Music at Or Ami

Jewish Musical Jewels
Yotzeir Or – the Shaper of Light

 

The morning prayer, Yotzeir Or, which follows the Bar’chu of the shacharit service, has a message of optimism that speaks to the idea that God renews all of creation everyday, thereby making each day unique. The prayer also assures us, kulam b’chochmah asita, “With wisdom you have made them all,” that the world was made with some plan, some intelligence.

Recently my niece, Emma Shira, became a bat mitzvah. For the occasion it was requested that I compose a new setting of Yotzeir Or. Because I wanted this new setting of Yotzeir to be compatible with our siddur and the new Reform Judaism siddur, Mishkan T’filah, I included the words, “Or chadash al tziyon ta-ir v’nizkeh chulanu m’heira l’oro – May You shine a new light on Zion and may we all speedily merit its light,” a section which was originally excised from the reform siddur as a result of its Zionistic tenor but, I was determined to find a place for it. My approach was to write a counter melody to the refrain so that the words yotzeir or and the words or chadash could fit together creating almost a musical midrash on these verses, as if to say that it was the Creator’s original plan in the works of creation that we would merit the land of Israel and God’s light.. The two parts, the refrain, yotzeir or, and the counter melody, are presented on their own and it is not until the very end of the piece that they come together. My goal, by writing a setting for Cantor and choir was to create the effect of going from dark to light. Just as the sun slowly rises and reveals the images of the world by showering the earth with light, the addition of the or chadash section was intended to reveal the harmonies of the refrain and lift the tone of the piece out of the second and third verse, which are in minor keys, to an uplifting place. Please enjoy this setting of Yotzeir Or that we have adopted into our High Holy Day morning services. This setting has been published by the URJ’s publishing company, Transcontinental Music and has been used at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, the North American Choral Festival and Havah Nashirah – Jewish Music Institute.

 

Volunteer Choir Reboot

Many of you know that since I began serving this congregation as cantor we have had an active volunteer choir of adults who love to sing and make beautiful harmony. We started in the spring of 2003 with more than eighteen voices. We had plenty of altos, tenors, and sopranos, but were a little short in the bass department. Over the years we’ve had many people join for a while and then leave but we’ve also had a strong core of twelve singers who have been in the choir since the beginning.

From the very beginning, my attitude in teaching the choir was that I believed that they could learn anything in three or four part harmony by teaching them the right way. We patiently, and sometimes not so patiently, learned complex melodies and harmonies and experienced great satisfaction in mastering a song. A cherished memory is when we would stand in a circle underneath the sky window in the lobby of the sanctuary and sing a cappella. Looking at each other while singing melodious settings of our prayers was a source of deep spirituality. We have supported each other musically and in friendship as well.

You may know that a few years ago, our volunteer choir took on the task of replacing the professional quartet that we used to hire for the High Holy Days. It was a logical step as many people felt that it would be more meaningful for the entire congregation if we had our own volunteers leading the musical settings of prayer with the Rabbi and Cantor instead of a paid choir. We approached the Holy Days with enthusiasm and took on the challenge of learning a huge repertoire of complicated and strange melodies and I believe the congregation really appreciated our efforts.

Like many synagogues, our congregation has experienced in the last few years a decline in volunteerism and this is felt most especially in our choir. With a small core of active singers, the Or Ami Choir, or Shir CO-ACh, has been struggling to maintain enough members to continue our highest standards for musical excellence. We have not been able to sustain our rich repertoire of choral synagogue music and it has been difficult to learn anything new.

As we approach the summer and then another season of fall Holy Days, I fear that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services will eventually be solely led by the Rabbi and myself. This is the opposite of what we feel is the ideal situation, congregants leading the congregation. Even though Rabbi Carr gives the sermon and I do most of the chanting, we truly feel that we are merely facilitators of the congregation’s prayer experience. When congregants ascend the bimah and either read or sing they bring honor to our congregation and our members. This increases the pride that we feel for Or Ami, our little shul on the hill.

So, I would like to make a proposition. I would like to challenge those in this congregation who have the gift of singing in tune to join the choir, just for the High Holy Days. This would require those interested to attend a handful of rehearsals and to practice at home with a CD that I will be preparing this summer. When the last notes of the Yom Kippur services have died out, you may return to your normal lives. Only those that choose to may stick with the choir for the rest of the year but it will not be required.

Think of it this way: would you rather sit in those seats, feeling disconnected from what’s going on in the front of the room, waiting for things to end, or would you rather help to lead the services as a member of our rebooted volunteer lead chanters’ group and enjoy making music and sharing in the camaraderie of our choir? I challenge you all to contemplate how you would like to spend the next Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. All that is required is the ability to sing in tune, to read Hebrew phonetically, in English letters, and to have a willing heart. Please stay tuned for more details. If you are interested and have questions or concerns, please contact me.

Cantor Jordan Franzel