NEW YORK — One reason why Cantor Azi Schwartz, our cantor at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City, is one of the foremost cantors of our day is his refusal to allow Jewish liturgy to become rote, set in a stifling ritual straightjacket.
To be truly meaningful, prayer must continuously adapt to the imperatives confronting Jews who want and need to relate to their moment in history, not just with new melodies to standard prayers, but with new words — poems and songs that reflect both our triumphs and tragedies and evolution as a people.
Cantor Schwartz recently introduced a song entitled “Halikha LeKesariya” (A Walk to Caesarea) into our Shabbat service, also “Eli, Eli” (My God, My God), written by the gifted young poet Hannah Szenes after she immigrated to Palestine from Hungary in 1939:
“May these things never end:
The sand and the sea,
The rush of the water,
Lightning in heaven,
The prayer of the heart.
In March of 1944, the 22-year-old Szenes parachuted into Yugoslavia on a mission to come to assist Hungarian Jews. Captured when she crossed the Yugoslav-Hungarian border, she was tortured for months, tried for treason and executed by a German firing squad on Nov. 7, 1944.
Set to music by David Zehavi, “A Walk to Caesarea” has come to evoke a sense of hope in the midst of eternity and a reminder of the comfort provided by God’s elements even in the darkest moments. Often performed at Holocaust commemorations, it deserves to be sung in our synagogues far more frequently.
After my mother’s parents, her first husband and her 5-year-old son were murdered in a gas chamber at Auschwitz-Birkenau, she and other Jewish women were forced by their SS guards to stand and sit for hours in a torrential downpour.
“As the rain fell down over our bodies,” my mother recalled in her memoirs, “I realized that we were utterly helpless. Tears came to my eyes, the first ones since my arrival. When they mixed with the rain and I sat there sobbing, I found myself again.” These words inevitably come to my mind at the close of the Sukkot festival when Cantor Schwartz sings “Geshem,” the beautiful prayer for rain.
“Under your white stars,” Abraham Sutzkever wrote in the Vilna Ghetto, “I stretch to You my white hand. My words are tears that want to rest in Your hand. … And I want so much, loyal God, to entrust my wealth to You, because a fire burns within me, and in the fire, my days. But in cellars and holes cries the murderous silence. I run higher, over rooftops, and I search, where are You, where?”
Listening to Sutzkever’s poem, hauntingly set to music by Abraham Brodno, who did not survive, we become connected if only for a few moments with the Jews who first heard the song in what Elie Wiesel has called “the Kingdom of Night.” We sense and internalize the desperation of his search for God and are reminded yet again that the Jews who suffered in the Shoa, those who were murdered and those who survived, were not and must never be thought of as anonymous statistics.
These songs and prayers composed in the ghettos and camps should be sung, understood and absorbed, not just on Yom Hashoa when we mourn the millions of European Jews who were murdered during the Holocaust, but as part of our year-round prayer services, on Shabbat, Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashana and the festivals. They are, after all, the most authentic embodiment of the Jewish people’s spiritual defiance when the waters did not part, when there was no Moses sent by God to lead His people out of the cataclysm.
“Never say that you are on your final way, though leadened skies may be obscuring cloudless days” begins and ends the “Song of the Partisans,” by Hirsh Glick, which became the anthem of the Sh’erit ha-Pletah (the Surviving Remnant) as the survivors of the Holocaust called themselves after the killing stopped. “The hour we yearn for will eventually draw near, and our marching steps will drum-beat: we are here!”
For centuries, Jews throughout the world have ended the Shabbat and daily services with “Adon Olam,” proclaiming God’s sovereignty over the universe. Perhaps we should substitute this hymn from time to time with the works of Glick and Sutzkever as an affirmation that the divinely inspired legacy we received from the victims of the Holocaust — the survivors as well as the millions who did not emerge from its fires. They are all a permanent, pervasive part of our national and religious consciousness.
(Menachem Z. Rosensaft teaches about the law of genocide and war crimes trials at the law schools of Columbia, Cornell and Syracuse universities.)