Welcoming the Sabbath is a joyous task for Jews. But Jewish history, marked with so many tragedies, cannot be ignored. There are moments in the Jewish calendar when a cantor must find a space suspended between two competing emotional states, mourning the loss while celebrating the present.
Nov. 9 is a perfect example; it’s the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht, “Night of the Broken Glass,” the pogrom in which the Nazis and their sympathizers in one night burned over a thousand synagogues (95 in Vienna alone) and destroyed or damaged over 7,000 Jewish businesses, killing about 100 Jews in the process.
“There has to be a balance between remembering the day and gaining inspiration, [taking listeners] from what we went through at that time [to] who we are today,” Rebecca Garfein says. Senior cantor at Congregation Rodeph Sholom for over a decade, Garfein had to find that balance once again for the erev Shabbat services at the synagogue on Friday, Nov. 8. (Rodeph Sholom is located at 7 W. 83rd St., between Central Park West and Columbus Avenue; services begin at 6 p.m.)
“You don’t want it to be a sad night,” she continues. “You want people to draw inspiration from our glorious musical history. The tone that night will be celebratory. We have two survivors who were eyewitnesses to the events as children, and they will offer remembrances. We will have a candle lighting to recall Kristallnacht and those who perished in the Holocaust. So the evening will be a little bittersweet, but with a lot of sweet.”
The sweet will be provided by the giants of classical Reform music, Solomon Sulzer and Louis Lewandowski. Musically, the tone will be a departure from the norm at the Reform Rodeph Sholom.
“This is much more formal musically than what we usually do on a Friday night,” she says. “We’ll have an augmented eight-voice professional choir and will use the organ. That’s how the music is written — big choir, organ, cantor.” (In fact, there will be three cantors, with Garfein joined by associate cantor Shayna De Lowe and cantorial intern Ben Ellerin.)
A departure, perhaps, but hardly a stretch for Garfein, a rabbi’s daughter.
“This music is a longtime love of mine, starting from my own childhood,” she says. “These are the melodies I grew up with. You have to remember where you came from.”
One piece that will be performed that night has an even more intimate meaning for Garfein. “Perhaps a Butterfly” is a song cycle composed by Eliot Bailen, a commission from Garfein in memory of her great-grandmother Settchen Levy Feist, who was a prisoner at Terezin before she was transported to Auschwitz where she was murdered.
Even so, Garfein wants to emphasize Shabbat.
“For me it’s a joy to able to share this music,” she says. “It’s our roots, it’s still musically relevant.”