Which poses the greater threat to the survival of the Jewish people — internal division or external violence? For retired Cantor Harold Lerner, whose new play with music, “Kimber Road” will be performed in a free staged reading with a cast of ten at the 92nd Street Y next week, the answer is definitely the former.
The play, set in the 1940s, is about the conflict that develops between two struggling Orthodox congregations in a town in upstate New York when they disagree about the opening blessing for a joint prayer service. Cantor Robert Abelson of Temple Israel (on the Upper East Side) is featured in the cast.
In “Kimber Road,” directed by Scott Klavan, one congregation’s rabbi (Abelson) has a son (Sam Sultan) who falls in love with the daughter (Lauren Alfano) of the cantor of the other congregation (Gregory Lorenz, who is a member of the Metropolitan Opera Chorus), a process facilitated by the involvement of a colorful matchmaker (Molly Stark). On the eve of the wedding, the cantor is invited to lead services at the rival synagogue. To everyone’s dismay, a feud erupts. The two congregations are brought back together only when anti-Semitism rears its ugly head in the town.
Many of the songs are adapted from classic Yiddish folk tunes. For example, the lyrics of Alexander Olshanetsky’s “Mein Shteytele Belz” are rewritten as “My Temple Beth Am,” and Leibele Schwartz’s “A Kleyne Melamedl” becomes “The Song of the Matchmaker.” The well-known composer Morton Gold contributed the overture.
Lerner, 87, comes from a long line of cantors in Eastern Europe. After growing up in Boston and serving in the army, he came to New York to train at Juilliard to be an opera singer. But upon the advice of Abraham Binder, the eminent music director of Stephen Wise Synagogue, Lerner decided to join the cantorate. He ended up serving for four decades at a large Conservative synagogue in Syracuse, Temple Adath Jeshurun, on Kimber Road. After he retired, he returned to Syracuse and spent five years as interim spiritual leader of a small Modern Orthodox congregation that was in the process of joining the Conservative movement.
In a telephone interview, Lerner told The Jewish Week that the play is about the innate conservatism of “synagogue people” who, he said, often develop a kind of “communal folly, as they become fixed in their observance of traditions. These local customs acquire the validity of law in the minds of simple-minded people.” The play contains parallel scenes of the minyan-goers in each shul; Lerner confessed that he has always been “fascinated” by these daily synagogue attendees. “Why do they come to pray?” he wonders, and “Why do they affiliate in the first place?”
Another important theme in the play, Lerner said, is the desire of religious leaders to leave a meaningful legacy. “How do you measure your impact on a community?” he asks. It is a recurring question for him as he assesses the fruits of his own career. “Kimber Road” is, he concluded, “part of my own legacy.”
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