Rising Singing Star Pitches New Sound


Many young girls dream of a life on the stage, but few could have envisioned the career now enjoyed by Hila Plitmann, a Jerusalem-born soprano who these days makes her home in Studio City. Plitmann, 32, is not famous in the way that, say, sopranos like Renée Fleming, Deborah Voigt and Anna Netrebko are. She is not a star. But she is making a name for herself, and not by singing music by Puccini, Mozart, Strauss and Wagner.

Instead, Plitmann is building a career based largely on new music by composers like David Del Tredici, John Corigliano, Roger Reynolds and Esa-Pekka Salonen, the latter the longtime music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and something of a Plitmann champion. Indeed, Plitmann was one of two featured soloists in the premiere of Salonen’s “Wing on Wing,” written for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2003 and dedicated to its architect, Frank Gehry.

That work — for orchestra, two sopranos and Gehry’s voice sampled on tape — has become something of a calling card for the soprano, who most recently sang it at Disney Hall on May 31. That concert came on the heels of another at Disney Hall on May 9, in which she participated in premieres of Unsuk Chin’s vibrant “Cantatrix Sopranica” and Reynolds’ sprawling, multidimensional “Illusion,” two works commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group.

On June 7, she’ll appear in a less likely space, at Valley Beth Shalom synagogue in Encino, joining two other singers — mezzo-soprano Alma Mora Ponce and tenor Mark Saltzman, cantor at Congregation Kol Ami synagogue — for a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s “From Jewish Folk Poetry” and a selection of Yiddish songs. (The trio gave the same program at the Jewish Community Center in La Jolla on May 24.) She’s doing this in part, out of friendship for Neal Brostoff, who is producing the concert and accompanying the singers.

Though Shostakovich, who died in 1975, used Russian translations of the poems for his song cycle, musicologist Joachim Braun restored the original Yiddish texts in the 1980s. And it’s that version Plitmann and her colleagues are singing.

“From Jewish Folk Poetry” doesn’t require Plitmann to enter the vocal stratosphere, but her ability to do so has served her well and marked her for distinction. A coloratura soprano with a silvery tone who seems utterly at ease projecting high notes, Plitmann says, “I was always a screamer.”

She describes her father, an academic, as having “a beautiful voice” and her mother as a classical music enthusiast, but neither was more than a hobbyist. Both remain in Israel, as do the singer’s sister and brother.

Early on, Plitmann was an ambivalent pianist, and though she sang in a youth choir, she gave it up for athletics, particularly gymnastics, dancing and running — something her needle-thin dancer’s body still attests to. But she missed singing and soon found herself taking private lessons and enrolling in a music high school.

Unable to find the advanced vocal training she needed in Israel, Plitmann, at her teacher’s urging, enrolled in New York’s Juilliard School, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. But talented singer or not, she still had an obligation to the Israel Defense Forces.

“I did my basic training for the Israeli army in the summers, during my second and third years at Juilliard,” she says. “I learned how to shoot Uzis and run around in the dirt. It was very bizarre.”

Juilliard is also where she met her husband, Eric Whitacre, a composer.

“He wouldn’t leave me alone, so I married him,” she says. They now have an 8-month-old son, Esh.

Whitacre is composing an opera for his wife. Titled, “Paradise Lost,” and described as “opera electronica” on Whitacre’s Web site, the work is an amalgam of styles, including, techno, rave and ambient. Plitmann likens the music to that of Bjork and the Postal Service (the band, not the letter carriers).

Often, classical artists come to appreciate the rigors of modern music once they mature, but not Plitmann. Her interest in the new dates back to her childhood. That youth chorus her mother sent her to emphasized contemporary Israeli music. At 14, she appeared in her first opera, singing the role of Flora, the bewitched little girl at the center of Benjamin Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw.” And while still in high school, she sang Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” with the Israel Philharmonic.

Plitmann describes her specialization in new music as “an accident that turned into a choice,” noting that she likes “the challenge of learning something difficult, whatever the era,” yet singling out modern works for their “many dramatic elements.”

She says that audiences can’t be forced to love new music but insists that committed performances from artists like her can help sway them to be more open-minded.

“I find there’s more in contemporary music that can be used expressively than both musicians and audiences realize,” she says. “People think contemporary music is cold and intellectual, but that’s not always true.”

Plitmann is certainly no snob when it comes to music. Her personal interests extend to various forms of pop music, and even professionally, she makes choices that some might consider too populist. Her limited discography will soon include a song cycle to Bob Dylan texts called “Mr. Tambourine Man” by Corigliano, who won an Oscar for his score to the film, “The Red Violin.” And though she isn’t exactly getting star billing, Plitmann is the vocal soloist on Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack to “The Da Vinci Code.”

She got the job through a close friend of her husband’s and made the recording in London, an experience she calls “amazing.” The lyrics, she says, are meant to mimic Latin, though no actual language is being sung. The soprano admits that the score is “not the most complex music,” yet it has another virtue: it sounds good.

