The Way of Weisgal

Today at Beth AM Synagogue, a bleoved musical tradition continues with the arrival of its newest cantor.

April 15, 2000|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

When Cantor Ira Greenstein welcomes his new congregation at Beth Am Synagogue today, he'll be singing in the ancient tradition of Jewish liturgical music.

As he melodically channels into prayer the joys and sorrows of the synagogue's membership just before Passover, Greenstein will also be preserving the traditions established by the charismatic cantor who presided at the Eutaw Place temple for 52 years.

At Beth Am, the intuitive blend of synagogue music by 19th century classical composers, folk melodies and the lovely compositions of Cantor Abba Joseph Weisgal himself, is known collectively as "Weisgal music."

Greenstein, 48, who has served congregations in Columbia, New York City and Augusta, Ga., knows that the Weisgal faithful will be closely watching his learning curve. He likens his crash course to drinking from a fire hose instead of a water fountain.

But woe to any Beth Am cantor or congregation who would do otherwise and forsake Weisgal music for a guitar and contemporary Jewish melody.

"We're in love with it. We believe in Weisgal," says long-time Beth Am member Gil Sandler. "Debbie Friedman, the most renowned writer of Jewish music today, takes classic prayers and writes her own music. The kids love it. We don't tolerate it. It's just crazy what we do, the way we keep Weisgal alive."

For Sandler, Weisgal music "recalls the quintessential Jewish experience, love, suffering, happiness and tears -- the whole spectrum of human experience."

"I've lived with that music all my life," says Efrem Potts, Beth Am's first president and temporary executive director. Potts' affiliation with the historic synagogue building began "in utero" when it was Chizuk Amuno, a German Jewish congregation founded in Baltimore in 1871. Abba Weisgal trained Potts for his bar mitzvah and, much later when the cantor's eyesight faltered, Potts helped him during High Holiday services by tracing his finger along the Hebrew prayers.

"He had a unique style," Potts, 72, says. "He also had this unique musical background."

`Tough taskmaster'

Weisgal, a World War I veteran, arrived at Chizuk Amuno in 1921, bringing with him a musical sensibility that embraced both Western and Eastern Jewish cultural history. Trained in Vienna at a time when Jews were acculturated into the society that later destroyed them, he steeped himself in the work of composer Salomon Sulzer. A one-time chief cantor of the Great Synagogue in Vienna, Sulzer crossed traditional Jewish chant with the harmonies and decorum of classical Western choral music. Age-old Eastern and Central European folk and Jewish themes also surfaced in Weisgal's original songs.

In her recent book, "A Joyful Noise: Claiming the Songs of My Fathers," Deborah Weisgall, the cantor's 52-year-old granddaughter, writes: "In our synagogue each season and holiday had its special tunes. Abba had brought his music with him when he came with his wife and two sons to this country in 1920 from Czechoslovakia. His father had been a cantor in central Europe, as had his father before him. Abba sang the music they sang and the songs they had written. He had saved the music from destruction; it had nearly been annihilated in the war, shot, starved, and gassed. This synagogue was one of the few places where it survived."

As a recent cantorial institute graduate from New York City, Joseph A. Levine met Weisgal in 1958, served as his assistant and eventually wrote a Ph.D. about his mentor's compositions and life. Now retired, the Philadelphia resident speaks of the "big style" of music created by Weisgal and his four-part, all-male choir, conducted by his son, opera composer Hugo Weisgall.

Levine, 67, remembers passing through the synagogue's main entrance on a Saturday morning, listening to Weisgal's musical recitation of a healing prayer, the perfume the ladies wore, the caterer heating up the food if a bar mitzvah luncheon was to follow. "That was a real yom tov" -- a real good day -- Levine says.

Accustomed to the over-the-top dramatics of New York cantors, Levine was smitten by Weisgal's distinctive rumbling baritone and unexaggerated style: "Lo and behold, it was a whole new world. I never experienced anything that rang so true, all of the heroism, none of the shtick."

Back then, the service was rarely interrupted by English readings, Levine says, "so the flow could really work, the give and take. It wasn't performance, but the parts that were sung were really sung. We sung the heck out of that stuff."

Martin Willen, an 85-year-old tenor, has performed with the Eutaw Place synagogue's choir since the late 1940s. "I can tell you we were a very fine choir," he says. Willen remembers Deborah Weisgall as a little girl sitting on the choir loft ledge while her father conducted, her uncle Freddie and brother Jonathan sang, and her grandfather led the service from the bimah -- the platform at the front of the synagogue sanctuary.

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