Local cantors among group that sang in Roman church

From the very first note, “it was an oh-my-God moment,” said Roslyn Barak, recalling the Nov. 16 concert she and 19 other American Reform cantors gave at a Catholic basilica in Rome. “We plotzed.”

The group of cantors traveled to Rome to perform a first-of-its-kind concert of Jewish prayers and sacred texts at the Basilica of Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri, a cavernous church adapted by Michelangelo from the ancient Baths of Diocletian.


The group of Reform cantors that performed in a Roman basilica photo/alan mason

Among the 20 were four Bay Area cantors: David Margules of San Rafael’s Congregation Rodef Sholom; Leigh Korn of Lafayette’s Temple Isaiah; Lauren Bandman of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills; and Barak of San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El.


“There was an overall sense that we were doing something very important and special,” Korn said. “It was thrilling to participate together, and it was one of the best concerts I’ve ever been part of.”

Titled “To God’s Ears,” the concert was organized by the New York–based Interreligious Information Center in cooperation with Cardinal William Keeler, the emeritus archbishop of Baltimore, who is the basilica’s cardinal priest.

The performance featured a range of prayers and texts set both to traditional melodies and music by composers dating from the Renaissance to the present day.

In welcoming remarks, Monsignor Renzo Giuliano, the regular priest of the basilica, introduced the 90-minute concert as a journey into the “profundity of the liturgy,” saying it was “very important to be here together and praising our God.”

The cantors hailed from California, New York, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, Georgia, Florida, Arizona and Texas.

Dressed in black and wearing colorful tallits, they sang in a vaulted side chapel against the backdrop of a crucifix, flickering candles and a wall-size painting of the Madonna and child.

Highlights of the concert included an arrangement of the “Adon Olam” prayer by the Renaissance Italian Jewish composer Salamone Rossi and a stirring rendition of “Sim Shalom” by the Berlin-born 20th-century composer Max Janowski, which featured Barak as soloist.

The concert also included the world premiere of “Mah Ashiv Ladonai–Quid Retribuam Domino,” a setting of Psalm 116, with words in Hebrew and in Latin, by Cantor Erik Contzius of Temple Israel in New Rochelle, N.Y.

Before each piece, a cantor stepped forward to describe the selection, explain its place in the Jewish religious service and provide information about the musical setting.

“Our goal was to educate people in Jewish culture and Jewish synagogue culture,” said Barak, who selected the music. “The thinking was to show the audience the wide variety of musical styles inherent in Jewish musical liturgy. We wanted to show the real beauty and majesty of the music of Reform music as it once was. It really floored the people.”

U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican Miguel Humberto Diaz called the initiative “a wonderful opportunity. Any kind of art, especially music, is a way to bring people together for the sake of the common good.”

Diaz and the Rev. Norbert Hoffman, the secretary of the Vatican’s commission on religious relations with the Jews, were among the few dignitaries in attendance.

Jewish secular artists have performed on a number of occasions at Vatican events, but traditional cantors in the past probably would not have performed in a church.

Observers of Jewish-Catholic relations said it was likely that the concert marked the first time a cantorial group had performed such a concert in a Roman church.

“Italian traditional cantors would not, as far as I know, perform in a church, and I know of no instance when this ever happened in the past,” said Italian Jewish musicologist Francesco Spagnolo, the curator of collections at the Magnes Museum in Berkeley.

The concert was the centerpiece of four days of meetings in Rome organized by the Interreligious Information Center for the cantors and more than two dozen accompanying family members and other members of their congregations.

The group met with seminarians at the Vatican’s Pontifical North American College and attended Pope Benedict XVI’s weekly public audience. They also toured Rome’s ancient Jewish ghetto and met with Rome’s chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni.

That meeting was a form of religious dialogue as well.

Italy’s Jewish community is Orthodox, and although there are a few small Reform congregations in the country, the Reform denomination is not recognized by the Italian Jewish communal organization. Di Segni did not attend the concert.

Cantor Claire Franco of Port Washington, N.Y., one of the coordinators of the concert, said Di Segni had been gracious to the group and answered people’s questions.

“But he was clear that there are boundaries that they won’t cross,” she said. “We are Reform cantors and we are very proud of this. That’s who we are — and half of us are women.”

Participants and organizers stressed that this event could be the beginning of a new, more assertive era of positive Catholic-Jewish relations.

“Presenting music of the synagogue in churches in order to reach the laity could develop into something very, very worthwhile in interfaith relations,” said Gunther Lawrence, the Interreligious Information Center’s executive director.

Barak, who has collaborated on many interfaith projects, agrees.

“Every time I sing for a group of Catholics they seem to be extremely moved,” she said. “They’ve been so lovely to me. I feel a kinship with any people of great spiritual depth.”

Added Korn: “It was a very powerful experience. It’s one thing to present a concert, but to be 20 cantors singing in this basilica, I think the event was historic. Nothing like this had been done before. It was a great opportunity to be ambassadors for Judaism.”

J. staff writer Dan Pine contributed to this report.

Ruth Ellen Gruber

Ruth Ellen Gruber is a writer for JTA.