Music, the Synagogue and Politics
Richard J. Garfunkel
May 8, 2007
The other night my wife Linda and daughter Dana, who was visiting from Boston this weekend, went to Temple Beth Shalom on Rte 9 in Hastings to hear a wonderful evening of music performed by the synagogue’s resident choir. Their program “Fascinating Rhythm,” combined choral and solo pieces that started with a musical adaptation of Psalm 150, called Hal’luhu. Interestingly, our Cantor, Ms. Robin Joseph, sang it and Benjie-Ellen Schiller, our former Cantor from Bet Am Shalom in White Plains, wrote the music. The program advanced beautifully with wonderful and moving solos by Will Berman, Joan Nelson, Carol Siege, and Irene Steiner. All of these numbers were accompanied by the marvelous harmonizing of the choir.
The Beth Shalom choir is a group of volunteers who have brought marvelous music to the ears of its Congregation for many years. Even though we are only members for a few years, we enjoy hearing a synagogue choir again, after many years as members of a Reconstructionist temple. Rabbi Ed Schecter, who is a precious asset to the congregation, besides being a great guy, has a remarkable sense of humor. He gave some insights on the independent spirit of the choir and how they operated in their own special world of collegiality. Ed always has interesting metaphors comparing past Jewish liturgy to current needs and in many ways reminds me of the late great rabbi Max Maccoby. Maccoby was the first rabbi I was aware of at the Free Synagogue when I lived as a child in the city of Mount Vernon. Rabbi Maccoby, was a student of the late Stephen Wise, who was one of the most important Jewish leader of the 20th century and the founder of the Free Synagogue of New York. By the time Wise married my parents in 1935 he was famous and a confidante of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
The roots of the Free Synagogue emanated from the mind of Rabbi Wise in 1905. Rabbi Wise, who was from Portland, was under consideration to be installed as the Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in New York City. When he learned that the temple’s board of trustees would review his sermons, he withdrew his name from consideration. He was interested in a “free” synagogue that would appeal to Jews from all of the three then existing movements. He started to hold services in the Lower East Side, and the Hudson Theater, on 47th Street and in 1907, at the Savoy Hotel, with hundreds of followers, Henry Morgenthau, Sr., the father of the future Secretary of the Treasury, was selected as president of the new synagogue. The Free Synagogue held services often at the Universalist Church of Eternal Hope on West 81st Street, where, in 1910, over 1000 people attended a service. Wise reached out to all of Judaism’s branches, and with his great success and message, the congregation was able purchase several brownstones on West 68th Street, before they built their new and current synagogue and headquarters there in 1950. Unfortunately, Rabbi Wise did not live to see the opening of the new location. He died suddenly on April 19, 1949, only one month after celebrating his 75th birthday at a gala diamond jubilee ceremony in his honor. Interestingly the senior Morgenthau resigned as president of the temple in 1919 over an argument regarding Zionism, which he opposed. His son, Henry, who was a close confidante and friend of FDR, was also not pro-Zionist, but worked acidulously to expose anti-Semitic actives in the State Department that restricted immigration of Jewish refugees. Morgenthau brought to FDR’s attention the many delays and obfuscations that were put in the path of refugees seeking asylum. After the War Refugee Board was created more than 200,000 Jews were saved. Morgenthau, whose stewardship at Treasury was unprecedented, handled over $370 billion. This was more than three times the amount of money than all 51 of his predecessors had been responsible for, and it was accomplished without a scandal. Whether from a latent sense of guilt, because of his failure to press the Jewish immigration issues with FDR, the disaster of the Holocaust, or the premature death of his wife, Elinor Fatman Morgenthau, and the influence of Ms. Henrietta Klotz, his long-time assistant, Morgenthau changed his attitude towards Israel and Zionism. In the days and months after his mentor FDR died, Morgenthau felt very uncomfortable with the new president, Harry S Truman. When Truman planned to travel with Secretary of State James Byrnes to the Potsdam Summit in July 1945, Truman became painfully aware that Morgenthau was third in line to become president. If he and Byrnes were killed in a plane crash, there would be a Jewish president. This thought disturbed many, including the president, who was “thought” to be a great friend of the Jewish community. Morgenthau, at the end of the war in Europe, became acutely aware of the full scope of the Jewish disaster that faced the survivors of the Death Camps. He asked Truman if he could bring up the issue of “displaced persons” with the Cabinet. “Truman, who considered that this was none of the secretary of the treasury’s business, ignored his requests.” (Mostly Morgenthaus, by Henry Morgenthau III, Ticknor & Fields, NY, 1991, page 408.)
