A tapestry of words and song
Sidebar: See the program
Weaving together strands of American-Jewish music, poetry, and political thought, a program inspired by the First Amendment will be presented at Princeton University. American Democracy Inspires Jewish Music and Poetry, initiated by Lawrenceville musician and educator Elayne Robinson Grossman, will take place Sunday, Nov. 12, at 1 p.m. at the university’s Frist Campus Center.
Headlining the two-and-a-half-hour tapestry of words and song will be Sharim v’Sharot (People of Song), an a cappella choir under the musical direction of Grossman; Princeton English professor Esther Schor, who will present poetry readings and commentary; and Robert Reinstein, dean of Temple University’s Beasley School of Law, who will offer readings and commentary on the First Amendment.
The event is being funded through a grant from the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, in conjunction with the We the People initiative of the National Endowment for the Humanities, according to Grossman. She said she applied for the grant with the aim of exploring the ways in which the American-Jewish community has been shaped by the experience of living in a democracy.
“I’ve always felt that the First Amendment has made the American-Jewish community what it is. We’ve always fought passionately for freedom of speech so we could express ourselves as Jews,” Grossman said.
The former longtime music director of the Rottenberg Chorale in New York, Grossman launched Sharim v’Sharot in 2000, attracting singers from all over Mercer County and beyond, including Edison, Metuchen, Parsippany, and Elkins Park, Pa.
Her vision for the choir was to perform the music of the Jewish people in a way that conveys not only a love of Jewish music but also the rich breadth and depth of Jewish experience, she said. And the grant offered by the NJ Council for the Humanities presented an excellent opportunity to do just that.
“My idea was, let’s show this in the poetry of the American-Jewish community, in the music of the American-Jewish community, and let’s bring in a scholar of constitutional law to talk about the First Amendment,” Grossman said. “Then we’ll bring in Jewish music and poetry inspired by the freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment.”
Among the musical selections to be performed by Sharim v’Sharot during the program are excerpts from Ben Yarmolinsky’s “The Constitution, A Secular Oratorio,” Benjie Ellen Schiller’s “U’Kratem Dror” (Proclaim Liberty), and a Yiddish version of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The group’s performance of Meira Warshauer’s “Look to the Light” will include lyrics by Grossman’s husband, Rabbi Daniel Grossman. The singers will also present “Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor,” the words of the poem by Emma Lazarus that are inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty, set to music by Irving Berlin.
“We’ve looked at a wide tapestry of musical styles,” Grossman said. “We are going to engage the audience. This is not going to be a stodgy lecture. As much as we want to impart information, we want to raise questions about what it means to be an American Jew.”
The poems of Lazarus will also be at the heart of Schor’s presentation on American-Jewish poetry during the seminar. Author of Emma Lazarus (Nextbook/ Schocken), a recently published biography of the poet (see story, this page), Schor will read and discuss Lazarus’ “The New Colossus” (from which the Statue of Liberty inscription is taken), “How Long?,” and “In Exile.” She will also present poems by Yiddish poets Moshe-Leyb Halpern and H. Leyvik and excerpts from the poems of American-Jewish poets Philip Levine, Allen Ginsberg, Robert Pinsky, Maxine Kumin, and Jacqueline Osherow.
“It’s an exciting opportunity to look at the cross-currents between the arts and the American lives of Jews,” Schor said during an interview in her office at Princeton. “Inspiration is a key word here, because Jewish writers have been inspired by democracy and provoked, also, by it to articulate renewed ideals.”
The poems she plans to present represent Jews of different generations and different national origins, according to Schor.
“They refract the ideals of democracy in different ways,” she said. “There’s a sense of gravity about what democracy means for Jews. These are poems that take seriously the consequences of democracy.”
American Democracy Inspires Jewish Music and Poetry is cosponsored by Princeton University’s Program in Judaic Studies and Center for Jewish Life/Hillel, Temple University’s Beasley School of Law, the United Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks, Rider University Hillel, and the Sharim v’Sharot Foundation.
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