Composer Rafi Biton has long believed in the power of music, and in particular, the liturgy of the high holidays.
This year, however, he was already immersed in the words and ideas of the fall holidays back in July, when he wrote music for his friend and musical colleague, Cantor Yitzhak Meir Helfgot, an Israeli cantor who lives and works in New York and had been sick with the coronavirus.
Biton combined the words of three prayers from the high holiday liturgy, and set music to them, as Helfgot was recovering from the virus.
“He is the voice of Jewish prayer, and once he was better, that’s when I had the space to write him a song,” Biton said.
“Our father, prevent the epidemic from becoming your inheritance, our king, send healing to those who are sick, our father, tear up all of our bad judgements, do it for your sake, if not for ours.”
“It’s the idea that God will be happy with us, and carry us and heal us,” Biton said. “The words have particular meaning and relevance in this period.”
He also hoped that Helfgot would be able to sing it with him.
Once Helfgot recovered, he felt strong enough to sing the words of prayer in a duet with Biton, during a brief trip he made back to Israel during the summer.
“There’s a feeling that something unusual and extreme, that’s never happened in our generation, is taking place now,” said Helfgot, the cantor of the Park East Synagogue in Manhattan. “People can’t go to synagogue or visit their parents, and it adds a lot to our desire for life. This song is the language of our hearts right now.”
Besides Helfgot and Biton singing the duet, there are four young soloists from Voices from the Heavens, the boys’ choir Biton conducts.
Biton raced to produce the duet before the High Holidays, knowing if he didn’t complete it this year, it would have to wait until the 2021 season.
“You can’t sing ‘Avinu Malkeinu’ in the middle of the year,” said Biton. “So I was resigned to releasing it next fall.”
After Rosh Hashanah, with ten days left until Yom Kippur, he worked with another producer on the duet until they got it just right.
“The issue is that I have a a very high, soft voice, and Helfgot is a great tenor, and we were scared it didn’t sound good,” said Biton. “At the very end, thank God, we had a song.”
It feels like an accomplishment, said Biton, in a year when nothing feels quite the same. Helfgot agreed.
Helfgot, who is back at Park East Synagogue, has been leading the congregation every Shabbat, but in shifts.
Only about 150 people allowed into the sanctuary, rather than the usual gathering of 1,100 people. On Rosh Hashanah, he sang in one service, blew shofar in another and recited the Haftarah readings in a third.
Yom Kippur will be similar, Helfgot said.
He can appreciate the change, though, citing a Yiddish proverb that with fewer people, the joy is greater.
“It’s a more intimate feeling,” Helfgot said. “It’s you and the High Holidays prayerbook and your intentions. It’s less of a show.”
He’s also hoping to use Biton’s version of “Avinu Malkeinu” in his Yom Kippur prayers.
Biton is also experiencing a different kind of holiday period, having sung from the the synagogue stage every Yom Kippur since he was 9 years old.
This year will be the first time he’s just one of the congregation, attending a service in a backyard.
Still, Biton said, it feels like a new year. He spent much of the past six months composing songs that dealt with the pandemic, and while it was a journey to express what he was thinking and feeling, he’s done creating songs about the coronavirus.
“This is the new year,” Biton said. “I’m starting with a new heart and hope that the coronavirus will be behind us.”
Source: Jessica Steinberg – TOI