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  • The Power of Memory: Remembering Cantor William Sharlin

    Posted on November 11th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    This week we lost another luminary of Reform Judaism, Cantor William Sharlin.  Some of my earliest Jewish memories are of Cantor Sharlin.  He was cantor at Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles for his whole career.

    Cantor William Sharlin z"l

    My parents belonged to Leo Baeck when I was born.  Cantor Sharlin officiated at my twin sister’s and my baby naming. (I admit I don’t remember that).  We were consecrated there. I have memories of that joyous evening, marking the beginning of my Jewish education and receiving my own mini Torah – which I still have. While soon after that, my parents made the decision to shift their membership to another congregation, they maintained their relationships with the clergy at Leo Baeck through their ongoing and very active involvement in the Los Angeles Jewish community.

    Many years later, as a second year student at HUC-JIR I had the honor of studying with Cantor Sharlin. He offered an elective class in Torah chanting. While I am not a very confident singer, I wanted to both learn how to chant more proficiently and to experience learning with him. While I still haven’t become a proficient Torah chanter – I need lots of practice before doing it (unlike Rick who can cite chant from the tikkun) – the memories I have of the stories Cantor Sharlin told, the conversations we had about Jewish music, and the impression he made on me as model member of the Jewish clergy remain with me today.

    I am compelled to share one of those memories with you.

    It was the first day of our Torah chanting class. Cantor Sharlin was trying to get to know each of the students in the class.  He went around the room, asking us to share a bit about ourselves and especially our Hebrew names. Given that it was a class in Torah chanting, he wanted to know and use our Hebrew names when it was our turn to chant.

    When it was my turn to share a bit about myself, I didn’t really need to say so much. Cantor Sharlin knew exactly who I was. He remembered me as Mark and Marsha’s daughter.  So, I shared a bit about where I had gone to university, what I was hoping to get out of the class. I  was about to say, “and my Hebrew name is…” when Cantor Sharlin stopped me.

    “I know your Hebrew name. It’s  הדסה בתיה, Hadasah Batya. And your sister’s name is דבורה שושנה, Devorah Shoshanah.”

    My classmates and I were astounded!

    Over 20 years had passed since our baby naming!  How many other babies had he named in the two plus decades? How many b’nai mitzvah had he trained? Weddings officiated?  How was it possible that he could remember our names?

    Author, Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, RJE

    As a rabbi who has officiated at not nearly as many baby namings as Cantor Sharlin had at that point in his 40+year career, and one who cannot remember the names of all those babies, I am even more inspired by Cantor Sharlin. The attention and focus he must have given to each of these rituals, to make them meaningful and special for each family surely must have contributed to his ability to remember names. In that moment he taught us all what it means to be a member of the clergy.

    On a final note, it wouldn’t be right to leave this blog post without some music from Cantor Sharlin. My favorite piece is one that he arranged with Debbie Friedman and can be heard in NFTY albums of days past, Lo Yarei’u combined with Lo Yisa Goy.  You can read about it and hear just a piece of it here in this URJ Ten Minutes of Torah by Cantor Kay Greenwald.

    May Cantor Sharlin’s memory be a blessing and may his music bring joy and inspiration to us all for many more years to come.

    This week’s post was written by  Rabbi Laura Novak Winer, RJE and originally appeared on her blog Rabbi Laura.

     

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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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  • Advice for Jewish Professionals: What Every Grad Should Know 4

    Posted on January 26th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments
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    What advice has helped shape your career? What advice would you give new grads? Across the country and the graduating class of 2012 is thick in the depths of searching for jobs. Each day this week, different alumni of the college will be sharing advice for the class of 2012, as a way of welcoming those who will soon join our ranks.

    Join the conversation. What has been essential to your success? What do you wish you had known? Please add your own advice to any or all of the posts!

     

    by Cantor Erik Contzius of Temple Israel of New Rochelle, New York

    Remember that as klei kodesh we serve the Jewish people. Sometimes that service leads us to places we never expected when we entered the Seminary. My first pulpit was in Omaha, Nebraska–not a place I had ever in my life I expected to visit, let alone live. It was a wonderful and enriching experience. Sometimes that service leads us to do things far beyond our comfort zone. This is the demand of being a “Professional Jew.” This is a career and a calling of service.

    Author Erik Contzius

    Be ready for the unexpected. While in Nebraska, through a very large series of events, I would up having someone accused of a white collar crime living in our apartment under house arrest for 3 1/2 months! For me, this was an issue of pikuakh nefesh–it was in the newspapers, some congregants were uncomfortable, but I had to do what I felt was the right and just thing. Hopefully you won’t go through that exact experience, but you never know.

    Get in therapy. Therapists see other therapists so that they can treat their patients better. We need to do the same. Our profession demands our constant presence for others. Heed Hillel’s words: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

    We are still people. Just because we are clergy or have a Masters Degree from HUC does not make us “above” anyone else. Sometimes congregants will put us up on unnatural pedestals. Don’t buy into the hype! We are all weak, all fallible, all human, everyone of us. Don’t forget it!

     

     

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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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