Angels At The Hollywood Bowl

Stay for the concert; get pshat in a gemara. That’s not what I expected from the Itzhak Perlman / Yitzchok Meir Helfgot performance Tuesday evening at the Hollywood Bowl, but it was the way it turned out.

On to a stage reserved for one of the world’s premier orchestras as well as top contemporary performers, Chazan Helfgot strode out in bekeshe and white shirt without tie, exactly as he might have emerged from his home in Boro Park. The handful of support artists from the Los Angeles Philharmonic looked on with bemused admiration as the tenor’s voice (Perlman has compared him to Pavarotti and Placido Domingo) filled the famed shell of the Bowl and the mostly full amphitheater beyond. Where did he learn to sing like that? What was this other-worldly presence doing on a stage that usually serves the likes of Beethoven, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn and Mahler?

(The program notes filled us in on Helfgot’s background, starting with his birth in Bnei Brak. It included many of his most important performances, including one at Madison Square Garden for something called “Siyum HaShas.”)

Perlman, the Israeli virtuoso violinist, had collaborated with Helfgot a few months ago at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center to great acclaim, and they had also released a CD together. To West Coast snobs, this was a step up. No basketball team plays at the Hollywood Bowl. The Bowl is for music – iconic music.

They did not disappoint the crowd, which did not seem particularly Jewish. To be sure, there was a larger frum cohort in attendance than usual. We had a pretty strong minyan for maariv during intermission. But the vast majority of the crowd showed the same diversity as on other nights.

The Klezmer Conservatory Band led off with a vigorous instrumental, followed by the first Perlman/Helfgot piece, with was Shmelky Brazil’s “Shalom Aleichem.” For perhaps the first time, the City of Angels welcomed the real malachim; the crowd rocked to their presence.

Those angels must have been pleased. The Hollywood Bowl turned into a classroom, instructing LA’s upper-crust about Shabbos. The high-def big screens captured every expression on the faces of the two main performers, as well as the other musicians. But they also provided translations of the lyrics of all the songs. What they could not convey was covered by the banter before each selection between the Klezmer Band’s Jewish conductor, and a delighted and delightful Perlman. (Just how many times do Jews recite Yismechu Bemalchusechah on Shabbos morning? Unfortunately, both of them got it wrong.)

My favorite from their repertoire is the Berditchiver Rebbe’s “A Dudele,” whose lyrics I find to be beyond profound. It sent a chill down my spine to sit among thousands of people who were being challenged to grasp the mystery and majesty of Hakadosh Baruch Hu. (Where are You? Where are You not? You are above; You are below. Wherever I am, You are…)

The audience was sent back to cheder for the duration of the performance. It encountered yearnings for the Beis HaMikdosh (Yismechu Bemalchusechah and Sheyiboneh Beis HaMikdosh ); the modern-classic paean to the Jewish mother, including its firm belief in olam habo (A Yiddishe Mama; maybe not so politically correct in front of all those non-Jews, but what can you do?); and the deep belief in and longing for moshiach, as well as the assumed familiarity of all Jews with the Tehilim they would recite upon his arrival (Shofar Shel Moshiach; the French horn, we were told, would do both tekiah and teruah).

I ran into a prominent Conservative rabbi, who seemed to be having a good time, despite the frequent references to outdated notions like Temple offerings which his denomination rejects.

The crowd had to be fascinated by Perlman. I assume that most came to be in the company of the superstar. Besides the sheer beauty of his music, they had to be impressed with how much he was enjoying being in a Jewish element, how he was relating to both the music and the content of the lyrics.

I hung on to one line of the Shofar Shel Moshiach piece. (It was written for the Zionist Congress of 1897, and later called the Yiddish Hatikvah. Yossele Rosenblatt sang it in the ‘30’s as he toured Palestine.) The song describes a Dovid HaMelech, rising from the grave, holding the shofar with which moshiach’s arrival would be announced. Dovid also has his fiddle, and plays a song of Jewish rebirth and commitment to the living G-d. Here is the line in the original: Un Dovid vet shpiln oyf zayn fidele un vet zingen dos lidele.

