Feldman Remembers Helfman

(Charles Feldman delivered this talk at the reteat of the Max Helfman Institute for Jewish Music at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute on April 12, 2010.)  In 1947 Brandeis Camp opened its college age camp for young people already involved in their Jewish organization or synagogues.  In 1948, under the direction of Max Helfman, the first arts institute opened.  Young musicians from all over the country were recruited: some already involved in Jewish life…some not. Who were we that first experimental year?  My memory tells me that there were at two violinist, one cellist, many singers and piano players…and a few who had tried their hands at composing. There was Leon Levitch, a survivor of an Italian concentration camp.  According to the legend, he had taught himself to play piano on a cardboard keyboard while in the camp.  Leon became the premiere piano technician in Los Angeles, and composed excellent music of Jewish interest. There was Elliot Greenberg, a young violinist from New York who was a talented composer, and who later played in prestigious orchestras. There was Gershon Kingsley, a German refugee who came to the United States via Israel. A brilliant pianist and budding composer, Gershon went on to become the first practioner on the Moog Synthesizer.  His recording, “Popcorn”, topped the charts.  Gershon is a well known new age composer, and has written many works of Jewish interest. There was Ray Smolover, a cantor who later became a director of the American Conference of Cantors.  In subsequent years there were cantors such as Sheldon Merel, George Weinflash, Larry Ehrlich and Charles Davidson, who also composed wonderful Jewish music.  And there was Jack Gottlieb, a terrific composer who later arranged Helfman’s work for publication. There was Yehudi Wyner, a very serious young man who was the son of Lazar Wyner, a pre-eminant  composer of Jewish music, including a collection of beautiful art songs. Yehudi went on to receive degrees in music from Juilliard, Yale and Harvard.  He taught composition for fourteen years at Yale and then continued to teach and consult.  His music has earned many prestigious prizes including the Pulitzer for his piano concerto, and incidentally also composed music for the synagogu And then there was me.  Who was I?  I was a callow 18 year old hipster who had turned his back on Judaism since an orthodox Bar Mitzvah.  I had spent my high school years as a jazz and big band piano player, having given up the earlier dream of becoming a concert pianist. I had spent two years learning the tools of the trade (sight-reading, score reading and accompanying) with Jacob Previn, the father of Andre.  It was Previn who recommended me for a scholarship at a music camp in the Simi Valley.  Boy, was I excited.  I thought, wow, a western Tanglewood.  Imagine my surprise, imagine my dismay, when I found out…oy…this was a Jewish camp.  In those pre-freeway days, my parents had to drive me over the mountain to Santa Susanna.  In those pre-cell-phone days there was no way I could call them to come back.  There was no way to get back home unless I walked.  Oy…I was stuck.  That first evening was Shabbat.  Again…oy.  But the interesting thing was that I found that I could still read Hebrew, and that I remembered some of the melodies.  There was, to me, a strange sense of coming home.  Now I was intrigued.  Remember that I was eighteen,  exactly the impressionable age that Shlomo Bardin targeted.  That same evening we met Max Helfman, and I fell into idolatry.  Max had a melodic, almost hypnotic manner of speaking. You could tell how much he loved Judaism, just by the way he said the word “Jewish”.  I was still skeptical, but found myself falling under the spell.  What did we do?  We sat with teachers like renowned composer Eric Zeisl, synagogue composer Julius Chajes, and Shlomo Rosowsky who had written the complete guide to Torah cantillation. We had seminars on the history of Jewish music and the development of Synagogue music.  We listened to recordings of the great cantors, and to general music of Jewish interest.  Max fascinated us when he waxed rhapsodic about such things as the use of the Haftarah blessing melody in Bernstein’s “Jeremiah Symphony”, or how there was a Jewish component in Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So”. Every afternoon Max turned the whole camp into a four part choir, learning the latest arrangements of Israeli songs. I became the designated accompanist, which gave me an in when I asked to come back as his assistant.   