Uniting in song to save a tradition

Newly formed local choir of Jewish men and boys harks back to old-world synagogue service

March 02, 2006|By TIM SMITH | TIM SMITH,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Boys in yarmulkes and sneakers chased each other through the sanctuary in Baltimore's Beth Jacob Congregation a few nights ago while a small choir of men, their heads likewise covered, stood on the platform in front and concentrated on rehearsing pieces of Jewish liturgical music.

The horseplay didn't seem to faze anyone, least of all the conductor, Sholom Kalib, a 76-year-old retired college professor who did his first stint as choirmaster at age 14 at the Romanian Synagogue in Chicago.

And when Kalib signaled for the boys to join the adults up front, they quickly got serious and took their seats, ready to add their voices to the cause of preserving a fading art.

Choirs of boys and men were once common in Orthodox synagogues but have become the exception in this country. "I'm trying to restore this tradition," Kalib said after the rehearsal.

The Dallas-born Kalib comes from a strong cantorial line. His uncle and grandfather were cantors; his father taught him music so effectively that Kalib was singing in an orthodox choir at 11 and serving as cantor soon after.

When his family moved to Chicago, Kalib became immersed in a rich legacy of Eastern European Jewish music being carried on by cantors there. He enjoyed his own career as a cantor in various cities, and also spent three decades as a professor of music theory at Eastern Michigan University.

Since his retirement in 1999, Kalib, now living in Baltimore, has been focusing anew on a longtime goal of documenting Eastern European synagogue music in print and on recording. In the past few years, he has published two volumes of history and analysis of this music, with three more to come.

"He's very respected in his field, and very highly thought of in both Conservative and Orthodox movements," says cantor Thom King of Beth El Congregation in Baltimore.

To provide a framework for his efforts, Kalib recently launched the Jewish Music Heritage Project, with help from his daughter, Ruth Eisenberg.

"I fear that no one will document this music unless he does it," Eisenberg said. "Without visibility, we can't find the support to make all the money we need to record the music."

A vehicle for that visibility is the Jewish Music Heritage Project Boys' and Men's Choir, which started rehearsing in November and will make its debut in concert on Sunday.

"I considered a performance important to develop interest and make the community aware of what we're doing," Kalib said.

Choirs like his were "the standard in Eastern Europe from about the middle of the 19th century until about the Russian Revolution," Kalib said.

"The tradition was then transplanted to the U.S. and had what I call its zenith period. I lived in the last rays of that zenith. In my youth in Chicago, I remember hearing voices of such warmth and feeling. They produced an extremely rich-sounding service."

The past 50 years or so have seen a gradual shift in tastes for music in Jewish services. "We now see some synagogues that don't have choirs at all," King said. "They let the congregation sing. Synagogues in which women's voices are not to be heard may have choirs of men's voices, but not boys."

King, who has a choir of men and women at his Conservative synagogue, sees a parallel to music in the Catholic church. For centuries, women were not allowed to sing in services; boys and men provided the choral work (and still do at the Vatican). More recent times have seen a big move toward congregational singing at Catholic services, as well as more popular styles of music.

Today, at some Orthodox synagogues that have choirs, "the music is far from what you would expect," King said. "To attract young people, there's a lot of very driven, rock-'n'-roll music with Hebrew words. We call it black-hat rock."

The music Kalib's choir sings is apt to be driven more by classical counterpoint than contemporary beats. "These boys have never heard anything like I'm trying to get out of them," Kalib says.

Some of the repertoire the ensemble will sing on Sunday comes from the 19th century and could be mistaken for something by Mendelssohn. Other pieces are by Kalib's cantor mentors from his Chicago days and some by Kalib himself, written in the idiom of older days.

(One of Kalib's compositions, Day of Rest, with texts from the Sabbath liturgy, is included in the extensive Milken Archive of American Jewish Music on the Naxos label, recorded with the Vienna Choir Boys and adult alumni of that famed group.)

Getting boys to join any kind of choir is never easy, let alone one that sings old Jewish liturgical music. Kalib recalled a cantor in Israel telling him 25 years ago that "you couldn't get a kid to sing in a choir for anything."

But once word went out about the Jewish Music Heritage Project, response among budding singers was strong. About three dozen boys from throughout the Baltimore area are in the choir.

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