One Man’s Opinion | By Eugen Schoenfeld
Spring comes late in the foothills of the Carpathians Mountains. By Shavuot, however, all is green, and the warm balmy winds of spring make us forget the cold rains of Purim and even Pesach. Time has come for us to open the double doors and the double windows that kept us comfortable during the cold days and let the clean, fresh air scented by the walnut tree near the house enter our abode and give the whole house a new life with its fresh, perfumed air.
During the week days there wasn’t time to enjoy the joyful weather. After all, first and foremost my father had to earn a prnosoh, and I had to spend all my days in study. But Shabbat was quite different. On that day, leisure reigned, we stayed a little longer in bed, and the midday seudah was consumed slowly and with gusto.
Morning services, since they began at 7, were over shortly after 11, and it was my task on the way home from the synagogue to stop at the bakery and collect our pot of potato kugel or the cholent, a one-pot meal of beans, barley and meat that was served as part of Shabbat noon meal.
With chopped eggs and onions, gefilte fish, soup, and chicken supplemented by kugel or cholent, our traditional Shabbat lunch was more than a meal: it was a seudah, a banquet.
There was a common saying in our town: He who eats cholent for Shabbat will not be hungry the rest of the week. I am not sure the origin of this saying; perhaps the meal was so heavy that required an Alka-Seltzer as a post-meal medication.
During such glorious spring and summer months the windows were always open, and on Shabbat we sat longer at our dining room table, enjoying not only the meal, but also the gentle, warm crosswinds in. The fresh white linen tablecloth and the special dishes gave the room a festive décor, even if that same room served as our day room and the bedroom for me, my brother and my sister. But on Shabbat noon with its Persian rug, it was festive.
Per custom, the courses were served slowly, giving my father and me time to sing the zmiroth, the Shabbat songs that we chanted at the table. There was but one slight trouble: Neither my father nor I had an adequate voice.
We did our best. We started with Yom zeh mechubad, using my grandfather’s melody, and each one of us tried to out-sing the other. All our efforts were in vain, and we knew it.
But then from across the street came the sounds of beautiful, harmonious voices: The cobbler and his five sons began to sing their zmiroth. They were poor in income but not in spirit, and I was and still am sure that these voices found no obstacles reaching the divine presence.
The cobbler and his family (whose name I forgot) lived in a small house behind the wealthy Guttmans’ big house. But on Shabbat, I firmly believe, the cobbler and his family were wealthier and more content than their rich landlord. As the glorious sounds of the cobbler’s songs filtered through the open windows, we stopped singing. Why should we sing when we could sit back and enjoy the almost professional-quality singing of our neighbor?
We hurriedly said the required song, then sat and enjoyed their voices.
The Bronsteins in the next courtyard, who were also also known as the “sour water Bronsteins” because they sold bottled water from a natural spring they owned, producing a drink that resembled today’s mild lemon-lime soda, had a gramophone. It was one that had to be cranked up and a new needle placed in its arm before it could be played. Late during the weekday afternoons, after finishing the usual light supper, Mr. Bronstein would bring the gramophone into the courtyard and play the prayers sung by noted cantors.
The courtyard slowly filled up with Jews. Some were bearded with peyes (ear-locks), and others were clean-shaven. All stood soundlessly and intently listening to the songs sung by the famous chazzan Yosseleh Rosenblat. Yosseleh was famous in our town. I was told that many years before I was born, for a short time, Yosseleh was the chazzan in the Beth Hamidrash Hagadol, my synagogue.
I still love to listen to the singing of the great cantors. For the past few years and especially for the past nine months since my wife passed away, I have difficulties sleeping, but I found a wonderful antidote. I turn to YouTube and listen to the liturgical music sung by the great chazzans of the past.
My soul seems to yearn to hear these great singers. Their melodies seem to transport me into another world. They calm my anxieties and dissolve my weldschmertzen, and I find peace for my soul just as David’s music provided King Saul. Perhaps inside me still exists the spark implanted by Reb Avrohom, my Chasidic grandfather.
Of course I love music. I derive great pleasure from any arias in “Tosca” or “The Merry Widow,” and in spite of my bad knee, I am always ready to dance to the sounds of Benny’s clarinet.
But listening to any of Yosseleh Rosenblat’s prayers invokes in me another feeling. No other music or philosophical book will make me close my eyes and feel inextricably united with my people. The music of these noted cantors strengthens my historical bond and forges another and stronger link in that golden chain that ties me to our past.
This effect is not limited to the old masters of the liturgical music. The first time, for instance, I heard Barbra Streisand sing Avinu Malkeynu, I immediately felt united with the historic Jewish collective. The song and her singing reinforced my ties to a people who refused to shed their identity.
Music, especially liturgical music, has a far greater force and elicits in us a greater desire of being reunited with our people than the unending recitation of words. It is indeed a great tragedy that we do not use this great force, the force of music.
Years ago I attended Friday night services in a temple in Baton Rouge. With the aid of two guitars, all of us chanted the service. There was pure joy in the temple. No one was coughing, nor did anyone shuffle his feet in impatience or look at his watch.
But I did notice their faces; there was a shine and a smile on each one of them. Their faces reminded me of the biblical description of Moses’ face after he received the tablets. Here was a congregation in which everyone’s face shone, reflecting what in Hebrew is referred to as ziv haschinah, the glow of divine presence. If that could be achieved by all synagogues, none would ever be empty.