“The Jewish community.” The phrase conjures up a monolithic and self-contained group of people, concerned with their own affairs, opaque to outsiders. How mysterious are the Jews! Everybody knows a few, but Jewish communal life typically remains a mystery, unless you’re doing it. And very unfortunately, plenty of people are filling in the blanks with conspiracies of every kind. This is, of course, not new.
I have always thought that the most rational response to this is simply more visibility. The more you really know about a person or a culture, the less you’re going to just fill in.
One such opportunity for visibility is coming up soon. Cantors and soloists from seven synagogues will be joining the Southern Arizona Symphony Orchestra and Chorus to perform a Hanukkah concert.
A small primer: the holiday of Hanukkah is based on the events of 165 B.C., when Jewish resistance fighters took Jerusalem back from the Seleucid Greeks. Under their rule, the Temple had become a site for sacrifices to Zeus, and Judaism was outlawed. After the Seleucids were defeated, the Temple was rededicated — the Hebrew word “hanukkah” means “rededication.” The story then goes that the liberators only found enough pure oil to light the ritual flame for one day and making a decent supply would take them eight; but they went ahead and lit it, and it lasted for the whole eight days anyway. A miracle.
I wrote a new cantata — a religious dramatization in music — for choir, soloists, and orchestra, which takes this basic Hanukkah story and examines it from many angles: from the miraculous to the military, the mystical to the mundane. The stories are lively and occasionally outrageous, and there are even many details on which the ancient sources differ.
This is fitting because Judaism is, in large part, a religion of textual criticism. Studying our texts, and their meanings and interrelationships, is itself an act of devotion. Knowing this is knowing a good amount of the communal life of Jews. For those of us who are religious, one of the central acts is being present for the public reading of a portion of the Torah every week. We take our texts seriously.
That is, of course, one of the few things we can agree on. Judaism is far from monolithic. In 1910, Tucson had one synagogue; the first in Arizona. Today we have over a dozen, all serving different areas, or emphasizing different observances, different politics. (In this sense, Jews are as boring and fractious as any other community. How many churches began as splinter groups?)
So, I feel that this Chanukah Cantata performance is significant for two reasons.
First, to assert the continued presence of Jews in this city, and to help demystify us a little bit. After all, I keep hearing that the thing to do, after a tragedy like the Pittsburgh shooting, is to be more Jewish. Both for reasons of defiance, and reasons of harm reduction — in that every public Jewish act is a small act of education.
But second, it’s to model a kind of coming together that I believe America also needs. None of the soloists in the cantata see eye to eye on every issue. They and I are all representatives of smaller communities with real and valid differences. Even the script of the cantata asks question after question, with hardly an answer to be found. But it’s not meant as an endpoint; it’s a process.
If everyone takes that first step to listen to the other with respect, no one will have to carry the entire burden of change.