Rob Rinder

Music is the voice of the Jewish soul, whether in joy or sorrow

As Jonathan Sacks put it, “The history of the Jewish spirit is written in its songs”


Jewish soul: Leonard Bernstein

June 27, 2024 09:18

I was a gap-toothed ten-year-old when I first saw an orchestra. I can’t recall what they played but I do remember being mesmerised by the conductor. Even then, it struck me that he had some sort of magical connection with the musicians. I always wanted to have a go. Since then, give me anything vaguely baton-shaped and I’d happily direct a kazoo quartet playing Knees Up Mother Brown, all from the happy privacy of my front room.

Last week, I got the chance to shoot a little higher when I made my debut at the Marylebone Festival, conducting the wonderful Orion Orchestra. We made our blissful way through Mascagni’s exquisite intermezzo from Cavalleria rusticana. It was both an enormous privilege and an utter joy.

Music is the world to me. It always has been. I’d like to pretend my earliest musical memory was something serious and moving but, in fact, it’s probably of me choreographing a dazzling routine to Diana Ross’s Chain Reaction. You see, the soundscape of 1980s Southgate (where I grew up) didn’t include many of the classical works that I now love.

But I do have another, slightly more profound, childhood memory: hearing the superb choir at Cockfosters and North Southgate synagogue. As I sat there one Yom Kippur, I remember feeling that the Kol Nidrei service was pretty much the most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. It was my first real encounter with the eloquent harmonies of Jewish music.

I didn’t fully understand how it was happening (I don’t know that I ever will), but I felt its power on some very deep level.

It was a sense of something unique, wondrous and overwhelming. “Words are the language of the mind,” said the great Jonathan Sacks, “music is the language of the soul.” That was what I sensed in that moment, sitting in the warm yellow light of the main shul and hearing the choir and chazan exploring the unsolvable riddle of the divine.

It was only later that I made my own bid to unpick the melodies and try to understand how it all actually works. After a few failed attempts to learn the tuba (it’s a grand instrument but we were on different life paths), I made my way to the piano and conducting, and slowly began to appreciate how all the complex parts fit together. On that journey, I’ve always been especially moved and fascinated by the great Jewish composers. There are too many to mention, from Bernstein to Schoenberg, Mahler to Mendelssohn, all brilliant in different ways. Initially, their varied works don’t seem to reveal much that is shared. But I’ve always felt something hidden under the semi-quavers that connects them, some gently pulsing Jewish energy, which takes me back to that first moment hearing Kol Nidrei.

I believe the commonality must be based in our enduring need to share our past and hand it down. History, suffering, our sense of existential insecurity; all echo from the sacred resonances of our faith into their works. It’s there in the intricate pain and longing of Mahler’s Second Symphony and it’s there in Bernstein’s magnificent Chichester Psalms.

But Judaism is not only about pain and introspection. The symphony of our experience isn’t just played lamentoso. In fact, that slightly annoying expression, “Cheer up, it might never happen” should really have a Jewish version: “Cheer up, it already has”. Our optimism in the face of so much painful history is what leads to the other bit of the story: boisterous exultation.

Getting the music right at a simcha is as important as making sure you have the right kind of herring and at least 50 spare kippa clips. I was recently at a family bat mitzvah and I felt pure delight vibrating through the room as young and old took to the floor to get sweaty and giddy, though to be honest I mostly stuck to the sidelines (I’m never at my best in the half ballet, half-scrum of the hora). Whether it’s throwing yourself around the dancefloor or singing your lungs out to Matchmaker, Matchmaker, or a whole community belting out the tune to Adon Olam (as to which is the “fun” one, people of good conscience can disagree), that impulse to rejoice is as sacred and as moving as anything Mahler ever had to say. As Sacks – again – put it as only he could: “The history of the Jewish spirit is written in its songs.”

Joy-filled or heart-breaking, ancient or modern, our music has always been at the centre of who we are. I’m grateful every day to have it beating away in my heart and at the heart of Klal Yisrael.

June 27, 2024 09:18

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