When we were kids growing up in a suburb of Boston, my brother Richie and I looked forward to competing with each other on an unusual level. It was with the song our father sang at our yom tov meals, on Simchat Torah and the last day of Pesach. He went around the table and for each new verse, each family member and guest had to add a Hebrew word describing God’s attributes, starting with “aleph,” the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and ending with “tof,” the last. Richie and I got very creative as our Hebrew vocabulary grew.
Years later, after I’d moved to New York, I asked my father about the origin of our song, “Adir Yivneh Regaleinu.” These first three words of the song are difficult to translate. They petition God to enhance the celebration of our festivals. No other family we knew sang this song. In a letter to me, he described how, back in the Old Country, he and his childhood friends gathered in the courtyard of the beit midrash before Mincha on Simchat Torah and were led in the singing of our song by Mordechai Shlomo, a great Tolner chasid, who by that time was slightly tipsy. “He sang and danced with such vigor and enthusiasm that only a chasid of his kind could perform such a dance,” my father wrote. “Since that time, more than half a century has passed. My beloved Monastryschte, and many other Jewish cities and towns, where in each of them we could find many Mordechai Shlomos, were wiped off the surface of the earth by the Nazi killers. But ‘Adir Yivneh Regaleinu’ is still alive and will live forever.”
My father, a Tolner chasid, Cantor David Chasman, was born in Monastryschte, 50 miles from Kiev. He had a beautiful voice and as young boy was apprenticed to famous cantors there. His two major acts of teenage rebellion were to study Bialik, Tchernichovsky and other secular Hebrew writers, and to enroll in the Kiev Conservatory of Music.
In 1924, when violent attacks against Jewish communities in Ukraine erupted, he immigrated here at his father’s insistence. He’d been invited to serve as cantor at Shaarei T’filo of Harlem on East 115th Street. A few years later he came to a congregation in a suburb of Boston, where he remained the rest of his life and where I was born.
After we married and had children of our own, Richie and I continued our father’s tradition, encouraging our own children and our yom tov guests to be creative as they contributed to each verse of our father’s song. And now, with great anticipation, our grandchildren look forward to singing our song on Simchat Torah and on Pesach.
Last year our grandson Boaz came home with an assignment from his fifth-grade teacher at SAR. She asked each child to bring in an heirloom, as they were going to create a museum of family artifacts. Boaz knew that our family had no such artifacts; but after thinking for a while, he told his mother that he was going to bring in my father’s letter. He was familiar with the letter, as we read it aloud every year before we sing our song. And that was Boaz’s contribution to the class museum.
Last summer, my husband Jules and I, along with our children, David and Ilana, travelled to Monastryschte. When my father was a child, 70 percent of this town’s population was Jewish. Today there are no Jews. There is an overgrown Jewish cemetery, a ravine, where over 5,000 Jews, rounded up from all the neighboring towns, were murdered, and two mass graves. We recited Kaddish at each mass grave, and David chanted El Malei Rachamim, the prayer for the soul of the dead, in the same haunting melody that I heard my father chant, the same melody that he heard from his father and his grandfather. When we next gathered as a family on Simchat Torah, we read my father’s letter aloud as we always did, we told the story of our visit to Monastryschte and we sang our song.
This year, our eldest grandson Joshua, a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, added another chapter to the story of our song. He created a jazz composition for four instruments, skillfully incorporating the themes from “Adir Yivneh Regaleinu.”
My father was right. The memory and the soul of those who were murdered is perpetuated through their stories and through their music. “Adir Yivneh Regaleinu” lives on.
Navah Harlow is founding director of the Center for Ethics in Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan.