One of the reasons why Cantor Azi Schwartz, our cantor at Park Avenue Synagogue in Manhattan, is one of the foremost cantors of our day is his refusal to allow Jewish liturgy to become rote or be set in a stifling ritual straightjacket.
To be truly meaningful, prayer must continuously adapt to the imperatives confronting Jews who both want and need to relate to their moment in history, not just with new melodies to standard prayers created hundreds of years ago but also with new words, with new poems and songs that reflect the triumphs and tragedies of the more recent past as well as our evolution as a people.
Cantor Schwartz recently introduced a song entitled Halikha LeKesariya, A Walk to Caesarea, into our synagogue’s Shabbat service. “Eli, Eli, My God, My God,” wrote the young poet Hannah Senesh after she had immigrated to Palestine from Hungary in 1939, “may these things never end: the sand and the sea, the rush of the water, lightning in heaven, the prayer of man.” In March of 1944, the 22-year-old Senesh was parachuted into Yugoslavia by the British on a mission to come to the aid of Hungarian Jews. Captured when she crossed the Yugoslav-Hungarian border, she was tortured for months, tried for treason, and killed by a German firing squad on November 7, 1944. Set to music by David Zehavi, A Walk to Caesarea has come to evoke a sense of hope in the midst of eternity and a reminder of the comfort provided by God’s elements even in the darkest moments. Often performed at Holocaust commemorations, it deserves to be sung in our synagogues far more frequently.
After my mother’s parents, her first husband and her five-and-a-half-year-old son had been murdered in a gas chamber at Auschwitz-Birkenau, she and other Jewish women were forced by their SS guards to stand and sit for hours in a torrential downpour. “As the rain fell down over our bodies,” my mother recalled in her memoirs, “I realized that we were utterly helpless. Tears came to my eyes, the first ones since my arrival. When they mixed with the rain and I sat there sobbing, I found myself again.” These words inevitably come to my mind at the close of the Sukkot festival when Cantor Schwartz sings Geshem, the beautiful prayer for rain.
“Under your white stars,” Abraham Sutzkever wrote in the Vilna Ghetto, “I stretch to You my white hand. My words are tears that want to rest in Your hand. . . . And I want so much, loyal God, to entrust my wealth to You, because a fire burns within me, and in the fire, my days. But in cellars and holes cries the murderous silence. I run higher, over rooftops, and I search, where are You, where?”
On February 27, 1946, Sutzkever described the surreal horrors of the ghetto in his testimony before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg: “In the first days of August 1941 a German seized me in the Dokumenskaia Street. . . . When we reached the old synagogue on this street I saw that wood was piled up there in the shape of a pyramid. A German drew out his revolver and told us to take off our clothes. When we were naked, he lit a match and set fire to this stack of wood. Then another German brought out of the synagogue three scrolls of the Torah, gave them to us, and told us to dance around this bonfire and sing Russian songs. Behind us stood the three Germans; with their bayonets they forced us toward the fire and laughed. When we were almost unconscious, they left.”
Listening to Sutzkever’s poem, hauntingly set to music by Abraham Brodno who did not survive, we become connected if only for a few moments with the Jews who first heard the song in what Elie Wiesel has called “the Kingdom of Night.” We sense and internalize the desperation of his search for God and are reminded yet again that the Jews who suffered in the Shoah, those who were murdered and those who survived, were not and must never be thought of as anonymous statistics.
Under Your White Stars and other songs and prayers composed in the ghettos and camps should be sung, understood and absorbed, not just on Yom HaShoah when we mourn the millions of European Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust, but as part of our year-round prayer services, on Shabbat, Yom Kippur, Rosh HaShanah, and the festivals. They are, after all, the most authentic embodiment of the Jewish people’s spiritual defiance when the waters did not part, when there was no Moses sent by God to lead His people out of the cataclysm.
“Never say that you are on your final way, though leadened skies may be obscuring cloudless days” begins and ends the Song of the Partisans by Hirsh Glick that became the anthem of the Sh’erit ha-Pletah, the Surviving Remnant, as the survivors of the Holocaust called themselves after the killing stopped. “The hour we yearn for will eventually draw near, and our marching steps will drum-beat: we are here!”
For centuries, Jews throughout the world have ended the Shabbat and daily services with Adon Olam, proclaiming God’s sovereignty over the universe. Perhaps we should substitute this hymn from time to time with Hirsh Glick’s Song of the Partisans or Abraham Sutzkever’s Under Your White Stars as an affirmation that the divinely-inspired legacy we received from the victims of the Holocaust, the survivors every bit as much as the millions who did not emerge from its fires, have become a permanent, pervasive part of our national and religious consciousness.
Menachem Z. Rosensaft is General Counsel of the World Jewish Congress and the immediate past president of Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City. He teaches about the law of genocide at the law schools of Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse universities.