Morgenthau heard authoritative rumors that Fred Vinson would replace him in the cabinet. When he learned that he was going to be immediately replaced, he resigned. Truman refused to tell Morgenthau about his decision, and sent Samuel I. Rosenman as his emissary. Because of his concerns over the situation of Jewry in Europe, after the death of his wife Elinor, Morgenthau became, in his post-governmental life, an advocate for Jewish statehood. He was greatly influenced by assistant Henrietta Stein, (1901-1988) an Orthodox Jew, whom he hired in1922 to help him with his paper the American Agronomist. Henrietta eventually married Herman Klotz and remained a close confidante and guardian of his interests, and after her resignation from government service in1946, she became an executive in the “Bonds for Israel” drives. The split in American Jewry regarding Israel was most acutely addressed by the senior Henry Morgenthau’s remark to his famous son, before he died in 1946, at the age of ninety. His advice was, “Don’t have anything to do with the Jews, They’ll stab you in the back.” (Mostly Morgenthaus, page 411) But Henry, Jr., who was very much his own man, proceeded to accept the general chairmanship of the United Jewish Appeal. (Jon F. Garfunkel met Henry Morgenthau III, a fellow Princetonian at the Boston Public Library and signed the above book!)
Of course with my parent’s connection to Rabbi Stephen Wise, our move to Mount Vernon, and our need for a synagogue, my parents naturally gravitated to the Free Synagogue. By the time we moved to Mount Vernon in late 1945, the new home of the synagogue had been relocated to a wonderful location on North Columbus Avenue, not far from the Bronxville border. Rabbi Max Maccoby, a student of Rabbi Wise, had founded the Free Synagogue in 1927, and it was there that I came in contact with him as a youngster in the early 1950’s. Interestingly the new synagogue was used as a collection place and storage for arms for Israel in its War of Independence. Earlier, and before the temple was built, the location was used as a “safe” house for runaway slaves on the “Underground Railroad” route to Canada.
Maccoby, a soft-spoken man, who was prematurely white-haired, was a wonderful storyteller and specialized in tales from Pinsk and the Pale of the Settlement. He had a wonderful charm about him, and his droll stories about “nail soup,” and the struggles of the shtetl always made me realize, from an early age, that our idyllic life in Mount Vernon was something unique in our history and not to be taken lightly. Of course the Free Synagogue was affiliated with the Reform Movement, and we did have a choir. We never saw who they were. They were ensconced in a small room above the pulpit and when they sang it was like a hearing some heavenly chant that floated down to the congregation. Of course, fifty years ago, people acted and dressed differently than today. Everyone in those days came dressed in their finest clothes, and it seemed that almost every woman had a hat and a mink stole or a fur wrap, and every man from the age of thirteen was dressed in a suit. Today, even on the High Holy Days, the dress code seems much, more casual.
Max Maccoby died suddenly in 1956 and his memorial service was held at the Free Synagogue just over fifty years ago on March 3, 1957. I recall vividly the sadness in the Jewish community of Mount Vernon and especially with the Free Synagogue family. This happened not to long before my Bar Mitzvah, and I never warmed up to his successor Leon Jick (1924-2005) Rabbi Jick left Mount Vernon in 1966 for Brandeis and became the Director of the Center for Jewish Studies for the next 24 years. It is never easy to fill the shoes of a legend. Just ask Harry Truman.
Meanwhile, I am not sure whether Rabbi Ed had any connections to Mount Vernon, but his wife, the former Laurette Fagan, was, I believe, from Mount Vernon. I had first met her about 45 years ago when she was a young gal and living with her parents in Eastchester. When we joined Beth Shalom, I was re-introduced to her, and I have been incredibly impressed how warm she is and dedicated to the synagogue.
