When Cantor Ira Greenstein welcomes his new congregation at Beth Am Synagogue today, he'll be singing in the ancient tradition of Jewish liturgical music.
As he melodically channels into prayer the joys and sorrows of the synagogue's membership just before Passover, Greenstein will also be preserving the traditions established by the charismatic cantor who presided at the Eutaw Place temple for 52 years.
At Beth Am, the intuitive blend of synagogue music by 19th century classical composers, folk melodies and the lovely compositions of Cantor Abba Joseph Weisgal himself, is known collectively as "Weisgal music."
Greenstein, 48, who has served congregations in Columbia, New York City and Augusta, Ga., knows that the Weisgal faithful will be closely watching his learning curve. He likens his crash course to drinking from a fire hose instead of a water fountain.
But woe to any Beth Am cantor or congregation who would do otherwise and forsake Weisgal music for a guitar and contemporary Jewish melody.
"We're in love with it. We believe in Weisgal," says long-time Beth Am member Gil Sandler. "Debbie Friedman, the most renowned writer of Jewish music today, takes classic prayers and writes her own music. The kids love it. We don't tolerate it. It's just crazy what we do, the way we keep Weisgal alive."
For Sandler, Weisgal music "recalls the quintessential Jewish experience, love, suffering, happiness and tears -- the whole spectrum of human experience."
"I've lived with that music all my life," says Efrem Potts, Beth Am's first president and temporary executive director. Potts' affiliation with the historic synagogue building began "in utero" when it was Chizuk Amuno, a German Jewish congregation founded in Baltimore in 1871. Abba Weisgal trained Potts for his bar mitzvah and, much later when the cantor's eyesight faltered, Potts helped him during High Holiday services by tracing his finger along the Hebrew prayers.
"He had a unique style," Potts, 72, says. "He also had this unique musical background."
Weisgal, a World War I veteran, arrived at Chizuk Amuno in 1921, bringing with him a musical sensibility that embraced both Western and Eastern Jewish cultural history. Trained in Vienna at a time when Jews were acculturated into the society that later destroyed them, he steeped himself in the work of composer Salomon Sulzer. A one-time chief cantor of the Great Synagogue in Vienna, Sulzer crossed traditional Jewish chant with the harmonies and decorum of classical Western choral music. Age-old Eastern and Central European folk and Jewish themes also surfaced in Weisgal's original songs.
In her recent book, "A Joyful Noise: Claiming the Songs of My Fathers," Deborah Weisgall, the cantor's 52-year-old granddaughter, writes: "In our synagogue each season and holiday had its special tunes. Abba had brought his music with him when he came with his wife and two sons to this country in 1920 from Czechoslovakia. His father had been a cantor in central Europe, as had his father before him. Abba sang the music they sang and the songs they had written. He had saved the music from destruction; it had nearly been annihilated in the war, shot, starved, and gassed. This synagogue was one of the few places where it survived."
As a recent cantorial institute graduate from New York City, Joseph A. Levine met Weisgal in 1958, served as his assistant and eventually wrote a Ph.D. about his mentor's compositions and life. Now retired, the Philadelphia resident speaks of the "big style" of music created by Weisgal and his four-part, all-male choir, conducted by his son, opera composer Hugo Weisgall.
Levine, 67, remembers passing through the synagogue's main entrance on a Saturday morning, listening to Weisgal's musical recitation of a healing prayer, the perfume the ladies wore, the caterer heating up the food if a bar mitzvah luncheon was to follow. "That was a real yom tov" -- a real good day -- Levine says.
Accustomed to the over-the-top dramatics of New York cantors, Levine was smitten by Weisgal's distinctive rumbling baritone and unexaggerated style: "Lo and behold, it was a whole new world. I never experienced anything that rang so true, all of the heroism, none of the shtick."
Back then, the service was rarely interrupted by English readings, Levine says, "so the flow could really work, the give and take. It wasn't performance, but the parts that were sung were really sung. We sung the heck out of that stuff."
Martin Willen, an 85-year-old tenor, has performed with the Eutaw Place synagogue's choir since the late 1940s. "I can tell you we were a very fine choir," he says. Willen remembers Deborah Weisgall as a little girl sitting on the choir loft ledge while her father conducted, her uncle Freddie and brother Jonathan sang, and her grandfather led the service from the bimah -- the platform at the front of the synagogue sanctuary.
