Monday, October 14, 2013

Benzion Miller : A Modern Day Chazan

Benzion Miller
Sociologists and other researchers who study a society's norms, customs and behaviors often examine the community's music as a way of tracing the community's historical development. This is particularly true of the American Jewish experience which has always included music in its liturgy, life-cycle ceremonies and daily life.

The first Jews to arrive in North American came in the mid-1600s. These people were refugees whose families had fled the Spanish Inquisition. moved to Holland and then to South America. When the Inquisition came to South America they moved northward, arriving in South Carolina and slowly moving northward to New York and New England.

The early American Jewish community defined itself as Separadic, as most of the members of the community had ancestors who had fled Spain in 1492. Until the 1800s Jewish communal life in America revolved around Sephardic traditions but in the mid-1800s German Jews began to immigrate to America, bringing their own traditions and a new Ashkanazi culture. This wave of Jewish immigration continued through the late 1800s and early 1900s as almost two million Eastern European Jews immigrated to America's shores.

This wave of European Jewish immigration included some of the greatest hazzans -- cantors -- of the era. Singing during prayer can be traced in Jewish liturgy to Temple times and worship through song has continued ever since. Hazzanut began to come into its own in 19th century Europe where hazzans chanted the services, oftentimes before the great rabbis of the era or in Hassidic courts.

The "Golden Age" of hazzanut peaked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when cantors such as Yossele Rosenblatt, Gershon Sirota, Zaval Kwartin, David Roitman and Yankev Shmuel Maragowski joined the wave of immigration to America. These cantors performed in synagogues, Jewish community centers and in American cultural venues before the general American public. The generation of immigrant Jews adored these hazzans whose renditions of the traditional prayers brought back poignant memories of their shtetel childhoods, families and Eastern European communities.

The Holocaust took a tremendous toll on the world of Ashkanazi hazzanut. The traditional centers of Ashkanazi hazzanim were destroyed and there were no new centers of training in which young hazzanim could learn the traditional craft. In America, however, a new generation of American students has sparked a resurgence of hazzanut.

Benzion Miller is one of the most talented and prolific modern-day hazzanim. He himself is a Hassid and his hazzanut is favored by many Hassidic rebbes, both in America and in Israel. Benzion Miller was born in a DP Camp in Fernwald, Germany in 1947. His father, Cantor Reb Aaron Daniel Miller, was a well-known hazzan and Benzion began to appear with his father at an early age, singing at public gatherings, such as Bar Mitzvahs, "Melave Malka" gatherings, and other Jewish functions. The Miller family were Bobover Hassidim and Benzion attended the Bobover Yeshiva in Brooklyn, NY and the Bobover Yeshiva Kedushat Zion in Bat Yam, Israel. Following his yeshivah experience Miller moved to Montreal to study music theory and voice production with some of North America's foremost cantors. He headed the Yeshiva Choir as a soloist and was invited to sing in many solo performances.

At age 18 Benzion Miller was offered the position of Cantor at the Hillside Jewish Center in Hillside, NJ. Since that time he has filled positions in Montreal, Toronto and the Bronx. He presently serves as full-time "shaliach tzibur" at the Beth-El Congregation of Borough Park/Young Israel Beth-El of Borough Park. He also functions as a mohel and as a shochet for the community.

Miller continues to be a follower of the Bobover Rebbe and often performs for the Rebbe. He is recognized as one of the foremost interpreters of Jewish liturgical music of the times and he is equally at home performing Operatic Repertoire as he is singing Jewish and Chassidic Folk Music. He has appeared with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, the Haifa Symphony, the Rishon L'Tzion Symphony, the Jerusalem Symphony and with members of the London Symphony. Following the fall of communism in Russia Miller appeared before Eastern European audiences in Russia, Romania, Poland and Hungry. He has sung liturgical, Chassidic and Yiddish music with the Budapest State Opera Orchestra.

In November 1998 Miller sang with Barcelona National Symphony Orchestra, recording some of his best known pieces for  Lowell Milken's  Archive of American Jewish music. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Curing Dissociative or Split Personality Disorder

by Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh

The verse in Jeremiah states, “I have surely heard Ephraim complaining.”[1] Chassidut explains that someone complains because they have found in their psyche two opposite impulses. The simplest such impulses are known as the good and evil inclinations. Even when one learns Tanya, and reads that one has both a Divine soul and an animal soul, he may not internalize the fact that this is not describing some theoretical situation; this is really how his psyche is! But, as a person matures in his understanding of Chassidut, he sees more and more that he is on a psychological see‐saw; alternating between two personalities.

