My Dear Friends,
I want to begin by wishing everyone Shanah Tovah (Happy New Year) and to prepare you for a very special part of our Yom Kippur observance.
One of the deepest values of our community is diversity. Through the years, we as a community have explored and expanded the varied forms of worship; some of them experimental, so long as we remain true to our core of inclusivity and balance between tradition and innovation.
For this year’s Minchah service, on the afternoon of Yom Kippur, we have decided to depart from the traditional service. I’d like you to understand ahead of time why we’re doing this, and give you some thoughts on how to approach this special form of prayer.
Dmitri Shostakovich was a Russian composer who had a particular affinity for the Jewish people during one of the harshest periods in Jewish history. This was during the Second World War, when the Nazis invaded his homeland, which was then ruled by one of the most repressive dictators in history, Stalin, who had committed cultural genocide against our people.
Shostakovich had close Jewish friends, including Ivan Sollertinsky, who died tragically in World War II. Shostakovich bore witness to the death and destruction of Jewish life in his homeland. James Loefller, in an article entitled “Hidden Sympathies,” writes:
“Sollertinsky he (Shostakovich) recalled in the mournful, piercing Second Piano Trio, written as word of the Holocaust was reaching Moscow. The final section of this piece includes a freylekhs, a Jewish wedding tune that seems to link the dead and the living in a desperate sacred dance of joy and sadness.”
This music reflects an important theme of Yom Kippur. It is a remembrance of those who suffered and perished simply because they were Jews. The martyrdom of our people is recalled in the liturgy of Eleh Ezkarah, “These things we remember that recount those who perished for kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of G-d’s name.”
Shostakovich’s composition immortalizes our people through music. It embraces Teshuvah (a turning inward to the Divine), which is available to everyone, even those who live under regimes filled with hatred. Perhaps Shostakovich’s composition reflects the shame and sorrow an artist experiences when living in such a world, and thus is a form of teshuvah, a human response to a world gone mad.
Having listened to this work many times, I believe it to be so. I believe deeply that it is a form of worship of the highest order, a tzeakah (crying up unto the Heavens). It should be heard in the context of a sacred community during one of the holiest times of our year.
Because it represents teshuvah in the universal, I believe its placement during Minchah, when we read from the Book of Jonah, is most appropriate.
During this worship, we will recite this prophetic work, return the scroll to the ark and then begin the standing, silent Amidah. Here we engage in our private meditative prayers and those inner thoughts that renew us for the coming year. We will then begin the chazan’s repetition and continue through Kedushah (sanctification), concluding with l’dor v’dor (from one generation to the next) and then be seated.
Evan Hirsch, a concert pianist, and two of his professional colleagues, violinist Spencer Topel and cellist Mark Fraser, will then play the final movement of Shostakovich’s Piano Trio No. 2. At its conclusion, we will immediately chant the Kaddish Shalem and then move without interruption into the Neilah service.
This is a difficult piece. It has a dissonance that is unusual for us to hear in Jewish music. Nonetheless, I believe, as a Rabbi, that it reflects the depth of our nashamah (soul).
To help prepare you for this, I have attached the following link to this composition:
In his article, Loeffler writes:
Rabbi Sholomo Carlebach, the late exponent of American Jewish religious music, spoke of Shostakovich’s music as being soaked through with “the sorrow of the Jews….crying out together with the Torah.”
My hope and prayer is that this experience will be a form of worship for you. This prayer without words has the capacity to stir our collective memories of the past. It can stir our hearts to resolve to better a world often filled with suffering and dissonance. There can no better outcome than this as we begin the year 5772.