Tobermory on the Isle of Mull attracts many people, but it cannot be common to find both a Rabbi and a Chazzan (Cantor) there together. Such, however, was our good fortune when American Conservative Rabbi Elyssa Auster and her husband Chazzan Matthew Klein, who were on honeymoon on the island, volunteered to lead an event for SCoJeC, exploring the melodies, ancient and modern, of the Psalms.
Psalm singing has a strong tradition in the Hebrides, famous for its Gaelic choirs, and this event provided an opportunity to hear and compare the similarities and differences between different traditions.
Chazzan Klein spoke about the Psalms as an anthology of Jewish spiritual life, described the origins of Hebrew melody, from an oral to a written tradition, differently interpreted at different times and in different countries, and illustrated his words with sung examples of the similarities between synagogue chants and the Catholic tradition, and between 12th Century melodies and those heard in Moroccan psalmody today.
Linda Martin, SCoJeC’s Highlands and Islands Volunteer Ambassador, presented other melodies, from Salamone Rossi to Suzanne Haik-Vantoura, and we also heard Gaelic and English versions of Hallel (a series of psalms sung on festive occasions) that highlighted the way in which music can create a different emphasis on the interpretation of the words.
Rabbi Auster introduced some more modern melodies, and explained the “lead and response” way of Psalm singing, and encouraged everyone to participate, in Hebrew, with two wonderful versions of “Ashrei”, the daily psalm of joy and thanksgiving.
The event took place on late Friday afternoon, and everyone accepted our invitation to join us in a kosher Friday night buffet after we had lit the Shabbat candles and made Kiddush. With two loaves and three fishes (smoked salmon, home-made gefilte fish balls, and chopped herring) augmented by plenty of bagels, matzos, hummus, dips, home-made cheese, biscuits, cakes, fruit, there was plenty for all, and the varied crowd, which included people from throughout Scotland, as well as England, New Zealand, the USA, South Africa, and Finland, spent a relaxing hour immersed in Jewish culture.
Members of the local Gaelic Choir then treated everyone to more music, with Chazzan Klein joining in and getting his tongue around the unfamiliar words, much to everyone’s delight.
The atmosphere was one of enjoyment and celebration. “This was a lovely friendly event, and comparing various uses and presentations of psalms was fascinating.” said one couple. “What a treat,” enthused another lady, “I came without any expectations, and thoroughly enjoyed it, and learned so much”. Everyone expressed their appreciation of this opportunity to hear Hebrew sung and hoped that we would visit Tobermory again “especially,” as one person commented, “if there is another kosher buffet!”.
Many thanks to Rabbi Auster and Chazzan Klein for giving freely of their time and expertise during such a special time in their lives, and to the Free Church for allowing us to use their premises for the event.