Of all the books that I read in high school, the one that moved me the most was Anthony Lewis’ 1964 bestseller “Gideon’s Trumpet,” the story of a destitute Florida prisoner, Clarence Earl Gideon, who became an unlikely hero of American jurisprudence. Gideon’s appeal of his conviction for the robbery of a pool hall led to the landmark 1963 Supreme Court decision, Gideon v. Wainwright, which mandated that anyone accused of a crime is entitled to legal representation, regardless of ability to pay. The book’s title is a play on the dramatic scene in the Book of Judges in which Gideon (the son of an idol maker, but a faithful Israelite himself) leads 300 men, armed only with trumpets and torches, to an upset victory against a much larger Midianite army.
I started thinking about the longstanding connection between Jews and trumpets while sitting last month on the roof of the JCC Manhattan listening to a wonderful concert of Sephardic Jewish music. Renowned klezmer trumpeter Frank London performed with the Lev-Yulzari Duo (guitarist Nadav Lev and double bassist Rémy Yulzari) and vocalist Basya Schechter. As the sky began to blush red with sunset, the alluring, unearthly wail of London’s trumpet penetrated the lazy summer air. It was a particular pleasure for me because I have a soft spot for trumpet music; among my favorite musicians are the English trumpeter Alison Balsom, the late French trumpeter Maurice André and, of course, the African-American trumpeter Wynton Marsalis.
One of the most iconic synagogue rituals involves blowing a kind of trumpet or bugle, the shofar, to celebrate the High Holidays. The shofar, which was made from the horn of either a ram or ibex (wild goat), is mentioned no fewer than 72 times in the Bible. It was sounded to signal the start of battle, the coronation of kings and the freeing of slaves (and return of other property to its original owners) at the onset of the Jubilee Year. According to the Second Book of Chronicles, the dedication ceremony of Solomon’s Temple included 120 priests blowing shofars accompanied by singers making shofar-like sounds, creating a fanfare in unison.
The distinction between a shofar and a trumpet is blurry in the Bible, with the two words often used interchangeably. For example, shofars and trumpets seem to have issued the same blasts or calls on Rosh HaShanah. But the long, silver instruments depicted on the Arch of Titus in Rome, showing the booty taken by the Romans when they captured the Temple in the year 70 C.E., are clearly primitive trumpets, more like megaphones than musical instruments.
“If we blow into the narrow end of the shofar, we will be heard far. But if we choose to be Mankind rather than Jewish and blow into the wider part, we will not be heard at all; for us America will have been in vain.” – Cynthia Ozick
During the Middle Ages, horns were blown at weddings and funerals, to announce the New Moon and the beginning of the Sabbath, and to mark the expulsion of a heretic from the community. In modern times, blowing the shofar was forbidden at the Western Wall during the British Mandate; the short 2010 documentary film, “Echoes of a Shofar,” features interviews with six of the men who, upon penalty of imprisonment, bravely smuggled a shofar each year into the Old City and blew it at the end of Yom Kippur.
While we may think of Jewish violinists as particularly illustrious in our own country, American Jews have also distinguished themselves on the trumpet. Harry Aaron Finkelman, better known as Ziggy Elman, was a jazz trumpeter who played with Jewish clarinetist and bandleader Benny Goodman; Elman was part of the band at the legendary Carnegie Hall concert in 1938, which is widely considered the most important jazz recital in history. In a scene in Pete Hamill’s bestselling 1997 novel “Snow in August,” about an unlikely friendship between an Irish Catholic boy and an elderly rabbi in the late 1940s in Brooklyn, the boy brings the rabbi a radio and the two listen reverently to Elman performing his signature tune, written with lyricist Johnny Mercer, “And the Angels Sing.”
Now that I am working as the executive director of a synagogue, one of my tasks is to help find shofar blowers for the holidays. I am always in awe of people who can perform this mitzvah, since I do not know one end of the shofar from the other. Still, we all need to heed the warning of New York Jewish writer Cynthia Ozick in a talk, “Toward a New Yiddish,” that she delivered in Israel in 1970, which uses the shofar as a metaphor for our connection to Jewish heritage. “If we blow into the narrow end of the shofar, we will be heard far,” she said. “But if we choose to be Mankind rather than Jewish and blow into the wider part, we will not be heard at all; for us America will have been in vain.”
Ted Merwin is the executive director of Beth Am Synagogue in inner-city Baltimore. He writes about theater for the paper.