Leader of the band

Back in her undergrad days, Linda Hirschhorn enrolled in a conducting class, just to round out her musical education. It came in handy now that she has her own orchestra.

As cantor of the San Leandro-based Conservative congregation Temple Beth Sholom, Hirschhorn has won praise for her mastery of the vocal arts. But when Rabbi Harry Manhoff asked her to put together an expanded musical Shabbat service, her first thought was to form an orchestra composed entirely of congregation members.

Hirschhorn will strike up the band for the first time at Friday night services on Feb. 11.

“We have five violins, a trumpet, two clarinets, electric guitar, cello, flute, piano and percussion,” says Hirschhorn. “That includes two mother-daughter teams.”

There are no Gershwin rhapsodies or Mozart serenades on the program. It’s strictly liturgical. Hirschhorn wrote arrangements for key moments in the Shabbat service, among them “Lecha Dodi; Mi Chamocha” and “Ufros Aleinu,” as well as some niggunim (wordless chants).

“I wanted to keep a traditional service,” she adds. “This is not a show, but rather a service. To write the arrangements, I just treated each instrument as a voice.”

Her musicians are impressed with Hirschhorn’s arranging skills. Says violinist Gary Osias of Castro Valley, “Linda has come at this from her experience as a vocal arranger. So her orchestral arrangements reflect that. As a violinist, the arrangements are different from what you normally see, but uniquely beautiful.”

For 8-year-old violinist Joia Fishman, this is her first experience in an orchestra, and so far it’s a high note.

“I’ve been playing for one and a half years,” says Joia. “I like to practice and learn new pieces. I get that feeling you accomplished something.”

Making it more fun for Joia is the fact that her mother, Anita, fiddles along next to her in the string section. “It’s a wonderful way to draw people in,” says Anita Fishman of the temple orchestra. Joia loves going to temple anyway. When I asked her why she’s so involved she said it’s the music.”

Adds Hirschhorn: “Everybody’s ruach [spirit] is high, and the musicians are very excited. The sound is so big.”

But getting the congregation rocking is not one of Hirschhorn’s goals. The music is meant to enhance the spiritual nature of Shabbat for everyone involved. “I have spiritual feelings when I practice,” says violinist Osias. “I associate it with thinking about the prayers. When I’m actually with the orchestra I’m more concerned with doing it right, following Linda as our conductor and making sure what comes out meets the demands of the moment.”

Certainly for young Joia Fishman, making music at the synagogue is having an impact. When asked what she might want to be when she grows up she says without hesitation: “A cantor.”

As for the present cantor at Beth Sholom, bringing an orchestra to the congregation is the latest, and maybe the greatest, of artistic rewards.

“This is stretching me in wonderful ways,” she says. “I feel like Robert Preston in ‘The Music Man.'”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.