A. Irma Cohon – Rebbitzin Hymnist

At my church’s recent annual charity garage sale, I found an oddity, a Jewish hymnal!  When I told a Jewish friend, she was just as perplexed as I.  This had to be explored.  It was titled The Jewish Song Book Third edition, compiled for Synagogue, school and home, covering the complete Jewish religious year.  It was composed, compiled and arranged for unison congregational singing and for solo and choir with organ or piano accompaniment using Israel’s religious folksong: the traditional Synagogue modes and melodies.   It was issued to serve the “remnant” of Jewry after World War II, as a united voice of Israel in traditional sacred song.  The book is unclear, but it apparently originally contained music by Abraham Zevi Idelsohn (1882-1938).  However, this third edition was enlarged and revised in 1951.  Some of the hymns were by A. Irma Cohon and she was the editor. So who is she?

Angie Irma Reinhart was born in Portland Oregon in 1890, educated at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and got her degree in 1912 from the University of Cincinnati.  Immediately thereafter, she married Rabbi Samuel S. Cohon who also attended the Hebrew Union College while studying for a degree at the University of Cincinnati.  They had one son, Baruch Joseph.  Irma’s brother, Harold Reinhart, was a prominent liberal rabbi in London, England.  Irma was known as a Rebbetzin (wife of a Rabbi or a female religious teacher – she was both) and as a publisher.  Her book, Introduction to Jewish Music, the first book on this subject in English, came out in 1923, much sooner than A.Z. Idelsohn’s 1929 book, which sometimes gets credit for being first.  She collaborated with Idelsohn, a Hebrew Union College music professor, on various projects.  Obviously, she respected him.  The Jewish Song Book I found expanded Idelsohn’s work, and added the works of others, primarily Cohon’s translations, adaptations, and original works.  She not only outlived Idelsohn, but did so in a big way.  She died at age 100 in 1991.

In looking into the hymns and songs in the book, I found several of interest.   “Purim Song”, as you would guess, is to celebrate Purim, which was March 12-13 this year (2017), “Sabbath’s Balm” has a more spiritual theme, the healing balm and living waters of Sabbath.  “In His Unfathomed Ways” renders praise and prayer to the Rock of Israel, the Lord of Hosts.  Her metaphors, similes and language sound quite familiar to this Christian’s ears.  The most endearing song to me is “Yesterday’s Bubble” noted to be for Purim, but which sounds very current and for any day:  “If I should assume importance  . . .  and by posing, should convince you that I am a handsome man, don’t believe me. . . If I play the man of riches . . .  Don’t believe me.  If I seem to shower money and acquire a mighty name, and by reason of my greatness, seem to set the world aflame, don’t believe me.  If I pose as mighty learned and my wisdom I confess, if I am forever prating of my great broadmindedness, Don’t believe my airs and boasting, do not trust a word I say.”    Somehow, I wasn’t thinking of Haman when reading this

Julie Silver: eye opener, barrier breaker

Interfaith couples often don’t work out.  To complicate things, Julie Silver is married to her wife in a time when same sex marriages still face legal, religious and social hurdles.  Still, Julie Silver is a celebrated contemporary Jewish composer and has put out successful albums of her original Jewish music since 1992.  Some of her songs have become standards in worship and camp settings.

 

Julie was born into a music loving family and raised in Newton, Massachusetts.  Her experiences at camp, particularly at Camp Pembroke in Massachusetts, really kick-started her interest in creating music.   She saw music as a means to bring people together, lower defenses and face each other more openly.  She recounted how two nuns once helped her climb a mountain in Ireland.  When she told them she sang Jewish songs, they wanted her to sing them.  Climbing that mountain with the nuns brought her closer to her own faith.  She graduated from Clark University in Worcester in 1988.   While in school, she was leading song sessions in the Reform Jewish movement.  After graduation, she worked as a DJ at a Boston radio station.  But she wanted to sing, not just play others’ songs on the radio.  Her first album, in 1992, was Together.  She moved to Santa Monica, California in 1994 to hone her writing, recording, guitar playing, and singing.  She has released several albums, some of which are among the highest selling albums of original Jewish music. Her 2007 CD, It’s Chanukah Time, was the only Jewish album to ever be recognized on Billboard. 

 

Today, she lives with her wife, an Irish Catholic, and two daughters in Southern California.  As part of the complications of an interfaith relationship, they raise the children in a synagogue, but go to midnight Mass when in New York.  Julie organized an Easter egg hunt for their girls and her wife takes the older girl to Hebrew school.   She told The Philadelphia Gay News in September 2013 “The more we talk about our faith, the more we talk about our separate experiences, the more we have combined experiences, the more our experiences mean to us.”

 

My favorite song of those I have heard is “Open Up Our Eyes” on her 1995 album Walk With Me. This song was composed at a camp in the summer of 1994.  She can’t get away from her camp roots.  “Open Up Our Eyes” seems especially relevant to someone who has been spending her life opening up others’ eyes.  “God of heaven, God of earth, how did we come to be? . . . Open up our eyes.”   Though Julie is centered in Torah, the lyrics, all in English, could be sung in any Christian denomination as well.