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Walking the tightrope with my father
By ELI KAVON
03/29/2014
A good Jewish boy would never violate the holy Shabbat by singing in a nightclub on Friday night, rather than attending synagogue.
 
On a Friday night in January 1951, a young tenor sat at the dressing room table in the Latin Quarter nightclub in New York City. He was hard at work, composing an arrangement of Jewish liturgical music for Shabbat or High Holy Days.

In a few moments he would be out on stage, singing to a crowd of celebrities, politicians and a few gangsters. The showgirls, a main attraction at the club, would joke with him, asking how “the rabbi” was proceeding with his compositions. As the 26-year-old veteran of World War II prepared to go onstage, he could hear the admonitions of his mother: “You’re a goy!” Only a non-Jew, in her mind, would perform at a theater on a Friday night.

However, a good Jewish boy would never violate the holy Shabbat by singing in a nightclub on Friday night, rather than attending synagogue.

The tenor tried to assuage the guilt instilled by his religious mother by creating Jewish music, even while blatantly violating the Shabbat.

My father’s stories of his life – including the one I just related to you – are a part of me, even though he died 15 years ago. From both his experiences and my own I have come to one conclusion: To be a Jew in the modern world it seems that one must possess the talents of a tightrope walker who performs without a net.

I am reminded of Heinrich Heine, the great 19th-century German poet and essayist who, born a Jew, explained his reasons for converting to Christianity this way: “The baptismal certificate is the ticket of admission to European culture.” Our ticket to modern life as American Jews is often complete assimilation, a ticket to the majority culture that bears a high price. Yet, to be both a committed Jew and a modern human being is not an impossible task. It requires tremendous skill and a modicum of courage, but it can be done.

Perhaps, like the denizens of Lakewood, Mea She’arim and Bnei Brak, I could turn my back on the modern world and attempt to enter a time machine that would take me back in history to Judaism as it was practiced in Eastern Europe before the arrival of the Jewish Enlightenment and Zionism. Sometimes, this seems a very appealing option. There would be no conflicts, no questions, and no doubts. I could burn my copies of Euripides, Seneca, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Camus. I could shred to pieces works by Ahad Ha’am, Peretz and Babel. I could throw my compact discs of Beethoven, Prokofiev, Arik Einstein, Naomi Shemer, Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M. in the dumpster. It would all be that simple.

Yet, it is not that simple. For centuries Jews have grappled with the question of how to reconcile their beliefs and practices with those of the general world around them.

Philo, Saadya, Maimonides, Mendelssohn, Buber, Rosenzweig, Bialik: all of these Jewish thinkers have dared to face the dominant cultures around them, incorporate the best of the surrounding world, and stand their ground. The Jews of ancient Alexandria spoke only Greek yet remained loyal to their Jewish heritage.

Their intellectuals composed plays, novels and poetry dealing with biblical themes yet based on Hellenistic models. The Jews of medieval Spain wrote marvelous Hebrew poetry that was influenced by themes and forms common in the Muslim world. The Jews of Renaissance Italy were philosophers, dance instructors, theater performers, and poets.

The great poet Immanuel of Rome introduced the form of the sonnet into Hebrew literature.

History provides us with many examples of Jews who successfully walked the tightrope between civilizations with great success. These intellectual and artistic acrobats should be our models.

AS I approach the half-century mark in this world, I have seen the decline of the ideal that nourished me in my young years, that of torah u’madah – the incorporation of general knowledge into a traditional Jewish worldview. This ideal, the core of Modern Orthodox Jewish life and thought, has devolved into what could best be called “torah u’miktzoah” – Torah and a profession.

There exist only a few supermen and superwomen of synthesis, able to leap from Rashi to Rousseau in a single bound.

Those of us less versed in the mysteries of torah u’madah are urged to live vicariously through their genius.

We are encouraged to pursue the great Maimonidean model: to set up a lucrative medical practice with high government officials and other prestigious personalities as patients.

Synthesis today is both a sham ideal of hollow self-congratulation and a practical way to boost one’s prestige and earning potential. The true confrontation that torah u’madah demands is an embarrassment or inconvenience to many Jews.

I must confess that I have not had an easier time walking the tightrope than my father. The conflict between remaining an observant Jew and singing at a theater on the night of Kol Nidre was a conflict that almost consumed him. My struggles with the reality of living as a modern human being and a Jew of faith – one who neither embraces every aspect of the post-Emancipation world nor rejects it all – have almost consumed me. I am fractured but not broken.

My father’s mother was an unyielding woman – you had to be tough to be an immigrant in an alien world and raise a family – and eventually my dad yielded to her demands not to perform on Shabbat or holidays.

When my father was a boy and his father took him by subway on Shabbat morning to hear the great cantors of the Jazz Age, my grandmother protested vehemently – how dare you travel by train on Shabbat, she said in anger and in piety.

While I regret that my father never was able to live out his dream as a Mel Torme or Frank Sinatra, I would not be here today presenting this essay to you if he had pursued his dream. Eventually, my father, while serving as an administrative executive for the Conservative movement, incorporated his love of singing into a part-time career as a choral director at various New York synagogues.

Watching him conduct was one of the joys of my youth. He also prepared me for my bar mitzvah and, later, in South Florida, taught me the morning service for the High Holy Days. If he had abandoned Judaism for the bright lights of Broadway and had not met his wife and soul-mate at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I would never have had the opportunity to walk the tightrope.

I will leave you with the image of my father, sitting by the stereo, enthralled by the music. Whether he was listening to the riffs of jazz greats Stan Kenton and Buddy Rich or the chanting of Cantors Moshe Koussevistky or Yossele Rosenblatt, he was absorbed in the music of two different worlds he tried so hard to reconcile.

