The Arty Semite

Chicago Concert Brings Interfaith Music Together

By Menachem Wecker

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“This sanctuary is the most religiously diverse place in this great city,” said Michael Siegel, the rabbi of Anshe Emet, a Conservative synagogue in Chicago.

If that sounds like crowing, consider that conspicuous among the attendees of the synagogue’s April 6 “Sounds of Faith” concert were kippas, Greek Orthodox vestments, and headscarves.

The program, which packed the synagogue’s 1,100-capacity main sanctuary, featured Koranic recitations, Old Testament cantillation, and monastic chants. Musicians ranged from the choirs of St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church and Beth Shalom B’nai Zaken Ethiopian Hebrew Congregation to the Islamic Foundation Children’s Choir and Anshe Emet cantor [Alberto Mizrahi and Temple Sholom of Chicago (Reform) cantor Aviva Katzman.

“The greatest thing that happens at this concert is community building. There are divides and there are people who say ‘We should never get together,’ and ‘Oh my God! The Koran was being read on a Bima of a synagogue?!’” said Mizrahi in an interview. “Well they’re not used to hearing the ‘Sim Shalom’ of [Max] Janowski either.”

In addition to “Sim Shalom,” Mizrahi sang “Alhamdullilah” with Amro Helmy, a Chicago-based Arabic teacher; “Psalm 114: Betset Israel” and “Bendicho Su Nombre” (“B’rich Sh’meh” in Aramaic) with representatives of Schola Antiqua of Chicago; and “Adon Has’Lichot” with Helmy and Zeshan Bagewadi, whose music combines Indian techniques with alternative/indie rock.

According to the Greek-born Mizrahi, music is “our closest physical link to the eternal.” Although it’s impossible to know what the Levites’ music sounded like in the Temple (“because there were no tape recorders at the time”), the music’s oral tradition helped preserve the sounds.

“I never went to church — obviously I went to shul — but the sound of Byzantine music is very close to chazzanut,” Mizrahi said. “When you hear the music of a muezzin — calling the Muslims to prayer — you can’t help but feel that there’s a sound there so ancient, that it comes from thousands of years ago and that our sound is integrally tied to those sounds, but quite different.”

When Mizrahi sang “Betset Israel,” Schola Antiqua singers accompanied with the chant “In Exitu Israel de Aegypto.” They didn’t make up the fact that both the songs have the same music, according to Mizrahi, who noted that Christian music, as it is now known, has a decidedly Western flavor.

“Gregorian chants were being saved, because they [monks] felt that it was the closest they could get to the music of the Temple, from which they originated,” he said. “But it had already been Westernized.”

Whatever the music has become, Mizrahi finds profound meaning among the ancient notes. “As soon as I start davening [at the pulpit], it brings me to a spiritual plane that I can’t reach any other way.”


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