Tradition and Change in ‘Gematria’ AJ’s Music Festival March 13

Editor’s note: Adath Jeshurun’s Adolph and Sara van der Walde and Israel Rosenbloum Music Festival, “Gematria: Treasures of Jewish Music,” will take place on Sunday, March 13, at 7 p.m. at the synagogue.

[by Cantor David Lipp]

Every one of my colleagues who serves in a synagogue is asked sooner or later some variation of the following: “Cantor!” or “Hazzan! Why didn’t you sing the TRADITIONAL {insert favorite prayer here: “L’cha Dodi,” “Adon Olam,” “Shalom Aleichem,” “Ein Kamocha}?!???!!”

Where do I begin?

First of all, let’s start with the word “traditional.” It could mean a song so widespread and old that we don’t even know who wrote it (aka “anonymous” or “folk”). By this yardstick, none of the pieces mentioned above (at least the tunes most likely intended by the person asking) qualify. The “L’cha Dodi” most often considered ‘traditional’ is by Lewandowski, the “Adon Olam” by Geirovitch, “Shalom Aleichem” by Goldfarb and “Ein Kamocha” by Sulzer. Widespread perhaps; old and anonymous? Not really.

The truth is there is an entire repertoire of Jewish liturgical music that does fall into this particular category of traditional. “Kol Nidre,” for instance, is one of a handful of melodic patterns that seems to have originated in the Rhineland region of Germany. Although ‘only’ about one thousand years old, these tunes are called MiSinai or ‘from Sinai’ not because they were actually hummed by God to Moses while carving the 10 Pronouncements on the tablets, but because they go back so far they may as well have been.


The word ‘tradition’ comes from a word that means ‘handed down.’ By this yardstick, AJ’s upcoming Music Festival will feature a number of pieces that qualify, old and new.

The Adon Olam text is certainly traditional by the first definition. It is most likely a medieval contribution to the Jewish prayer book stylistically influenced by Arabic poetry. The melody you’ll hear at “Gematria” is not the one most American Jews call ‘traditional’ however, but one of the oldest versions ever written out in musical notation by the first Jewish liturgical composer of note. Salomone Rossi wrote polyphonic art music for the synagogue at a time when that would have seemed as ‘goyish’ as singing “Silent Night” on Pesah. His “Adon Olam” will not be one you’ll want to sing along with but bask in the warmth of its Renaissance style as it’s sung by two sets of choral singers from either side of the sanctuary.

Another Jewish composer of synagogue music, Salomone Sulzer fully two centuries later redefined the role of the Kantor in Vienna and trained colleagues throughout Europe to follow his lead. Unlike Rossi, his music was definitely sung in the synagogue and appreciated there for the most part. The “Avinu Malkeinu” from the High Holidays we will perform is a choral setting of one of those truly old MiSinai melodies. It won’t be the one you sing along with either, but when you hear it, you’ll understand why it’s still around after a millennium.

Almost two centuries later, Debbie Friedman, whose death just recently shocked those who love her soulful lyricism, has given us “Mi Shebeirach,” a true prayer of healing that has become traditional based on its almost universal use and appeal. A few years ago, I put on a concert of Jewish women composers and sang a prayer of healing called “Mi Shebeirach” that was not by Debbie Friedman because I wanted to expand the repertoire. The objections were not unlike those who felt Justin Bieber should have received the ultimate award at the Grammys.

Three pieces, each separated by roughly two centuries, will all be featured as part of a collection of Jewish aural treasures, old and new, Hebrew, English and Yiddish. The AJ Music Festival’s 40th year will feature third-time-is-a-charm guest Voces Novae, under the spirited direction of Frank Heller III, accompanied by myself, Cantor Sharon Hordes of Keneseth Israel and adult and junior community choirs.

Rabbi Irwin Kula of CLAL once said that a ‘tradition’ is simply an innovation that succeeded and was perpetuated, handed down from generation to generation. By that standard, we hope that Jeremy Beck’s new woodwind quintet, “Stars and Celebrations,” commissioned for this concert, will become ‘traditional.’ Inspired by “Each of Us Has a Name” a poem by the Israeli poet Zelda, it will be performed by members of the Louisville Orchestra.

Tickets, $12.50 for adults, $10 for students and seniors, $15 at the door, are available at 458-5359 or Many sponsorship opportunities are available as well.

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