He walked the tightrope with grace. I will never forget him.

The author is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.On a Friday night in January 1951, a young tenor sat at the dressing room table in the Latin Quarter nightclub in New York City. He was hard at work, composing an arrangement of Jewish liturgical music for Shabbat or High Holy Days.

In a few moments he would be out on stage, singing to a crowd of celebrities, politicians and a few gangsters. The showgirls, a main attraction at the club, would joke with him, asking how “the rabbi” was proceeding with his compositions. As the 26-year-old veteran of World War II prepared to go onstage, he could hear the admonitions of his mother: “You’re a goy!” Only a non-Jew, in her mind, would perform at a theater on a Friday night.

However, a good Jewish boy would never violate the holy Shabbat by singing in a nightclub on Friday night, rather than attending synagogue.

The tenor tried to assuage the guilt instilled by his religious mother by creating Jewish music, even while blatantly violating the Shabbat.

My father’s stories of his life – including the one I just related to you – are a part of me, even though he died 15 years ago. From both his experiences and my own I have come to one conclusion: To be a Jew in the modern world it seems that one must possess the talents of a tightrope walker who performs without a net.

I am reminded of Heinrich Heine, the great 19th-century German poet and essayist who, born a Jew, explained his reasons for converting to Christianity this way: “The baptismal certificate is the ticket of admission to European culture.” Our ticket to modern life as American Jews is often complete assimilation, a ticket to the majority culture that bears a high price. Yet, to be both a committed Jew and a modern human being is not an impossible task. It requires tremendous skill and a modicum of courage, but it can be done.

Perhaps, like the denizens of Lakewood, Mea She’arim and Bnei Brak, I could turn my back on the modern world and attempt to enter a time machine that would take me back in history to Judaism as it was practiced in Eastern Europe before the arrival of the Jewish Enlightenment and Zionism. Sometimes, this seems a very appealing option. There would be no conflicts, no questions, and no doubts. I could burn my copies of Euripides, Seneca, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche and Camus. I could shred to pieces works by Ahad Ha’am, Peretz and Babel. I could throw my compact discs of Beethoven, Prokofiev, Arik Einstein, Naomi Shemer, Bruce Springsteen and R.E.M. in the dumpster. It would all be that simple.

Yet, it is not that simple. For centuries Jews have grappled with the question of how to reconcile their beliefs and practices with those of the general world around them.

Philo, Saadya, Maimonides, Mendelssohn, Buber, Rosenzweig, Bialik: all of these Jewish thinkers have dared to face the dominant cultures around them, incorporate the best of the surrounding world, and stand their ground. The Jews of ancient Alexandria spoke only Greek yet remained loyal to their Jewish heritage.

Their intellectuals composed plays, novels and poetry dealing with biblical themes yet based on Hellenistic models. The Jews of medieval Spain wrote marvelous Hebrew poetry that was influenced by themes and forms common in the Muslim world. The Jews of Renaissance Italy were philosophers, dance instructors, theater performers, and poets.

The great poet Immanuel of Rome introduced the form of the sonnet into Hebrew literature.

History provides us with many examples of Jews who successfully walked the tightrope between civilizations with great success. These intellectual and artistic acrobats should be our models.

AS I approach the half-century mark in this world, I have seen the decline of the ideal that nourished me in my young years, that of torah u’madah – the incorporation of general knowledge into a traditional Jewish worldview. This ideal, the core of Modern Orthodox Jewish life and thought, has devolved into what could best be called “torah u’miktzoah” – Torah and a profession.

There exist only a few supermen and superwomen of synthesis, able to leap from Rashi to Rousseau in a single bound.

Those of us less versed in the mysteries of torah u’madah are urged to live vicariously through their genius.

We are encouraged to pursue the great Maimonidean model: to set up a lucrative medical practice with high government officials and other prestigious personalities as patients.

Synthesis today is both a sham ideal of hollow self-congratulation and a practical way to boost one’s prestige and earning potential. The true confrontation that torah u’madah demands is an embarrassment or inconvenience to many Jews.

I must confess that I have not had an easier time walking the tightrope than my father. The conflict between remaining an observant Jew and singing at a theater on the night of Kol Nidre was a conflict that almost consumed him. My struggles with the reality of living as a modern human being and a Jew of faith – one who neither embraces every aspect of the post-Emancipation world nor rejects it all – have almost consumed me. I am fractured but not broken.

My father’s mother was an unyielding woman – you had to be tough to be an immigrant in an alien world and raise a family – and eventually my dad yielded to her demands not to perform on Shabbat or holidays.

When my father was a boy and his father took him by subway on Shabbat morning to hear the great cantors of the Jazz Age, my grandmother protested vehemently – how dare you travel by train on Shabbat, she said in anger and in piety.

While I regret that my father never was able to live out his dream as a Mel Torme or Frank Sinatra, I would not be here today presenting this essay to you if he had pursued his dream. Eventually, my father, while serving as an administrative executive for the Conservative movement, incorporated his love of singing into a part-time career as a choral director at various New York synagogues.

Watching him conduct was one of the joys of my youth. He also prepared me for my bar mitzvah and, later, in South Florida, taught me the morning service for the High Holy Days. If he had abandoned Judaism for the bright lights of Broadway and had not met his wife and soul-mate at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I would never have had the opportunity to walk the tightrope.

I will leave you with the image of my father, sitting by the stereo, enthralled by the music. Whether he was listening to the riffs of jazz greats Stan Kenton and Buddy Rich or the chanting of Cantors Moshe Koussevistky or Yossele Rosenblatt, he was absorbed in the music of two different worlds he tried so hard to reconcile.

He walked the tightrope with grace. I will never forget him.

The author is rabbi of Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton, Florida.
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