20 Jewish cantors walk into a church — it’s no joke

Cantor Lauren Bandman of Temple Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, Calif., introduces the first piece in the cantorial concert in Rome -- "Shalom Aleichem," by William Sharlin, Nov. 16, 2010. (Ruth Ellen Gruber)

Cantor Lauren Bandman of Temple Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, Calif., introduces the first piece in the cantorial concert in Rome — “Shalom Aleichem,” by William Sharlin, Nov. 16, 2010. (Ruth Ellen Gruber)

ROME (JTA) — Can Jewish sacred music sung in a Roman Catholic basilica help relations between Christians and Jews?

For the Reform movement’s American Conference of Cantors, the answer is a resounding yes.

Twenty Reform cantors from across the United States traveled to Rome this month for just that purpose, performing a unique concert of Jewish prayers and sacred texts at the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, a cavernous church adapted by Michelangelo from the ancient Baths of Diocletian.

"We are here as spiritual emissaries, not political emissaries," said the president of the cantors’ conference, Susan Caro of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. "We recognize the power of music to transform as well as reach across cultural and religious lines."

The concert, titled "To God’s Ears," was organized by the New York-based Interreligious Information Center in cooperation with Cardinal William Keeler, the emeritus archbishop of Baltimore, who is the basilica’s cardinal priest.

"Presenting music of the synagogue in churches in order to reach the laity could develop into something very, very worthwhile in interfaith relations," said the Interreligious Information Center’s executive director, Gunther Lawrence.

Lawrence said several cathedrals in the United States and Britain already had expressed interest in similar concerts.

The Nov. 16 performance featured a range of prayers and texts set to both traditional melodies and music by composers dating from the Renaissance to the present day.

In welcoming remarks, Monsignor Renzo Giuliano, the regular priest of the basilica, introduced the 90-minute concert as a journey into the "profundity of the liturgy," saying it was "very important to be here together and praising our God."

The cantors, about half of them women, hailed from California, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, Georgia, Florida, Arizona and Texas.

Dressed in black, but each wearing a sometimes colorful tallit, they sang in a vaulted side chapel against the backdrop of a crucifix, flickering candles and a wall-sized painting of the Madonna and child.

Before each piece, a cantor stepped forward to describe the selection, explain its place in the Jewish religious service and provide information about the musical setting.

"Our goal was to educate people in Jewish culture and Jewish synagogue culture," said Cantor Roslyn Barak of Temple Emanu-el in San Francisco, who helped coordinate the event. "We feel that through music you can heal, make friends, touch people, reach out."

U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican Miguel Humberto Diaz called the initiative "a wonderful opportunity."

"Any kind of art, especially music, is a way to bring people together for the sake of the common good," he told JTA.

Diaz and the Rev. Norbert Hoffman, the secretary of the Vatican’s commission on religious relations with the Jews, were among the few dignitaries in attendance.

Highlights of the concert included an arrangement of the "Adon Olam" prayer by the Renaissance Italian Jewish composer Salamone Rossi and a stirring rendition of "Sim Shalom" by the Berlin-born 20th century composer Max Janowski, which featured Barak as soloist.

The concert also included the world premiere of "Mah Ashiv Ladonai-Quid Retribuam Domino," a setting of Psalm 116, with words in Hebrew and in Latin, by Cantor Erik Contzius of Temple Israel in New Rochelle, N.Y. Contzius, a member of the American Conference of Cantors, did not take part in the concert.

Jewish secular artists have performed on a number of occasions at Vatican events, but traditional cantors probably would not perform in a church. Longtime observers of Jewish-Catholic relations said it was likely that the concert marked the first time that a cantorial group had performed such a concert in a Roman church.

"Italian traditional cantors would not, as far as I know, perform in a church, and I know of no instance when this ever happened in the past," the Italian Jewish musicologist Francesco Spagnolo, the curator of collections at the Magnes Museum in Berkeley, Calif., told JTA.

The concert was the centerpiece of four days of meetings in Rome organized by the Interreligious Information Center for the cantors and more than two dozen accompanying family members and other members of their congregations.

The group met with seminarians at the Vatican’s Pontifical North American College and attended Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly public audience. They also toured Rome’s ancient Jewish ghetto and met with Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni.

That meeting also was a form of religious dialogue.

Italy’s Jewish community is Orthodox, and although there are a few small Reform congregations in the country, the Reform denomination is not recognized by the Italian Jewish communal organization. Di Segni did not attend the concert.

Cantor Claire Franco of Port Washington, N.Y., one of the coordinators of the concert, said Di Segni had been gracious to the group and answered its questions.

"But he was clear that there are boundaries that they won’t cross," she said. "We are Reform cantors and we are very proud of this. That’s who we are — and half of us are women."

Several cantors noted that interreligious matters were part of their hands-on experience as Reform cantors, as many members of their congregations were intermarried.

Franco noted that she was the child of a Christian father and Jewish mother.

"I grew up as one of the few Jews in a small town in Florida," she said. "I knew what being a minority was, what it meant to have to explain who we are. So I am committed to teaching community."

(To watch a video of the cantor’s concert, visit bit.ly/bbvAfg.)

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