The first music I ever wrote was due to the encouragement of my mentor and friend, Rabbi Joel Wittstein (z”l). As Educational Director in the mid-1970’s of Isaac Mayer Wise Temple in Cincinnati, OH, Joel suggested I take a semester off from regular classes to study something in Hebrew and then try setting it to music. Why he saw ”the music thing” in me before I did, I’ll never know. But I’m forever grateful that he did.
That was eleventh grade. I’d spent two summers at a Jewish summer camp (URJ Goldman Camp in Zionsville, IN) and had learned lots of Hebrew prayers and songs but all in English letters. So when Joel asked me to choose something to learn in Hebrew, I settled on the Kaddish, our prayer of remembrance for those who have died. I’d learned to mimic the Hebrew pronunciations but, once given the opportunity, I knew that this was the prayer (and it’s a long one) that I wanted to study in its original language.
This, by the way, began a lifelong love affair with Hebrew that took me to rabbinical school, to Israel, and to studying and reading from the Torah (the Five Books of Moses) many, many times throughout my life.
This recording was made in 1975. The sound quality is pretty awful because all I had back then was a cheap cassette tape recorder. Amy Liebschutz, a friend from Kindergarten onward and now an extraordinary vocalist in New York City who goes by the stage name of Amy London, sang for me. The tape earned us a place that same year in the finals of Reform Judaism’s NFTY Song Competition to be held at the URJ Kutz Camp in Warwick, NY. Coming from Cincinnati where Amy and I were born and raised, traveling to New York for a North American competition was a big deal.
When we arrived at the airport, however, the organizers forgot to pick us up so Amy and I had to find a shuttle into New York City, a subway to Port Authority, and a bus to Warwick, no easy feat for two young and innocent midwesterners. We were so happy to still be alive by the time we got to Kutz!
Oh, we lost the competition. That was disappointing but it was still exciting to have been there. And guess who was sitting in the front row during the performances? A young lady named Ellen Siegel from Texas. I would meet Ellen two years further down the road when we landed at the same college, fell in love and, seven years after the song competition, got married.
The tune has never gotten much use. Folks don’t really want to sing Kaddish. We used it a few times at Goldman camp. I remember Ish Tov (Rabbi Steve Goodman) playing it on his violin, which was pretty awesome. But that’s about it. Which is okay. I’m still very proud of this first effort.
Life sure is fascinating. Hope you enjoy this first work of mine!
Addendum: I posted notice of this piece on Facebook (1/18/24) and was stunned (and delighted) at the response. So many people remember “Kaddish” from temple in Cincinnati and camp in Zionsville, Indiana. I remember it being played a few times at services, but to imprint itself in people’s memories deeply enough that they remember it even now? I just never thought it was that kind of tune. Now that I think about it though, I remember how proud we all were that a new piece of music had emerged from our temple and/or camp. After all, we had always loved and sung the songs that came from elsewhere. This (along with the Ian Silver/Julie Schorsch Sapper “Yihiyu L’ratzon,” which actually has seen real life after its 1970s summertime appearance) was one of our own. That was cool and I loved getting to share in that with everyone. All I can say is thank you for letting me know, and wait til you catch my next act!
The sheet music and mp3 are available at Jonah’s Trading Post (https://jonahmac.org/product/kaddish). Your donation of any amount will be put to use in bringing the arts to others, effecting social change, and building Jewish life. The music is free – our way of saying thank you for being so nice.