Can Dovid do justice to the occasion with one primitive instrument? (OK, it takes a Litvak to think of questions like this, but hear me out.) Who will his drummer be? Shouldn’t he trade in the simple fiddle for an acoustic guitar – and amplified sound?

Aren’t we all too spoiled by over-the-top experiences of mind-bending sound and light combinations to get excited by a simple fiddle?

When we learn the gemara about the songs of the Leviim, do we get skeptical? Poor Chazal. Their sense of music and drama was so impoverished. If they had ever watched a 3D film on IMAX, they wouldn’t have been so excited. Nothing that the ancients did in the days before technology can compare with the thrill of what we have today at our fingertips.

In fact, isn’t this a dilemma we face as a community? We try to find wholesome activities for our kids, but can anything compete with the excitment of a professionally produced video game? How many rabbeim in the primary grades can generate anything as interesting as what their charges are watching at home?

A reviewer in the LA Times questioned why this concert was part of the Classic Tuesday series. Klezmer music and zemiros are hardly part of the classical music repertoire. Maybe so, but Itzhak Perlman demonstrated what they share. What makes music “classical” rather than contemporary is the assumption of timelesness, of the finding that something very old still stirs people, still gives them pleasure even when they have moved on to other forms. In the hands of a Perlman, even a Yiddish song of a genre unfamiliar to much of the audience resonated deeply. Perlman can make his violin – his fiddle – come alive.

So will Dovid, bimheirah beyameinu. And so will the Leviim, when the Bais HaMikdosh is rebuilt.

The concert did not end with the last listed song. They performed a long encore, beginning with Shlomo Carlebach’s Adir Hu, and transitioning to the perfect way to end the evening.

As many thousands stood to leave, they began walking to the words “Moshe emes, v’soroso emes.”

If only they knew.

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13 Responses

  1. mb says:

    Now I’m looking forward to movie reviews on CC

  2. Nechama says:

    Beautiful piece, Rabbi Adlerstein. Made me wish I was there.

  3. Reb Yid says:

    The review of the music was interesting.

    But not so this–totally unnecessary and inflammatory:

    I ran into a prominent Conservative rabbi, who seemed to be having a good time, despite the frequent references to outdated notions like Temple offerings which his denomination rejects.

    Enough with these digs. He probably enjoyed the evening for the same reasons you mention regarding how Perlman can make anything “classical”. Who wouldn’t?

    Speaking of which, Perlman himself is certainly not Orthodox, and has been an active member of a Reform congregation in the New York area for many years. He himself would certainly would not subscribe to many of the lyrics in the songs he performed. But just as the review had the good sense to only extol his virtues and not cast aspersions about him, a similar dan lchaf zchut should be extended to all.

  4. Hoffa Fingerbergstein says:

    All I can say is: what a beutiful review of what a beautiful event. I especially appreciate you pointing out how, for most of the attendees, the words and messages of the compositions performed by Chazzan Helfgot and Itzhak Perlman were lost on them. However, you, a frum Yid, appreciated them!

  5. Mitch says:

    I’m not sure what you mean that his denomination rejects. They don’t dispute Temple sacrifices happened in the past; they just are not part of their vision of a Messianic future. Not that different from Maimonides’ take — or Rav Kook’s.

    [YA The lyrics do not reference an oddity of our primitive past, but the hope that the restoration of the Temple order will come speedily in our days. That is what the song says, and that is what authentic Judaism always represented. It is what the Rambam (Melachim 11:1) codified as authentic Jewish thought, and what R Kook certainly believed. (The somewhat obscure references in R Kook to a time in which the animal neshamah will take on a different role, to the extent that animals will be unavailable for korbanos, do not mean that he disputed the restoration of the Temple order. R Kook in those passages refers to a second stage messianic development, but does not deny the first stage. Any other representation is pure obfuscation.]

  6. Sarah Elias says:

    Sorry to nitpick, but Helfgot was wearing a rekel, not a bekeshe. Bekeshes are Shabbos wear.

