When Max Janowski Sang Me to Sleep

Based on a drash for Congregation Ner Shalom, March 2012.

At a recent Jewish Music Shabbat at my synagogue, I sang the famous Bialik poem, Shabbat Hamalkah. You know: hachamah merosh ha'ilanot etc. But instead of the well-worn familiar melody, I used a setting by Max Janowski.

You surely know the name. Composer. One of the greats. Truly prolific, although now known almost exclusively for his Avinu Malkenu, which was eventually yanked out of the synagogue and recorded by no less than Barbra Streisand herself, with a big, soupy orchestral arrangement and simplified chording by Marvin Hamlisch. I chose that setting of Shabbat Hamalkah for the same reason I watch developments like the Streisanding of Avinu Malkenu with interest. It is because I feel a proprietariness about Max Janowski's music. Because, you see, when I was little, Max Janowski used to sing me to sleep.

Well, not personally. And not every night. Just Tuesdays.

It started when I was four or five. My parents had joined a brand new congregation, called Beth Elohim, in Chicago's north suburbs. Although it wasn't a New Age, Unitarianish, Renewalish collection of hippy-dippy fringe people like the Sonoma County synagogue I now attend, it did in fact have a genuine freshness. Its families were all starting out, with Baby Boom optimism, building tiny ranch houses on what had been Illinois prairie, amid budding schools and parks and shopping centers. The earth had been upturned and sheathed in asphalt and cement. Saplings, held erect with tent ropes, bobbled on the brand new lawns. The land seemed a blank slate, any memory of Native American settlement now mere myth. For these young urban expats, everything was possible. Including how to be Jewish.

In 1965, the families of Beth Elohim were offered the opportunity to merge with a much older synagogue, the seventy-plus year old B'nai Jehoshua, which resided in a magnificent but rapidly emptying building on Chicago's west side. B'nai Jehoshua's membership had been moving out to the suburbs, and the synagogue risked death by dispersal if it didn't establish a new anchor further north. The merger happened, the beloved building was sold, and thus began the nomadic life of B'nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim that I grew up with.

Kabbalat Shabbat was at Niles Community Church, blocks from my house. Oh, how I loved that church: the pews, the organ, the strangely non-Jewish orderliness. I loved sneaking away with my mother after the rabbi's sermon to set up the oneg. I used to make the punch - a block of ice, Hawaiian Punch, ginger ale and rainbow sherbet, served up in soon-soggy Dixie Cups. Religious school took place at local public schools and the temple office was above a bowling alley. It sounds awkward or inconvenient, but it wasn't. It was thriving and exciting and new.

My father, Jerry Keller, was a popular bandleader in Chicago - a singer and sax man. The newly merged congregation might not have had much cash, but they knew their assets and they sent emissaries to the house to recruit him to be BJBE's first choir director. Dad had never directed a choir. What's more, he had grown up in a classical Reform synagogue where confirmation was offered instead of bar mitzvah, where Shabbat conveniently fell on Sunday, and where the officiant was called minister. His Jewish literacy was truly limited, despite being the great grandson of a rabbi who had served at Berlin's monumental Oranienstrasse synagogue in the 1870s, during the residency of the great composer Louis Lewandowski as the musical director - Lewandowski, whose Lecha Dodi and Tzadik Katamar are still on the musical menu at a wide range of synagogues and whose Kiddush remains a staple 130 years later. But my father could read Hebrew in transliteration as well as anyone and he was good with people and he was a fine musician and he said yes.

And that's when the choir moved into our house. A mismatched gaggle of 16 or so voices. They would ring the doorbell every Tuesday night and spill into the house like a reversal of the stateroom scene from "A Night at the Opera." My mother would sing alto and set up the percolator. The men in the choir were largely amateurs, well-meaning non-musicians. But the women, somehow, all had what seemed to be gorgeous voices. Big, vibrato-filled, operatic voices. I've never stopped to question how that happened, how this particular confluence of gifted women ended up in the north suburbs at the same moment in the same synagogue. But the biggest voice of all belonged to our cantor, Harold Freeman. His Hebrew was jumbled and his music reading inexact. But there was something compelling, something of the Old World chazzan in him, a certain cry in his voice that carried within it all the suffering and longing of exile.

Every Tuesday night there they'd be. On the sofa and the folding chairs. Gossiping more than singing, much to my father's frustration. And yet they loved him and eventually would sing beautifully, perhaps just to please him.

And the repertoire? Well, the repertoire was almost entirely the work of Max Janowski.

Max was a Berliner as well, who emigrated to Japan and eventually Chicago on the eve of the War. He was a formidable musician (eventually writing over 500 pieces of music) and a larger-than-life personality. I can't quite explain his widespread popularity in American Reform synagogues; I'll let the musicologists figure out his place in the canon. His pieces were often difficult - hard to sing, sometimes overwhelming to listen to, and I understand he took a certain pride in that. But, especially when simpler, his music was stunningly beautiful. As an heir to the German Jewish composers, he had no allergy to choirs and pipe organs. But while he came from the same tradition as Lewandowski and of Austrian composer and Schubert buddy Salomon Sulzer, whose choir and pipe-organ setting of the Shema is now so universal that people imagine it to be ancient and Orthodox, Max's compositions had a - dare I say it? - less churchy ring. They weren't about the glorious space of the cathedral or even the great synagogue; they came from someplace internal, the product of the deep and abiding sorrow and bitterness and yearning of the Jews. Even his sweetest and simplest and most intimate pieces, like Shabbat Hamalkah, feel like a stolen moment of sweetness in a hostile world.

This year is Max's centennial and some concerts to memorialize him are now popping up. When I was a teenager, I sang in a choir under his baton; later I taught Hebrew school at the South Side synagogue where he was the musical director. I realize now he was barely in his 60s. But to me, with his thinning hair, buttoned-up manner and German accent, he already seemed 100.

Our next cantor was a whippersnapper. Just 10 years older than me, with a tremendous voice and incredible musical precision, Cory Winter was himself a Max Janowski protege. He had sung for Max since he was a boy soprano, and Max treated him much as his musical heir. Later, Cory would become - and still is - my own friend and mentor. Which, I sometimes like to think to myself, makes Max Janowski my grandmentor.

But I've gotten afield. Tuesday nights, as a child, the choir would sit in our living room with their sheet music and their coffee and they would sing. And I would get sent to bed, where I would fall asleep to the lullaby of their chatter and their dirty jokes and Max Janowski's triumphant and tearjerking chord progressions. These would seep into my slumber and my cells, these chords, both modern and ancient, deep and soaring, heartening and heartrending. They would enter my body like a transfusion. So that by the time High Holy Days rolled around, I would sit with the adults and not with the other kids, expectant, waiting for the choir to stand and sing not Max Janowski's music, but mine.

On the bimah, like in my Tuesday night dreams, they would petition God to be heard. Shema Koleynu, they would sing. "Hear our voice!"

Shema Koleynu

They would call out for peace.

Sim Shalom

And although capable of such grandeur, they would humble themselves. " Avinu Malkenu, we have sinned. But hear us anyway."

Avinu Malkenu

Max's melodies, Max's modalities, would enfold me like a blanket on the Tuesday nights of my childhood, and they would make my house Jewish, and the world Jewish. They would seep out of the double-paned windows and dance under the suburban stars, treading lightly on the new sod, where the crickets had only just begun to sing.