During the eleven weeks of the Institute there were 2 or 3 evenings to highlight our talents.  The singers sang, the instrumentalists played and the composers showed off. But the real magic was in Max Helfman.  He was a creative genius, an enthralling storyteller, philosopher and teacher. and a mesmerizing presence. So what did this experience mean to me?  It’s important to realize that Israel had just achieved independence, winning a war against great odds.  If you were not around at that time you can’t imagine the pride that American Jews took in this.  Brandeis was more a Zionist camp than a religious one, which Bardin had structured like a kibbutz.  We all had work to do: in the kitchen, in the dining room, and in the garden.  After eleven weeks I went home with a newly created Jewish and Zionist impetus to my life.  I went to the Hillel at my LACC campus.  I said, “I’m Jewish. I’m a musician.  What can I do here?”  The Rabbi said, “Make us a chorus.”  And I did.  So the first college age chorus singing Israeli songs in Los Angeles was born.  Based on its success, the next year I was able to organize choruses at UCLA and USC Hillels.  Soon I could command up to 80 kids for performances all over Southern California.  I’m nineteen years old, and all of a sudden I’m a Jewish musician. And l continued going back to Brandeis for years because it was truly my spiritual home.  When I came back from the Army in 1952 the Jewish population was on the move to outlying suburban areas.  I found myself schlepping to places like Westchester, Pacific Palisades, and Pasadena creating music programs for new congregations until they were able to carry on without me, but none of this work was steady or particularly remunerative. I was trying to earn a living in music.  I tried everything from dance class piano player to playing in piano bars, music directing in little theatres, and even conducting a women’s choir for Beverly Hills Hadassah.         In 1955 I got married, and now had obligations.  Odd jobs weren’t doing it anymore.  So I was happy to be offered a job as full time music director at Adat Ari El, working with legendary Chazzan Alan Michaelson.   I was even happier when the next year I was invited to move to Wilshire Boulevard Temple, the most prestigious reform synagogue in Los Angeles.  So…did I ever regret not being in the ‘real world’ of music?  Did I ever wish that I was the conductor in the pit of a Broadway musical, or long for the fulfillment or any of my youthful musical dreams?  Sure….from time to time.  But ask me now after sixty years in Jewish music.  Ask me now after fifty-three years with Wilshire Boulevard Temple, and the answer is an emphatic no.  I’ve had the honor to take thousands of kids through their B’nai Mitzvahs, and that was my teaching.  I’ve put on great concerts with big choirs and orchestras and that was my philharmonic.  I’ve had the opportunity to teach and mentor any number of singers, both at temple and at our camps in Malibu, and that was my university.  I’ve written and produced lots of musicals with both children and adults and that was my Broadway.  I’ve had the creative pleasure of writing a good deal of Jewish music and hearing it performed, sometimes to my liking and sometimes not, but always with great pride and pleasure. Michael Isaacson found a Max Helfman quote which I think truly describes what happened to me. “Some think there is a wall between Jew and gentile; but the real wall is between the Jew and himself: the young Jew who has been running away from his heritage and in doing so has turned his back on a rich creative past….they will argue with you….but you cannot argue with a song or with a dance.” Now, why are you here?  As Helfman said “music has permeated Jewish life since its very inception”, and after all we have the fruits of hundreds of years of Jewish folk and composed music.  Why do we need more?  Tastes change…styles change.  Music written in the fourteenth century no longer appeals to the contemporary ear.  Music that was contemporary twenty years ago is outdated now.  Where will the Helfmans and the Isaacsons of the twenty-first century come from?  Where will the Bernsteins, the Blochs, the Bruchs of the twenty-first century come from if not from people like you?  We need composers who have spent the time to learn the tradition, and within the tradition to bring a new and fresh sound. That’s what the short lived Brandeis Arts Institute was about, and hopefully that’s what the new Max Helfman Institute will become