman reaches the highest note

    In her abundant song

    Even the stones begin to tremble.

     

    —Dina Elenbogen, March 2011



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  • Blue Women and Biblical Tales: The Work of Siona Benjamin

    Posted on May 23rd, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    Esther is blue. So is Vashti. And it is hard to take your eyes off of them. Born and raised in Bombay in a Bene Israel Jewish family and educated in Catholic and Zoroastrian Schools, artist Siona Benjamin brings many influences and cultural understandings into the bold art she creates –much of it based on Jewish stories. Her current exhibition at the HUC-JIR Museum – New York, The Croll Center for Jewish Learning and Culture, is an illustrated Esther Megillah and is on display until the end of June.

    Benjamin recently returned from a spending four months as a Fulbright scholar in India. She is thoughtful and passionate about the work she does and her desire to express the complexity of contemporary Jewish life. I sat down with her to talk about her art.

    Siona Benjamin

    Ruth Abusch-Magder: Much of your art revolves around Jewish themes, especially those of Jewish women, how did you come to this focus?

    Sonia Benjamin: A lot of my work is about issues of identity and social and political identity and my role as a woman and a Jew and as an Indian.  When I was studying in art school, my professors said only big abstract bold paintings will sell and will make you lots of money. But that was not really me. My paintings are small, decorative, feminine, mythology based. Why is myth not high art? Why is decorative art not high art? When you speak in your true voice people really start seeing it.

    Ruth Abusch-Magder: How do you engage Jewish content in your work?

    Sonia Benjamin: I study midrash with Rabbi Burt Visotsky. The whole process of studying midrash is the starting point. Then I have to make it my own. If I just drew Ruth walking with Naomi or Rebecca by the well, it would be redundant. People would say, how skillful or how beautiful, but it would not be compelling. It would be redundant. But midrash is about having a take on the story. I am making visual midrash that will affect not just Jewish people, but all kinds of people. They can connect in their own way. I’m striving for that.

    Ruth Abusch-Magder: The Esther Megillah was a commission, so how did you decide what to illustrate and how to do the drawings?

    Sonia Benjamin: The person who commissioned me had a lot to say, and so did Rabbi Visotsky. I also did historical research. Haman’s hat, for example, was it supposed to be three cornered like a hamantashen? There were no hamantashen in Persia. So I asked what could he have been wearing? Then I exaggerated it to show his character.

    There is a scene where Achashverosh is receiving Esther and Modechai is presenting her.  I was doing sketches, and I went back and forth with the rabbi and the guy about the throne. I wondered if I should go back to the Persian miniature and copy Moghul miniature painting which showed King Akbar or Gihangi sitting on thrones. But there is actually there is a midrash about the throne that Achashverosh sat on. There is a contemplation that he sat on the looted throne of King Solomon. Now, what does that look like? It is said in the midrash that it had a lion, a falcon, a bull and human face on it. According to the midrash Solomon’s throne was looted by the Persian kings and this is what Achashverosh sat on. So I used this as the basis in my painting. It is a hidden secret, no one will know unless it is pointed out but it will make it more interesting.

    Ruth Abusch-Magder: Which is your favorite character? Who do you identify with in the megillah?

    Sonia Benjamin: A lot of my work is feminist, I like marginal characters Vashti, Lilith, dina, tziporah. So I was disappointed that Vashti disappears [from the story]. She is like the ex-wife who wants to come back. So in the scroll painting in one of the scenes when the King is married to Esther and she is planning to save the Jewish people and she is pouring wine in the background there are arch ways and the marriage bed. In the background I painted the shadow of Vashti, she is watching, maybe approving, saying this king is finally getting what he deserves.

    Ruth Abusch-Magder: Why are the women in your paintings blue?

    Sonia Benjamin: A lot of my characters are blue because a lot of times people don’t recognize what I am, I get asked if I am Moroccan, Puerto Rican, Pakistani, Persia. If I say Indian then they say Hindu, Muslim? Then what are you. When I explain that I am Jewish, they often want to touch me –I’m exotic. There have been Jews in India for thousands of years. When I was painting self portraits I tried all these brown colors but none seemed right. But blue is the color of the ocean and sky it could belong anywhere. It is the color of Israel all the synagogues in India are painted this blue, and Krishna is a God who is blue. It became a symbol for me of being a Jewish woman of color. It became a joke that I could play. Feminist writers have said, that I am the other 3x removed, Jewish, woman and in a foreign land, so your blueness gets amplified, you get bluer and bluer.

     

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