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Memoir Writing

This page features a creative writing piece submitted by participants of the Adult Services Department's Memoir Writing Group. Stories and opinions of individuals are not necessarily those of the Pozez Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia.

For more information, contact Elana Plotnick.



Music at Reform Congregation Beth Or in the Early 1960s – Joshua Greene

Those who have never attended a Reform Jewish service, or who have only done so in recent years, have little idea of what American Reform services were like during the 1950s or 1960s. Services were stately, even decorous, with a rabbi, organ, and solo and responsive readings in English interspersed with Hebrew prayers, many of which were sung and marked for the Choir. Dress at services was formal, with men in suits and women in fancy dresses. Men prayed with uncovered heads and without talitot, while women wore hats, with many sporting large, elaborate creations that commanded attention. Some of my fondest memories were of women at our synagogue reading dramatically from the bimah, dressed impeccably and wearing broad-brimmed hats that added to the dignity of the occasion. I especially recall hearing them recite the Haftarah for Yom Kippur morning as if at a stage performance, intoning “Is this the fast that I have chosen?” to an awe-struck congregation hanging on every word.

Before the 1970s, few Reform synagogues had cantors. However, music was an essential part of services, and most synagogues had choirs, often with soloists, some of them paid professionals. At Beth Or in the 1960s, the choir sat in a prominent location at the front of the sanctuary, on the right, facing the organ. An adult choir, whose members wore black robes, served during evening and High Holiday services, while a children’s choir dressed in suits and dresses sang during Shabbat morning services. An adult member might join the organist and a few children to provide music during daytime services for Sukkot or Pesach on weekdays. A larger choir would sing during Shavuot, when confirmation ceremonies generally meant a large attendance. Later in the 1960s, the synagogue hired professional singers, and I remember hearing one of them rehearse during the afternoons when I occasionally stopped at the synagogue after school. I recall one moment during the Kedushah section of the Amidah when the soloist, to begin singing at a loud volume, would turn beet red before exploding with sound. Many years later the liberal congregation in Singapore with which my wife and I were affiliated used the same music at High Holiday services, and I shared the story with the visiting cantor, to our mutual laughter. 

For several years I served in the children’s choir, attending rehearsals one night a week and singing Saturday mornings. About a dozen of us, generally below bar or bat mitzvah age, would gather each week to rehearse and then reconvene Shabbat morning in our good clothes to sing at services. While we occasionally horsed around, we usually quieted down enough to practice and then perform well Saturday mornings. At the time, the Reform movement’s Union Prayer Book I, for Shabbat, Festivals, and Weekdays, had different texts and music for each week of the month. My favorite services were the first in the month, which were longer, especially if we included Hallel – psalms of praise – in honor of Rosh Chodesh, the new moon. Then we sang a pretty version of “Hodu L’Adashem” – very Romantic and totally different from the more traditional settings my friends at their Conservative synagogues would hear. I also liked our version of “Mah Tovu”, in which the words “Anei-ni be’emet” (“Answer me in truth”) were sung to a melody that sounded very much like “I wish you a Merry Christmas.” I still have my loose-leaf book from choir with music we used for services.

A special privilege of being in the children’s choir was the opportunity to serve as a soloist a few times a year, which provided the chance to sing several special passages. Among my favorites was chanting the “Y’verechecha” (the Priestly Blessing) at the end of the service, after the rabbi pronounced it with raised arms over the congregation’s bowed heads. Another was chanting Kiddush. Just before the “Y’verechecha” the soloist sang the solo parts of the Kiddush, with the choir and congregation joining in “Ki vanu ve-charta”, supported by a swelling organ. After chanting the Kiddush, the soloist got to drink some of the wine, and I remember once the rabbi at that time tapping me on the shoulder and announcing, “You don’t have to drink the whole thing,” to everyone’s laughter.

After I left college and graduate school and became involved in Washington D.C.’s Fabrangen chavurah in the late 1970s, I became more familiar with the combination of traditional Ashkenazic settings and modern folk music that were typical of chavurot and other informal congregations of the time. Music at Reform synagogues, in turn, changed by introducing both more traditional melodies and new, folk-rock settings, often performed by rabbis and cantors strumming guitars. While all this is fun, particularly for younger attendees, it would be fun to re-experience the synagogue music of my childhood, at least on occasion.

 

Joshua Greene Bio:

Dr. Joshua Greene is a macroeconomist with a specialization in public finance. Retired from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), where he served for more than 28 years, including 6 years as Deputy Director of the IMF-Singapore Regional Training Institute in Singapore, he is currently a Visiting Professor and Interim Director of the Applied Economics Track in the Master of Science in Economics program at Singapore Management University in Singapore.

He is also a consultant for the Asian Development Bank and has served periodically as a consultant for the IMF, the ASEAN+3 Macroeconomic Research Office (AMRO), and Bank Negara Malaysia (Malaysia’s central bank). He has also taught macroeconomics at George Mason University. Dr. Greene has done research on a variety of subjects, including African debt, factors affecting private investment in developing countries, the U.S. balance of payments, public debt issues facing the United States, and ways of accelerating growth in the United States.

He is the author of two books: Public Finance: An International Perspective, and Macroeconomic Analysis and Policy: A Systematic Approach, both published by World Scientific. His research has been published in IMF Staff Papers, World Development, the Journal of African Finance and Economic Development, and other journals. A past president of the Society of Government Economists, he has a Ph.D. in economics and a law degree from the University of Michigan and an undergraduate degree from Princeton University. Dr. Greene is also active at the Pozez JCC, having served as a Board member, past vice-president, and treasurer, and on the Film Festival Committee, which he co-chaired during 2011-12. 


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