    [YA – 1) Los Angeles is a very holy place. We expect all visitors to wear bigdei Shabbos, always. (That is to compensate for those in this city who choose not to wear begadim at all.) 2) For a litvak like me, if it is a garment that strikes me as something I would never wear, it is a bekeshe.]

  7. Rafael Guber says:

    Rabbi Adlerstein I would suspect that you are not really a Litvak. Besides your wonderful, warm sense of humor, statistically Lita at its greatest demographic was about 225,000 of us with 1/5 Chassidim anyway. If you want to say you are a lapsed Chassid OK. You have been spotted in Rabbi Wolfs schul as well. By the way, I am joking I know at least five or six Litvaks with a sense of humor. (hmm…maybe 4 or 5)

    Kol Tuv


    [YA – I will prove to you that I am a Litvak. Say something – anything at all – and I will argue the opposite.]

  8. Raymond says:

    I am certainly no expert on such matters, but I seem to recall that one of the most noteworthy, even courageous aspects of the Rambam’s monumental Mishneh Torah, was precisely that he did include the laws of the Temple sacrifices. He considered these laws as important as any of the other commandments in the Torah, thus clearly indicating that he did see Temple sacrifices as part of our Jewish future. So I am not sure how it can fairly be said that the Temple sacrifices are outdated, or that the Rambam rejected their future usefulness.

    As for the concert itself, good music is good music. While classical music of the 18th and 19th centuries, especially in the general vicinity of Germany-Austria, is a major portion of such eternally great music, such music is not exclusively so. I can think of many modern, popular, secular songs which I feel are good enough to be loved even centuries from now (for example, Simon & Garfunkel), and certainly Jewish music deeply touches all of our hearts in a way that even the genius of Mozart cannot reach.

  9. dr. bill says:

    Raymond, the contradictions between mishneh Torah and moreh nevuchin require study. whatsmore, Rambam’s view of yemot hamashiach in general and sacrifices in particular are a tad more nuanced than what is commonly viewed as orthodox dogma. the proper kavanah for tefillot in this area is an important area. i wonder if those tefillot are said in our famous rabbi’s shul? if they are, i assume he provides an allegorical interpretation putting him in allegory squared territory – praying for the return of a korban pesach to commemorate the exodus.

    i prefer we just enjoy the music! but now I wonder what rabbi adlerstien would call my brook’s brothers shabbos rekel.

  10. Hoffa Fingerbergstein says:

    Mitch – look in Siddur Sim Shalom of the Conservative movement. They have removed the words “ishei Yisroel” from the paragraph “retzei” found in the Amidah. This has been the movement’s position for years (I grew up without ishei yisroel and most of the second paragraph of Aleinu, as examples) and they did so because they don’t believe or don’t want the reestablishment of the Beis HaMikdosh, the Third and Final temple.

    Rafael – reminds of the time that a chassid walked into a “litvishe” beis medrosh here in Toronto and announced “boy, is it cold in here!”

  11. mb says:

    Hoffa Fingerbergstein
    ” Beis HaMikdosh, the Third and Final temple.”

    I wish Orthodox Jews would stop repeating this mantra. There’s no source for this anywhere.
    Herod’s Temple was the third. I know of at least 3 times since the destruction in 70 CE that the Jews were offered the opportunity to rebuild. Once they even started.

  12. cvmay says:

    Sounds like a concert and night to remember.
    Two amazing, talented, musical icons together in the city of Holy Angles.
    Glad it was enjoyed and I’m quite sure that many dormant ‘pintela’ neshamas were ignited.

  13. Raymond says:

    I am not sure how the claim can be made that there will be no Third Temple, given that rebuilding it is one of the ways that we will be able to recognize the Real Messiah when he finally comes. We ourselves do not engage in the rebuilding of it, precisely because that is a task given to the Real Messiah.

    And since the Temple will be rebuilt, there will be animal sacrifices done there, simply because it makes no sense to build something and then not use it for what it has traditionally been used for. I realize that the Rambam said that G-d introduced animal sacrifices into our Torah as a way of weaning ourselves from the idolatrous practices of the time, but I am not convinced that our collective psyche has completely liberated itself from that same idolatrous mentality.

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