Leonard Bernstein’s Kaddish

by Brian on June 19, 2009

in Jewish Holidays and Culture,Only in Israel

Two weeks ago, prior to the “Enhanced Kaddish” ceremony we held for my father, Jody and I attended a very different musical memorial. Together with several thousand Israelis, we trekked to Yad Vashem, The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority, for a special outdoor performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 3, also known as Kaddish.

The symphony was being performed with a text written and narrated by Samuel Pisar, an international lawyer, author and Holocaust survivor. The text, which Pisar wrote at Bernstein’s instigation, is a heart wrenching review of human cruelty in general, and towards the Jewish people in particular.

Pisar recounts his own experience surviving Auschwitz while watching his entire family being killed. The narration is timed to blend precisely with the anguished, atonal music which, according to the printed program, required an unusually large orchestral complement – including a tuba, sandpaper and a glockenspiel – plus two choirs (the Tel Aviv Chamber Choir and the Ankor Children’s ensemble) and Israeli soprano Danna Glaser.

The underlying theme to Pisar’s work is an unbridled anger at God for allowing such genocide to occur, coupled with a chilling warning against allowing it to occur again. Pisar finished his “Dialogue with God” following 9/11 and the attacks figure prominently in his narrative.

From Pisar’s text:

I must honor their tragic legacy,
And warn the living
– Of every race, color and creed –
Against the new catastrophes
That may still lie ahead.
For the unthinkable is again possible
A relapse into the darks ages,
As a leap toward a radiant future.

Pisar’s complaint against God is unmistakable:

How can one be sure
That the catastrophe was totally man-made?
We know from the book of Genesis
How wrathful a God you can be,
When You lose your notorious temper.

Concerning the destruction on September 11, Pisar writes that only after “the carnage that ushered in a newly inflamed world vaguely reminiscent of the one into which I was born did I settle down to write” the text itself. The narrative, Pisar adds, represents “a mounting crescendo for universal tolerance, reconciliation and peace between the hereditary enemies of history.”

The symphony with Pisar’s text was first performed in Chicago in 2003 before an audience of 10,000. This was its premiere in Israel. In attendance were Israeli President Shimon Peres and the President of Romania Traian Băsescu.

Our attendance at the event took on a separate meaning for me, removed from the Holocaust narrative. When we first received the invitation, the idea of hearing a work called Kaddish – in the midst of my own year of saying Kaddish – intrigued me. As I’ve written already, I’ve struggled with the words of the prayer and have tried to find refuge in musical interpretations.

So sitting in the audience and listening to a work by Leonard Bernstein felt like another way of honoring my father. Even more so, as I’m not a big fan of orchestral music, despite my father’s best efforts over the years to convince me otherwise.

I remember my parents taking us several times to the San Francisco Opera House to hear the symphony. While I was consistently “wowed” by the sheer talent that such a production entails, it remained rock and roll that moved my soul.

Indeed, had my father not passed away, it is doubtful I would have even been interested in an evening of classical music. And I won’t lie: the music still didn’t speak to me. But the significance of being there on a monumental evening did.

The day after our evening at Yad Vashem, air raid sirens sounded across Israel at 11:00 AM. The country wasn’t under attack; rather we were participating in the largest ever emergency exercise the nation has undertaken. The rising and falling siren – unlike the steady wails for Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Day) and Yom HaZicharon (Memorial Day) – lasted for a minute and a half during which time we were instructed to hurry to our bomb shelters.

The exercise was meant to raise public awareness and to test the responsiveness of emergency workers, coordinate organizations, and pinpoint any failings in the sirens themselves.

During the second Gulf War, we prepared sealed rooms with duck tape, but this was the first time we’ve used the concrete reinforced bomb shelter next to the underground garage of our building complex. At first, we couldn’t get the door unlocked…not a good omen had it been a real attack. Our descent also seemed too casual, even reckless.

Once inside, we inspected what could be our home away from home for an extended period. The shelter was bare – no furniture of any kind, certainly no beds on which to spend a night. The toilet didn’t work either – the water had been turned off. We made a note of everything.

The alarming juxtaposition of the drill with Bernstein’s symphony and Pisar’s text was not lost on us. It would be reassuring to believe that, 60+ years after the end of World War II, hatred and violence would have plummeted from that summit of hell. Of course, that’s not the case.

“Every citizen in the State of Israel must know that anywhere in the country, at any time, an emergency scenario can materialize, and one must know how to act,” Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai said after the exercise.

Pisar’s text ends on a surprisingly optimistic beat. He acknowledges that, after the Shoah, God taught him to “love and dream again” and blessed him with “a new happy family and with children and grandchildren whose sparkling faces and sterling characters resurrect for me every day the memory of those I have lost.”

He concludes:

Bond with us, Lord
Guide us toward reconciliation
On our small, divided, fragile planet –
Our common home.


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