"Hugo was a tough taskmaster," says Willen of the famous choir director. He wasn't "one of these guys you know who came to rehearsal and sat around or played cards or anything like that. When he taught, you really learned. He was like that, and he didn't play around. He wanted it done."
Preserving a tradition
Today, Beth Am's choir sings not in the loft, but on the bimah, and is directed by the cantor himself. Unlike in Weisgal's days, women and men form the choir. For those reasons, and the gradual toll of time on tradition, what remains of Weisgal music is in reality "fragments," Levine says. The melodies of Beth Am are considered Weisgal music "out of loyalty and nostalgia and love of the old man and memories of childhood," he says.
The fragments, because they are fragments, are all the more precious to the congregants who took part in hiring Greenstein. In accepting his new job, he vowed to preserve minhag ha-makom -- the tradition of the place.
In many ways, Weisgal music is "not far afield from what you would encounter in any traditional repertoire," Greenstein says. Yet, "there are some specific things that are his."
When the Torah scroll was returned to the Ark during Weisgal's services, he sang a melody inspired by a Yugoslav folk song "that I have never heard anywhere else," Greenstein says. "I feel honored to be able to learn it."
He had an "excellent sense of the emotional flow of a service," Greenstein says of Weisgal. "When you go to Saturday morning service, you want to know it's a Saturday morning service. It ought to feel like one piece of music that ties together one set of prayers."
Some cantors today, "responding to camp movements and modern popular culture, have added things that might make personal sense but might also detract from the overall flow and unification of the service," Greenstein says.
His challenge, he says, is to do justice to the current congregation's desires and to "add my own sense of the times and the people."
Chizuk Amuno moved to Baltimore County in 1962, but Weisgal would remain at the Eutaw Place building until retiring in 1973, along with a loyal but diminished urban congregation. In her book, Deborah Weisgall describes Abba Weisgal's sheer force of will when he refused to leave his shul: "In the end, the congregation had no choice but to keep the Eutaw Place synagogue for Abba. My father and the choir stayed with him, forcing the hiring of a second choir in the suburbs. They hoped that their music would be enough to lure people downtown, at least for the High Holidays.
"Who could tell how long the congregation would keep this building? Who could tell when Abba's voice would be silenced? Then the music would die: not in concentration camps but in the oblivious affluence of America."
The music didn't die. After Weisgal retired, Chizuk Amuno sold the Eutaw Place building to Beth Am. Remaining Chizuk Amuno members saw to it that Weisgal music stayed part of the new congregation as well.
Harry London, a Chizuk Amuno choir member since 1939, became Beth Am's first cantor and kept the position until 1990. In "Shul Mentsch, Shul Kid," a reminisence for the Jewish Museum of Maryland, London relates his discovery of Weisgal music: "I fell in love with music of Levandovsky, Sulzer, Bachman, Naumbourg, Novakovsky and Weisgal, which was more developed in musical sophistication than any I had been accustomed to."
When Beth Am moved in, London, 77, remembers, "The new congregation wanted the musical heritage to continue, embedded as it was in the very brick and mortar of the building."
London says today: "I was blessed by the historical fact of what had been there before. I could just step right in. Nobody had to persuade me or teach me how to do it. A lot of people come in and feel compelled to make changes to assert their independence. I loved it. And of course, Efrem Potts has done everything that could possibly be done to sustain that music."
Not that Potts believes Weisgal music should remain forever unchanged. "It evolves. I don't know that it shouldn't," he says.
Yet like anyone accustomed to a certain way of doing things, Potts is most at home with the music he grew up with, the music that remains intact in his head. He paraphrases a saying to explain: "The music that everyone likes is the music of 'My father's shul.' "
Greenstein, the new cantor, will abide by that feeling, not just for Beth Am's sake but for the sake of the faith. "I approach Judaism as in an investment: The more one participates in it, the more one receives from it," he says.
"So my role as the cantor is to encourage as much participation as I can so that the congregants receive the most from it. That doesn't happen when you decide to do your own shtick."