By the time Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life congregation took the stage on Nov. 8, the audience at the University of Pittsburgh’s Alumni Hall had already heard more than 90 minutes of music and poetry.
But they waited patiently for the final performance of the night: Myers singing the world premiere of Psalm 121 composed by Cantor Gerald Cohen.
Cohen prefaced the piece with a short explanation of the significance of the Psalm. After the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, when an antisemitic gunman entered the Tree of Life building and killed 11 worshippers, Myers was asked to lead a prayer service and found himself unable to speak. He turned to the Book of Psalms and found solace in Psalm 121, which declares that help and protection come from God.
As the music started to play, Myers sang in a slow, somber drawl. When the Pittsburgh Youth Chorus behind him joined in, Myers’ voice brightened up, carrying throughout the entire auditorium with force. At the end of the Psalm, Myers took his glasses off and looked upward with a solemn, reverent expression.
In an interview after the performance, Myers said his “singing was the message.” Cohen composed the piece, commissioned by members of the Tree of Life Congregation, to reflect the struggle Myers faced in the days following the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.
“He, at the beginning of the piece, is having difficulty even getting the words out,” Cohen said. “It’s the young people, the Youth Chorus, the hope of tomorrow, that really brings him back to some hope.”
The event, “Resonance of Hope: Building Bridges Through Music,” was organized by Violins of Hope Greater Pittsburgh, an educational program built around instruments owned by Jewish musicians during the Holocaust — some of the same instruments used by string players throughout the event and during Myers’ song.
The performance fell on the eve of the 85th anniversary of Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, a series of Nazi pogroms against Jews in Germany.
Jewish poet Valerie Bacharach read her poem “Violins of Hope” while Peter Kope and Michele de la Reza danced to “Quartor pour la fin du temps,” or “Quartet for the End of Time.” The music was composed by French musician Olivier Messiaen in a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany, where he performed it for an audience of prisoners and guards.
The two dancers entangled each other, sometimes embracing and sometimes falling slowly apart as Bacharach spoke of the lives ended during the Holocaust.
“Too many names, too much barbed wire,” she said. “How do we understand a number impossible to understand?”
Earlier in the night, Myers sang “Ashrei Hagafrur,” composed by Hannah Senesh, an Israeli poet. Senesh joined a special operations force during World War II and parachuted behind German lines for rescue efforts. She was captured and tortured for information but refused to give it up and was sentenced to death by firing squad. In her final moments, she refused to be blindfolded.
That resilience and courage were emblematic of the themes for the night. Despite the horrors of history being discussed, hope and solidarity undergirded the performances.
The music and poetry were interspersed with a dialogue between two Pittsburgh Creative and Performing Arts students, Raymair Bundridge and Harrison Salvi, who respectively represented the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a friend of King’s who joined the march to Selma, Alabama, in the fight for civil rights.
“He was a witness, coming to America and seeing slavery and seeing the struggle of Black Americans in the South, and saying, ‘We know persecution. We know what it feels like to be persecuted. It is up to us in this moment to speak out and stand up to persecution,’” Emily Loeb, director of programs and education at the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh said.
Speaking to that solidarity, African-American pianist Gerald Savage led the audience into song during his performances of “Keep your Eyes on the Prize,” “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around” and “We Who Believe in Freedom,” occasionally encouraging the audience with a “Can you sing that with me?” until the audience joined in and began to clap along with the beat.
Sandy Rosen, chair of Violins of Hope Greater Pittsburgh, said the event was designed to showcase the shared humanity of all people.
“We all love music. We all laugh. We all cry. We have the same love for our children and our families,” Rosen said. “And if we have these bridges, and if we have these communities of relationships, then perhaps there will be more people that stand up to protect each of us.”
But nothing spoke more to the themes of hope, solidarity and resilience than Myers’ voice echoing alongside those of the Pittsburgh Youth Chorus while three string players performed on the restored WWII violins.
“The piece is a journey from sorrow or despair, to hope,” Cohen said. “Whether it’s the words of the Psalm, the songs of a child, or beauty and nature, there are things in the world that hopefully bring us back to a sense of hope and a sense of meaning in the world.” PJC
Abigail Hakas is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.