Thursday, June 19, 2014

Ten Russian Cantors Walked into a Bar...

Well, it wasn’t a bar; it was a synagogue. And the synagogue wasn’t in Russia; it was in New Jersey. But there were ten of them; they are Russian, and they are cantors.

Last Sunday, July 16, Temple Sinai in Summit, New Jersey, had a benefit for its musical programs. Sinai’s cantor, Marina Shemesh, invited nine of her colleagues – all classically trained in Russia – to Temple Sinai to put on a show.

And put on a show they did. It was delightful. The first half of the program featured Russian songs, folk and classical, while the second half was based on Broadway tunes, hence the show’s title, “From Red Square to Times Square.”

But the highlight came at the very end. The audience was so appreciative that the cantors decided to do an encore, though one hadn’t been prepared. One of them started playing the piano and we heard the melody that I know as “Those Were the Days,” made popular in the late 1960s by May Hopkin. But the words the cantors sang were strange. They weren’t English at all.

They were Russian. The pianist urged us to sing along, either in Russian or English. And so we did.

But damn! those Russians sure were into it. Wonderful!

I figured the song must have been translated into Russian and become a hit there as well. But I was wrong. The song was originally a Russian song, “Дорогой длинною” (literally “By the long road”) written by Boris Fromin with lyrics by Konstantin Podrevskii. The familiar English lyrics, which are not a translation of the Russian, were written by Gene Raskin in the early 1960s.

No wonder the ten cantors, plus the many Russians in the audience, sang the song with such force and conviction. It was their song. And ours, of course, and everyone else’s.

It was that kind of afternoon. We may have been gathered in a synagogue in suburban New Jersey on a Sunday afternoon in the second decade of the twenty-first century, but there was half a world and a century’s worth of history in that one encore. And the musical traditions go back pretty near to the beginning of time.

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