Jeremiah states, ”I have surely heard (שָׁמוֹעַ שָׁמַעְתִּי),” which literally means, “Heard, I have heard.” One explanation for the use of the double verb is that Jeremiah at times hears Ephraim going in one direction, and at times he hears him going in the opposite direction. This is the prelude to Ephraim’s teshuvah (return to God and His Torah).[2]

Individual and Society
If these two personalities are something that we all have, why is Ephraim (אֶפְרָיִם) brought as such a prominent example? We can find the answer by looking at the letters of his name itself. With regard to the first three letters, פר indicates the individual (as in the word “individual” פְּרָט), whereas the first letter א symbolizes the oneness of the Almighty.

The fact that the second and third letters follow, or are “drawn to” the first, symbolizes how each individual member of the Jewish people is drawn to God’s unity and oneness, represented by the letter aleph (א).[3] But, the first three letters are also drawn towards the fourth and fifth letters of Ephraim’s name; the yud and mem (ים). In Hebrew grammar, these two letters are a suffix that indicates plurality.

This means that a plurality (ים) exists even within an individual (פר). In our drive to actualize our fullest potentials, we must also learn to balance between the animal soul on the one side, and the Divine soul on the other. When each of us is able to manifest our abilities to the fullest, we are all also granted the highest level of life—or the pinnacle of all our pursuits—our connection to the aleph (א), or the oneness of God.[4]
This is one possible explanation for what it means to “complain” (מִתְנוֹדֵד), and why Ephraim (אֶפְרָיִם) is torn between these two extremes more than others. Whereas the animal soul only cares about its own individual cravings and pursuits, the Divine soul seeks to connect and unify with the Godly oneness as manifest in all.
Expressing our Uniqueness

In Rabbinic literature, a desire to express uniqueness is referred to as, "The general that requires the individual." Each person wants to reveal their latent powers and abilities, which is one of the reasons why people want to have children. By having offspring, they reveal their potential. This concept certainly relates to Ephraim (אֶפְרָיִם), as his name is conjugate to the verb, “to be fruitful” (פְּרוּ).

Healthy Anxiety
The form of anxiety that a person feels when they see themselves as having a split-personality is potentially something most positive. A person who harbors false beliefs, or worships idols (as did Ephraim), becomes very anxious and nervous as a result.[5] The best way to cure such false anxieties is to redirect them in a proper and positive way. A person who fluctuates between two impulses, or who is confounded by his two personalities, also has the ability to make the bold decision to “have nothing more to do with idols.”[6]
As will be explained in our upcoming article on Mother Rachel, Ephraim is also the child that Rachel most weeps for. Even though his situation seemed hopeless, in the end he was called the “most precious” child.[7]
Each member of the Jewish people experiences this “split personality” between either being far removed or precious. Although Mother Rachel continues to weep, she has also been promised by God that those children that seem far from the fold of Judaism, will eventually return and be considered the “most precious” children of God in the end of days.

Adapted from Rabbi Ginsburgh’s class, Ra'anana, 6 Tishrei 5774

[1] Jeremiah 31:17.
[2] As was explained earlier in the shiur, relating to the verse; ʺEphraim [says], ʹI have nothing more to do with idolsʹʺ (אפרים מה לי עוד לעצבים). Hosea 14:9.
[3] Which has a numerical value of 1.
[4] This paragraph of course summarizes the formation of the name Ephraim (אֶפְרָיִם).
[5] The word for ʺidolsʺ in the verse, ʹI have nothing more to do with idolsʹʺ (אפרים מה לי עוד לעצבים), is עצבים, which is also used to designate nerves, or having a nervous tendency or anxiety. From this we can learn that whoever has false beliefs, similar to what idolatry was, is prone to suffer from anxiety or nervous tension.
[6] Hosea 14:9.
[7] ʺIs my precious son Ephraim…ʺ (הֲבֵן יַקִּיר לִי אֶפְרָיִם). Jeremiah 31:19.

Source: Rabbi Ginsburgh