After the death of Maccoby, and with my disenchantment with Rabbi Jick, my family left the Free Synagogue. My sister had been confirmed, and my bar mitzvah was celebrated in May of 1958. My family was ready for a change. After that period, I went to High Holy Day services with friends at the Sinai Temple, the other Reform Synagogue, on Crary Avenue, in Mount Vernon. Sinai had a wonderful Rabbi named Henry Enoch Kagen, who served there from 1937 through 1969. Later when the Jewish community started to shrink in Mount Vernon, the old Free Synagogue building on Columbus Avenue was demolished and most of the property was sold to Sunrise, an assisted living facility, and the Sinai Temple was sold to a church group. The new Sinai-Free Synagogue congregation relocated on a small parcel of land on the right side of the former grounds of the original Free Synagogue stood.
In the same way we were connected to Rabbi Wise and Maccoby, the musical program the other night re-connected me once again to the music of my youth and George Gershwin, the composer my parents loved most. It is well known that music has always played a large part in the cultural and religious life of the Jewish people. Just recalling the great pianists and violinists of the 20th century, one could easily name an all-star team. Rubinstein, Horowitz, Gould, Heifetz, Menuhin and Stern, would be arguably at the top of a list of scores of masters. In the legitimate theater we know as Broadway, Berlin, Rodgers, Hart, Hammerstein, Kern, Dietz, Schwartz, Lerner, Loewe, Fields, Bernstein and others dominated the musical comedy arena from the 1920’s to today. But the greatest of all the American musical geniuses would be George Gershwin, (1898-1937) who with his brother, Ira, (1896-1983) led this domination of popular music, and the musical theater.
George had been exposed to the Yiddish musical theater at a young age, but not because of religious devotion. Unlike his older brother Ira, he was never a Bar Mitzvah, and his parents were not particularly religious. As a young man, in 1915 he was invited by Boris Thomashevsky to collaborate on a Yiddish operetta with Sholom Secunda (1894-1974). Unfortunately, Secunda, who thought that the seventeen year old could not read music well enough, rejected the project. Secunda would later become famous for his piece Bir Mir Bist Du Schoen in 1932. Who knows what would have come from that potential association? Gershwin never spoke out about his connection with material from Jewish sources, and he is thought of as a quintessential American composer. Many experts note the similarities between Gershwin’s melodies and motifs with many of the Jewish prayer chants and secular pieces. It even seems that S’Wonderful, was lifted from Noach’s Teive (Noah’s Ark), and another number from the Goldfaden operetta Akeidas Izxhok (The Sacrifice of Isaac.) George even attempted to write a Jewish opera, the Dybbuk, for the Metropolitan Opera. He even signed a contract with the Met on October 29, 1929, at the behest of the financier Otto Kahn. He abandoned the project when he learned that the rights to the original play were controlled the composer Lodvico Rocca.
With George’s great melodies and Ira’s witty and sophisticated lyrics, American popular music was changed forever. George Gershwin, who triumphed first in the “Tin Pan Alley” era (West 28th Street, between Broadway and 7th Avenue) with “Swannee” (1919), went on to write great show music for Broadway reviews and then did his own shows, Lady Be Good (1924), Funny Face (1927), Girl Crazy (1930) and Of Thee I Sing (1931). He abandoned Broadway for the more lucrative Hollywood movie market and wrote the movie scores for Damsel In Distress and Shall We Dance both in 1937, the year he was stricken. Previously he had written the most famous American opera, Porgy and Bess, (1935), and wonderful concert pieces like, Rhapsody in Blue (1924), An American in Paris, (1928) The Concerto in F (1925) and the Cuban Overture, (1932). All in all, Gershwin music has been featured in at least 145 movies.
