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String Theory

The cello is the most evocatively Jewish instrument. A new album, Sacred Time, features its rich sound in classical, liturgical, and Hasidic melodies

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When classical composers wanted to bring alive the music of the Jews, they often turned to the cello, the instrument that most approximates the range, tone, and texture of the male voice. After all, Jewish music was the voice of men—men went to shul, men prayed and women’s voices even outside the synagogue were often stifled.

The most famous example of this use of the cello comes in Max Bruch’s “Kol Nidrei,” in which the cello develops the atonement theme sung by the cantor at the beginning of Yom Kippur. And the cello is central to other compositions, like Maurice Ravel’s “Deux Melodies Hebraique” and Ernest Bloch’s “From Jewish Life.” The music reflects not only the somber nature of the Jewish life that these composers saw, but also the essential masculinity of Jewish music of the time.

The male sounds of the synagogue—both the voice of the cantor and the hubbub of men at prayer—have been so essential to my own life that when I decided as an adult to learn a classical string instrument, I was drawn to the cello. In fact, I found my cello teacher in a synagogue. His name is Noah Hoffeld, and, when we met 10 years ago, he was playing the cello to accompany Friday night services at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Earlier this month, Hoffeld and his friend Lee Feldman released a CD called Sacred Time: Jewish Music for Cello and Piano, a collection that includes selections from the classical cello repertoire, Jewish liturgy, and Hasidic tunes. Of course, it is impossible to be objective about the work of one’s teacher, but listening to this album transported me at various times to the concert hall, the synagogue, and the Sabbath table of a Hasidic master. Among the Hasidic songs is “Healing Niggun,” by the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, the Jewish folksinger who helped revive Jewish music in the years after the Holocaust. Having grown up on Carlebach’s music, I am accustomed to hearing his songs sung, not orchestrated. But this album does Carlebach more than justice. The cello gives his melody a particularly human voice. Too much orchestral Jewish music sounds schmaltzy, but here the music is filled with expressiveness and warmth.

Both Hoffeld and Feldman were brought up in largely secular Jewish families in New York. Neither of them was sent to Jewish school, not even after-school Talmud Torah. Feldman did not have a bar mitzvah, and Hoffeld was not going to have one but convinced his parents to let him after he saw his friends going through the process. Hoffeld, now 40, is a graduate of Juilliard, where he was classically trained, but over the years he has gravitated toward Jewish music. For several years he played with the band Pharaoh’s Daughter, a gig that led him to the spot at B’nai Jeshurun. Feldman, in his early 50s, was trained in composition and piano at Indiana University.

A few years ago the two musicians were living in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, and, quite separately, found their way to the Chabad of North Brooklyn, an outreach center of the Hasidic sect. Both came under the influence of the spiritual leader of the synagogue, Rabbi Shmuly Lein; Feldman studied Torah cantillation with him, and Hoffeld studied Hasidic thought and mysticism.

“It was something that I hadn’t been exposed to before,” Hoffeld told me. “In Conservative Judaism, having a spiritual experience was not at the top of the menu. But these guys were living it.” The experience of studying with a Hasidic rabbi also gave him a new perspective. “I felt that Hasidim were demonized and marginalized, but when I got to have contact with them it was eye-opening.”

It was also ear-opening. Both Hoffeld and Feldman learned new niggunim, wordless Jewish melodies, from Chabad’s Lein. At one point, the rabbi asked the two musicians to play at the Chabad House for a special holiday celebration. The concert was such a success that the rabbi urged them to record their Jewish music.

The album also features a piece by Hoffeld called “Adapting,” which he says is about “the experience of being a Jew in modern times.” It begins with a simple melody that is played in its unaccompanied form on the cello and then takes on a more complex character as the piano enters. The musical themes move from Old World to New World and back again. In some ways, the piece is an expression of the journey of the two artists who play it: lives lived outside of faith and then brought to it through music. Sacred Time is a soulful new album that enables us to join this unique musical and spiritual journey.

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esthermiriam says:

I’m sure it’s lovely music, but it still is…(sad? painful? shameful?) at least difficult to honor this tradition that continues to have no room for women’s voices.

Does knowing that the women of BJ can’t join him in his experiences with the spiritual guys at Chabad have no meaning for Hoffeld? I guess the Pharoh’s Daughter gig was something to move on from.

ChanaBatya says:

Esthermiriam, Amen, sister. My Conservative shul has a mixed choir (because why wouldn’t we?) and we have attracted women from Orthodox shuls who are not allowed to sing there. Good for us, bad for them.

The danger of no Jewish upbringing is that one is left vulnerable to crackpots. Hoffeld and Feldman have essentially joined a Jewish cult, without enough knowledge to know that their extreme way is not the only Jewish way. Had they been women, they would still be playing at BJ and loving it.

cheers for the cello ari!

Music lover says:

Actually, there are a few factual inaccuracies in the article. Maurice Ravel’s Deux Melodies Hebraiques was written for soprano and is played in this collection on the cello. The album is not a collection of pieces derived from male vocal sources. Hoffeld’s original piece also makes no reference to gender but is about the human experience of being a Jew.
As a woman I support gender equality and find it reflected in this album.

Evelinsche says:

Thank you, music lover. I too support gender equality, and from that point of view Prof. Goldman could have had a better filter; but look at what he’s doing. Learning the cello requires a fine ear for pitch, heroic self-control, exquisite use of harmonics, a fortune in lessons, and, research says, 10,000 hours of practicing. My son’s been a cellist for 30 years and his day job is a great one. I salute Prof Goldman and these are just quibbles.

The cello can reproduce the entire range of the human voice and is not a “man’s” instrument; there were few women composers in the late 19th and early 20th century, Jewish or otherwise. Ernst Bloch was Jewish and wrote music on Jewish themes in the early part of the 20th century, in Switzerland and later in Oregon where he immigrated. Max Bruch was a 19th century Protestant and wrote Kol Nidre in 1881 after a long friendship with Berlin’s chief cantor. He wanted to use Jewish themes in his own compositions but Jewish music was not his goal. Usually we don’t hear the orchestral part of Kol Nidre that comes after the melody. I don’t see it as a male composition. After all, women have to repeat it just as often as men in life.

On the other hand, EM and CB, your real argument is against Chabad and these musicians’ decision to study there. I don’t believe at all that these are “lives lived outside of faith and then brought to it by music.” How does any Jew live a life isolated from Judaism in New York? Let’s at least admit that their learning curve was bound to be steep. Much as I support gender equality, there is no point dredging up the plight of women in Hassidism each and every time we can. It’s unaccountably but solely their choice. Kindness requires that we let them be themselves. EM, don’t get stuck in the groove of a scratchy LP of I AM Woman (Hear Me Roar).

Graham Lawson says:

There might be more than one Jewish violinist who would take issue with your statement that “the cello is the most evocatively Jewish instrument.” Menuhin, Perlman, Oistrakh, Heifetz, Stern, Vengerov, Milstein, Szeryng..

I was just introduced to this website and thoroughly enjoyed this beautiful article. Thanks so much, Mr. Goldman. I am a music lover and the cello is so soulful. I’ve ordered the cd and look forward to listening. Evalinsch, what you wrote was spot on.


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String Theory

The cello is the most evocatively Jewish instrument. A new album, Sacred Time, features its rich sound in classical, liturgical, and Hasidic melodies

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