By Monty Bennett
The pipe organ is typically known as a Christian instrument in modern times, but the predecessor of the modern instrument, the hydraulos, is thought to have been played in liturgical celebrations in the Temple. The hydraulos was a series of flutes on a chest with air compressed by means of water, developed by the Greek-Alexandrian engineer, Ctesibius. The Talmud mentions a magrefah (rake) that could play 10 notes, and according to the Mishnah (Tam. 3:8), it was audible to “all Jericho.” Spreading through the Greek and Roman empires it served, in a purely secular role, as an accompaniment to outdoor festivals and other community gatherings. Eventually, the Church adopted the organ as a religious instrument, and the synagogue dismissed it as being a Christian instrument. As the Reform movement grew in strength in mid 1800s Germany, the organ regained a sense of prominence in Reform Jewish liturgy.
In modern times, the pipe organ has both an identity as a liturgical and concert (secular) instrument, finding a home in many churches, liberal synagogues, and concert halls. Israeli composers have started writing music for the organ, or organ and other instruments and voices.
About a year ago, I was contacted by the Israel Organ Association to see if I would be interested in performing as part of the 2017 Israel International Organ Festival. Many of you know about my journey to, or should I say my return back to Judaism, as my Italian family has Jewish roots in Vittorio Veneto. The planning committee of this festival knew about me through some of my videos on YouTube, but was interested in having me play since I am Jewish. Along with the director of the Festival, Yuval Rabin, I would be the only other Jewish organist performing. Most of the performers are European and all are Christian, playing in some of the churches in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. My performance was at the University of Haifa, Hecht Auditorium, where the organ was built by the only Israeli pipe organ builder, Gideon Shamir. A surprising coincidence is that Yuval Rabin and I live parallel lives! Both of us work full time at synagogues, play at churches on Sunday morning, and have careers as concert musicians on the side. A native of Haifa, he now lives in Basel, Switzerland, where he serves as the Education Director at the largest congregation in the city and is the organist at a Protestant church.
Once a date was confirmed, they asked if I would have a theme for the concert, rather than just random pieces. My specialty has become music of black composers, because it is little known, rarely heard, and it must be promoted. Among the works I played were the Middle Eastern première of Nigerian Suite, by the contemporary composer, Godwin Sadoh, the Sonata for Organ, by Florence Beatrice Price, and the virtuosic setting of Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho written by Nigerian-American composer Fela Sowande. I thought that it was only fitting that I tie a work by a black composer with the Jewish story.
Arriving in Haifa on a Monday afternoon, I had several days to explore and was taken on a tour by Leah Guren, Rabbi Tracy Klirs’ sister, who took me to see the sights in Haifa. Hecht Auditorium at the University of Haifa is located within the Hecht Museum. While the organ was being tuned, I spent several hours touring the museum.
My concert on Friday, February 24, was presented to a packed hall and was brought back for three curtain calls. People in attendance thanked me for bringing new music to them, because as one person told me, “we always hear Bach.” Most of the pieces I played were written in the 20th century, but in styles from Victorian to post-Romantic.
After staying in Haifa, I moved on to Jerusalem. While in Jerusalem, I had the opportunity to work with the Israeli composer, Menachem Zur, on a new organ piece he is writing. He asked me to edit it with him, as his other compositions are for orchestra and he has not written for the organ and needed technical advice. Once finished, I will record it for him and play the première of the work.
I davened several times a day at the Wall, and every time I was there, I wept because the power was overwhelming. I attended Shabbos morning services at the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, where it just happened to be a day that their choir was singing. Shacharit was led by the cantor and the harmonies provided by the all-male choir were mind blowing. While in Jerusalem, I had Shabbat hospitality by former Charlotteans who made Aliyah. This just made my first Shabbos in Israel even more special.
My final four days were spent in Tel Aviv, where I spent time with several different relatives of people from Temple Israel.
I am currently in talks with Brigham Young University’s Jerusalem campus to present a recital on their concert series. I have told people before that music has taken me around the world, but this trip didn’t only take me to Israel, it brought me home.
For information about the Israel Organ Association, please visit www.organ.co.il and to see some of my music videos, please visit https://www.youtube.com/user/rmb10.