Rosh HaShanah Ticket, 1931
Yeshiva University Archives

 Ishay Ribo, an Orthodox Israeli pop star, performed in front of a full house of 15,000 fans in Madison Square Garden in early September 2023. Ribo’s concert roused the audience to heights of fervor. The crowd spiritedly responded, “Barukh shem kevod malkhuto le-olam va’ed” [G-d’s name and kingdom are blessed for eternity] to Ribo’s rendition of the Yom Kippur prayer,  Seder Ha-Avodah, which re-enacts the Temple service performed by the High Priest on Yom Kippur, thus transforming the atmosphere in the arena into a religious, spiritual experience, a form of preparation for the High Holy Days. 

One of Yeshiva University’s 2022 graduation  day events featured Ribo in concert; “the audience was visibly moved by the poignant music, responding to Ribo’s distinct ability to distill the poetry and holiness of Judaism into song,” as described by a University press release, replete with photos of the event. 

Music has the power to transport words beyond the intellect and infuse them with emotion, a key to opening hearts and souls in prayer. The shofar blasts on Rosh Hashanah are wordless cries, visceral primordial forces which evoke fear and trembling.  Imagine a High Holy service punctuated by the call of the shofar in the Nathan Lamport auditorium in Yeshiva’s Main Building (now Zysman Hall), an awe-inspiring space for prayer during the Days of Awe.  

Rosh HaShanah Ticket, 1931
Yeshiva University Archives

For many years, the Nathan Lamport auditorium served as a synagogue. In this formal space, the services were highly orchestrated, led by a cantor and choir. The program included a sermon by a promising rabbinical student or member of the faculty. In 1945, a colorful red, white, and blue poster in English and Yiddish, publicizing services at Yeshiva College, announced that “the world renowned Cantor Leib Lange of Moscow” would lead the services and “elevate the worshippers to the highest level of ecstasy and penetrate[s] deep into the heart.” Jacob Peyser and his double choir would “enchant the worshipper with the sweet musical notes of his harmonious compositions.”  

High Holiday Services Poster, 1945
Yeshiva University Archives

 By 1951, only six years later, Yeshiva’s publicity strategy for selling tickets for the services was quite different. The Yiddish language text was gone. The patriotic colors red, white and blue were replaced by sedate sepia tones of a tasteful flyer entitled “An Invitation to Worship at the Yeshiva University Synagogue, Nathan Lamport Auditorium.”  One page was an English introduction to aspects of the High Holy Day period. The text was basic and assumed scant prior knowledge of the holidays. For example: “ROSH HASHANAH: We celebrate our New Year’s Day not in riotous merry-making nor in the uninhibited indulgence of physical pleasures. Our ROSH HASHANAH is a sacred day of religious communion with G-d. Only through recognizing and proclaiming G-d as the Author of the Universe and the Supreme Creator can we hope to fashion a better world and make the year ahead more significant and fruitful.”   

High Holiday flyer, 1951
Yeshiva University Archives
Public Relations Events, Box 229, YU Synagogue Council

The multi-page brochure included photographs and biographies of the officiants: Cantor Abraham Perlow, who had “studied at the famed Conservatory of Music in Wilna under a scholarship,” and “brings to his ‘davening’ a warmth of heart and a depth of feeling that makes his rendition of the Yomim Noraim Liturgy memorable and inspiring.  Perlow was accompanied by “Nationally Known Choir Leader Jacob Davidson,” conductor of the Menorah Chorale, who would lead his Symphonic Choir.  The chorale had appeared at Town Hall where they performed Davidson’s “Rhapsody in Hebrew” on the occasion of the second anniversary of the State of Israel. 

High Holiday flyer, 1951
Yeshiva University Archives
Public Relations Events, Box 229, YU Synagogue Council

The guest speaker in 1951,  Herman Dolnansky, a graduate of Yeshiva College, was in his senior year “preparing himself for the rabbinate at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminar of Yeshiva College.” Dolnansky was active in many Jewish organizations and was president of the Dov Revel Chapter Hapoel Hamizrachi. An excellent speaker, he “will bring his audience an instructive and inspiring message.”    

Dolnansky went on to a distinguished career in Jewish communal life. He moved west to Michigan, where he served as the rabbi of Congregation B’nai David from 1953 to 1973. The congregation was originally located in Detroit and moved to Southfield during Dolnansky’s tenure.  Dolnansky became well-known as Hayim Donin, the name he legally adopted in the 1950s. He wrote books on introductions to Jewish life which became quite popular; the first one, To Be a Jew: A Guide to Jewish Observance in Contemporary Life, published in 1972, was translated into seven languages. In 1973 he moved to Israel, where he completed two additional books. Donin died there in 1983. 

By the mid-1950s, the flyers advertising the services boasted that “special arrangements made for exhaust air conditioning” in Lamport auditorium.  Lamport was described as spacious and combining “the comfort and beauty of modern architecture with the grandeur and sublimity of the great institution of which it is a part.”  In this space, “our prayers will have a special significance and meaningfulness.”    

The Yiddish language text was left behind in the past, at least in Yeshiva’s public presentation of its image in the 1950s. Since then, the era of the cantor as a musical stars has also dimmed. Today,  few synagogues boast double choirs, or any choir at all. In many synagogues, services have become more participatory over the past few decades. Nonetheless, the traditional, age-old, dignified, beautiful, and frequently haunting nusach ha-tefilah  (traditional music of the prayer service) still inspires worshippers; the musical notes and modes of the past continue to resonate in the present. These classical niggunim (melodies) are now sometimes joined by prayers set to popular music. That too is part of a long tradition. As Jews have moved from place to place, they have been influenced by local culture. Jewish creativity absorbed the sounds of their surroundings, and Jewish piety transformed and elevated them to the service of G-d.   Perhaps some of Ribo’s songs are destined to join the sounds of the Days of Awe. 

Posted by Shulamith Z. Berger

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Rosh HaShanah greeting card issued by Yeshiva University in the 1960s
Yeshiva University Archives

 

 

 

 

 

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