OPINION: If music be the food of Rosh Hashanah reflection, then play on

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OPINION: If music be the food of Rosh Hashanah reflection, then play on

Alex Brummer on the heavenly beauty of the high holy days and how Chazanat is in his family’s DNA

Alex Brummer is a Jewish News columnist and the City Editor, Daily Mail

Crowd performing Slichot and Annulment of Vows (Hatarat Nedarim) at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. (wikipedia)
Crowd performing Slichot and Annulment of Vows (Hatarat Nedarim) at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. (wikipedia)

Jews of a patriotic bent will have enjoyed an unexpected treat watching the BBC’s last night of the Proms. For those of us clinging to tradition and have a love of chazanat the real start of the Yamim Noraim, the High Holidays, is the choral midnight Selichot Service.

As we prepare for 5784 there was a special treat. A stifling Royal Albert Hall was treated to a glorious rendition of Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei by the brilliant soloist Sheku Kanneh-Mason on his 300-year-old cello.

As the music reached the point of maximum emotion, echoing the vibrations of the human voice, Kanneh-Mason looked to the heavens. It was as if knew he was heralding the most solemn days of the Jewish calendar.

It could not have been a better introduction to the Selichot at Western Marble Arch which followed. Those of us fortunate enough to live in the London area have a multiple of choices. The prospect of hearing Cantors Simon Cohen and Steven Leas (of the Central Synagogue), two contrasting voices, was irresistible.

Chazanat is in my family’s DNA. My late uncle Philip Brummer, my father’s elder brother, trained in Pressburg (now Bratislava) and Vienna and performed as an opera singer at the Vienna Staatsoper in the 1930s.

He eventually made it to Britain, serving as Chazan and minister in Britain first at Leeds, then St Anne’s and at the Middle-Street synagogue in Brighton. After the war he left for North America working in Washington DC, Chicago, New York, and finally Tampa and features on the Celebrity Records album ‘Great Cantors of the Present.’

Sheku Kanneh-Mason, playing a cello that is 300 years older than he is. Pic: BBC

His background and occasional visits to England are a source of great childhood memories including impromptu concerts, with his friend the late Rev Kalman Fausner of the Hove Hebrew Congregation, in the family home.

Attending Selichot services with my father Michael (z’’l) and brother Daniel (z’’l) became an annual ritual. The tradition of making time for midnight praying lives on with my son Gabriel and son-in-law Dan filling pews they once occupied.

My oddest Selichot memory is from two decades ago when the International Monetary Fund held its annual meetings in Prague. I resolved to attend services at the Altneuschul, Europe’s oldest functioning synagogue. As my father was born in Czechoslovakia the symbolism was important.

A smattering of high level financial officials were among the attendees, including two distinguished economic thinkers Josef Frenkel and Michael Bruno, respectively chief economists at the IMF and the World Bank. Both went on to serve as governors of the Bank of Israel.

As the midnight hour loomed and the rarefied audience awaited the opening chorus of Ashrei, all that could be heard were raised voices from a side room. Two rabbis, one Chabad and one local, were engaged in a heated debate.

The esoteric argument was about the appropriate time to start the prayers: was it midnight or the middle-of-the-night? By the time the issue had been resolved – around 1am – most of the storied attendees had returned to their hostelries and the Minyan vanished!

Alex Brummer

Selichot begins an intense period of reflection which culminates for most of the Jewish community with the final Nehila service on Yom Kippur. Personally I have much to reflect on over the last year. The winter months began with family journeys of remembrance. Firstly, I travelled to Auschwitz with my daughter Jessica and grandson Rafi where my paternal grandparents perished. Then a few weeks later to Terezin where my uncle Martin sojourned on a war journey which took him to four Nazi horror camps and eventual survival in Israel.

Then in May, as journalist and observer, I joined the demonstrations on Kaplan Street in Tel Aviv, against the Netanyahu coalition. It was a moment to reflect on the upheavals in Israel’s politics and a democratic deficit for Israel’s Arab citizens which have tested the country’s governance to the limits and is eroding economic confidence.

The narrative was all part a writing exercise based on Israel’s 75th anniversary. It was a celebration which passed almost unnoticed amid the mayhem. It would also be my last trip overseas of 5783, as a dark mist of illness and treatment descended.

The Selichot services together with the coming Days of Awe offer an opportunity for intense reflection about life’s vicissitudes. May the year ahead be sweeter for all Jewish people, and in particular the strife torn communities of Ukraine and Morocco and the State of Israel.

  • Alex Brummer is City Editor at the Daily Mail
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