The last part of the concert began with young Ms. Katya Stanislavskaya, originally from Odessa, Ukraine, and most recently from Philadelphia where she earned a Masters in Piano from Temple University. She played a stirring, though condensed version of the Rhapsody in Blue. Gershwin also recorded a condensed version for radio, and it has been played often. I was first introduced to Gershwin music via my father’s long play 78’s that featured Oscar Levant as the pianist. My father, and his brothers all played musical instruments, but he had given up playing the piano long before I was born. But every once in a while he would sit down at our piano and play the piece Dardanella, by Felix Bernard and Johnny Black (1919). We had a complete collection of Gershwin’s symphonic pieces, on long play 78’s, with the master, Oscar Levant, (1906-1972), who was Gershwin’s great friend, at the keyboard. Levant was from an Orthodox Jewish family and was born in Pittsburgh. After the death of his father he moved to New York City with his mother and studied piano with Zygmunt Stojowski. He later went to Hollywood in 1928, where he became friendly with Gershwin and had parts in twenty movies. He played well enough to study with the master Arnold Schoenberg, who offered him as assistantship. But her felt he was not worthy and turned it down. Levant was a famous neurotic, but nonetheless a fabulous wit and had a loyal and large audience from his appearance on the show Information Please and the Oscar Levant Show. He was a member of the Algonquin Roundtable collection of wits during the 1920’s and the 1930’s. Later on he was a sensational regular guest on the Tonight Show with the great Jack Paar.
Alexander Wolcott, the rotund host of the Roundtable, who was best known as the character that the classic comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner, was based, said about Levant, “There is absolutely nothing wrong with Oscar Levant that a miracle can’t fix.” Levant, a true wit, is most famous for saying, “There is a fine line between genius and insanity, and I have erased that line.” But that wit could get him in trouble over the airwaves. He was taken off the air after saying, upon news of Marilyn Monroe’s conversion to Judaism, “Now that Marilyn is kosher, Arthur Miller can e– her.” Levant said he didn’t really mean that, but despite his apologies, his quip was a bit too risqué for the censors of that day. Levant starred as himself in the 1945 biopic of George Gershwin aptly titled, Rhapsody in Blue and was featured in the hits The Barkleys of Broadway (1949) with Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and An American in Paris (1951) with Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron. They say unfortunately he never really got over the death of Gershwin, and that this loss was the cause of his ever-constant melancholia, which resulted in his bouts of depression and frequent nervous breakdowns.
My first experience with a live rendition of the Rhapsody was at the Radio City Music Hall at the 1954 New York premier of the film Knock on Wood, with Danny Kaye, a complicated comedy about a ventriloquist who gets confused with a spy. It was a typical Kaye film, and though the story line was sophomoric, and trite, he was great. As most New Yorkers know, Radio City is located in NYC, on 6th Avenue between 50th and 51st Streets and the theater holds 6200 patrons. In those days Hollywood films premiered at the big New York theaters for exclusive runs. After a few weeks, the film could open in theaters that had to be at least 50 miles from New York. That is why most people had to travel to Stamford to see a first run film outside of New York City. I can still remember seeing The Ten Commandments in Stamford in 1955 and Star Wars, twenty-two years later in 1977. In 1954 and for years later, I assume, there was a large live orchestra that played a classical piece each performance, along with the precision dancing of the famous Rockettes. That evening, Rhapsody in Blue was played, and I was astounded. I had never heard a live orchestra before, and I was so impressed by the music that I begged my father to drive to Sam Goody’s record store on Central Avenue in Yonkers, to buy Andre Kostelanetz’s (1901-1980) Columbia Masterwork’s version with the aforementioned Oscar Levant at the piano. I still have that 33” rpm record in my record library.
In David Ewen’s biography of Gershwin, he told how the Rhapsody was born. “Suddenly an idea occurred to me. There had been so much talk about the limitations of jazz, not to speak of the manifest misunderstanding of its function. Jazz, they said had to be in strict time. It had to cling to dance rhythms. I resolved, if possible, to kill that misconception with one sturdy blow. Inspired by this aim, I set to work composing. I had no set plan, no structure to which my music could conform. The Rhapsody started as a purpose not a plan.” While Gershwin was on a train to Boston to appear for the premier of Sweet Little Devil, he worked on the opening theme. “It was on the train, with its steely rhythms, its rattly-bang that is so often stimulating to a composer.” As he road along, he thought, “I hear it as a sort of kaleidoscope of America- our vast melting pot, of our national pep, of our blues, our metropolitan madness.” Later on in New York, while playing at a party, he recalled, “As I was playing, without a thought of the Rhapsody, all at once I heard myself playing a theme that must have been haunting me inside, seeking an outlet. No sooner had it oozed out of my fingers than I realized I had found it. Within a week of my return from Boston I had completed the structure, in the rough, of the Rhapsody in Blue. The combination of hard work, the arrangements of Ferde Grofe, who orchestrated the work, and the support of Paul Whiteman who brought it to Aeolian Hall, combined to make musical history.
Charles Burr, the music reviewer in the 1950’s, said, in retrospect, “that a lot of Gershwin’s music is lonely music, homesick “blues,” and terribly sad. This combination of sadness and vitality is another of his hallmarks. They were in him in greater abundance, apparently, than in his successors.” In a sense maybe Gershwin’s music was a metaphor for the long-suffering Jewish people. On one hand, a terrible sadness emanating from its history of being a victim for two thousand years, and on the other hand an optimistic sense of survival and inventiveness. As usual, in life we all deal with the bitter and the sweet.
While in Hollywood Gershwin, who was a prolific worker, developed terrible headaches and experienced the smelling sensation of burning rubber. Because nothing would alleviate the pain he sought psychiatric help and turned to Dr. Philip Lehrman, who was the father of my great friend Lynne Lehrman Weiner of White Plains. Dr. Lehrman was the last student of Sigmund Freud and Lynne had the unique pleasure of sitting on the laps of both Freud and Gershwin, two of the most important individuals of the 20th century. Dr. Lehrman (1895-1958) could obviously be of no help to the composer. Eventually Gershwin was diagnosed with a life-threatening brain tumor, and fell into a coma. He was operated on and surgical procedures were quite primitive in comparison with today. According to the clinical analysis of the day, nothing then could have been done to save him. Most conclude that if had survived the operation, he would have lost enough of his brain functions to be cognitively disabled.
Of course I never met Dr. Lehrman. He died eleven years before I met Lynne and her husband John Weiner. In 1958, I was an eighth grader in Mount Vernon and I was a Bar Mitzvah boy at the Free Synagogue. But, after 1970, I did know Lynne’s mother Wanda Lehrman quite well. She lived with the Weiners until late in her life, and we often talked about politics, but I never knew anything about her husband until years after her passing.
My great friend, coach and mentor, the late Henry Littlefield, whom I met when I was sixteen, first mentioned to me that every one was connected within a few generations. My mother went to the Yiddish Theater in the 1920’s and met the great playwright, critic and friend of George Gershwin, George S. Kaufman at the 2nd Avenue Yiddish Theater, where Gershwin met Sholom Secunda. Kaufman, another member of the Algonquin Round Table, with Levant and Alexander Wolcott, wrote the Man Who Came to Dinner about the aforementioned Wolcott. My parents were married by Rabbi Stephen Wise, and we all knew and loved Rabbi Max Maccoby who was a friend and disciple of Rabbi Wise. Rabbi Wise was an intimate of Franklin Roosevelt, who was very friendly with Henry Morgenthau, Jr., who became a convert to Zionism, and an invaluable supporter of Israel in his last twenty years of his life. Of course Linda and I have been friendly with the Weiners for 37 years, and her father treated George Gershwin in the last year of his life. The Weiners were in Israel in 1949 and took part of the famous “Operation Magic Carpet,” that transported 45,000 Yemenite Jews to Israel from 1948 through 1950. The Weiners took the only films of the event and therefore chronicled some of the amazing work of Captain Robert Maguire and the 380 flights of the small Alaskan Airways.
There is no real evidence that Gershwin, Wise, or Morgenthau, all giants in their separate fields, ever had any real contact with each other. Certainly they were well aware of each other, and Wise and Morgenthau were both confidants of FDR. But I saw my own connections, and therefore, I feel that we are all interconnected in one way or another. It just takes a little time to see where the pieces fit into the puzzle. Music has always been a great unifying force in all cultures, and in its own unique way it has intertwined itself into a passionate and melodic cry for G-d’s acknowledgement. The synagogue still serves as the central place for that crying out. And in the synagogue, like any other place of worship, the calls for social justice are heard the loudest, and with all of our politicians, if the cry is loud enough, they usually get the message.