“I love singing beautiful music,” Plitmann says.

The “Shostakovich at 100 Concert” will be held at 8 p.m. on June 7 at Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. For information, call (818) 788-6000 or visit

Kabbalah and the Modern Shrink


“Connecting to God, Ancient Kabbalah and Modern Psychology” by Rabbi Abner Weiss (Bell Tower Books, $24).

It was Rabbi Abner Weiss, in psychologist mode, who “Jerry” went to see after his wife, “Sandy,” found him in bed with another woman. Although Jerry and Sandy seemed like the perfect couple, they lacked intimacy, and Jerry had developed a nasty habit of risky promiscuity. Sandy wanted a divorce.

Weiss’ diagnosis?

“Jerry suffered from grossly distorted chesed/gevurah [lovingkindness/power] balance…. Like his gevurah, his chesed had also been transformed by the … kelipot of the nefesh [evil shards of the animal soul].”

Although it is an atypical psychological assessment, Weiss insists that it is a curative one.

Since the early 1990s, Weiss, former rabbi at Beth Jacob Congregation and current rabbi at the Westwood Village Synagogue, has been using kabbalistic tools in his psychology practice. Recently, he published “Connecting to God, Ancient Kabbalah and Modern Psychology,” a book that asserts the congruity of the two disciplines.

“The American Psychological Association started publishing serious books on the spiritual experience in the early 1990s, and part of this trend was to look at the mystical experience that psychologists called ‘transpersonal,'” Weiss said. “But all the new transpersonal psychologists used Buddhist or Hindu systems. I began to wonder why nobody had looked at Kabbalah. In Kabbalah, I found this full-fledged, psychological system, fully developed, but buried in Aramaic texts.”

Weiss found that by using the 10 Kabbalistic Sefirot (divine filters/vessels for divine energy) as behavioral tools, he was able to help many patients have breakthroughs, and find their way out of paralyzing and dysfunctional behaviors.

These sefirot are arranged in four groups in what is known as the etz ha chayim (tree of life), and they form a paradigm that encompasses not only the divine but human behavior and experience. Above all, there is keter (crown), which is the repository of Divine will, and below all, as a foundation, there is malchut, sovereignty or the Divine presence. Then comes chochmah (wisdom), binah (understanding) and data (knowledge) — the cognitive component of sefirot. The next three — chesed, gevurah, and tiferet (splendor), are the emotive sefirot. Netzach (victory), hod (empathy) and yesod (foundation) are the interpersonal sefirot.

In his professional practice, Weiss “started with the thesis that you are born with your energy system in balance, but your influences growing up throw them out of balance,” he said. “I would use kabbalistic meditations, self forgiveness and forgiveness of others [to help people] become unstuck. It is only when you become unblocked, and when you can let go and reclaim your authenticity, that you can begin to grow personally and spiritually.”

In “Connecting to God,” Weiss delineates his interest in Kabbalah, explaining its evolution, and some central tenets of kabbalistic belief, such as the makeup of the soul, and how Kabbalah understands God as “being.” In his exegesis, he does not name or credit the Kabbalah Centre on Robertson Boulevard in Los Angeles, but he does give de-facto kudos to those who have helped to popularize Kabbalah.

In his elucidation of the sefirot, he explains how different energy imbalances can produce destructive behavioral patterns. As exemplars, he uses real-life examples of the patients he has treated and their [kabbalistic] diagnoses and corrective therapies. He also clarifies how, once a person’s issues are resolved, Judaism and its mitzvot can be a tool for spiritual growth. The book is peppered with lengthy guided meditations. And for added assistance, an accompanying CD is available.

In several ways, the book is a personal one. Not only does Weiss give an account of the development of his interest in the subject, he also explains how these Kabbalistic tools helped him through a personal crisis — the discovery of long-buried family secrets about his father’s chicanery.

“As a prominent spiritual leader … [I] was terrified of being unmasked as an insecure, self-doubting individual, from a less than perfect family,” he writes.

In his own therapy, Weiss wrote a letter to his father, detailing his terrible failures as a parent. Since he did not know where his father was buried (he had disappeared before Weiss was born), Weiss read the letter to a picture he had of his father.

“The experience was cathartic. I wept as I read,” he writes. Weiss also “reparented his inner child,” by cuddling a pillow that he imagined was himself as a little boy.

“My tears began to flow as I acknowledged the boy’s pain, loneliness, and fears, and reassured him that I loved him,” he writes.

“It’s the idea of the wounded healer,” Weiss said. “I use my own recovery as a model for other people’s recovery.”

While the book is an exposition of ancient Jewish concepts, Weiss is careful to use current scientific literature and studies to bolster what he presents. The book does not shy from controversial ideas. In several places, Weiss promotes past-life regressions — that is, going under hypnosis to discover who you were in a previous life, as a tool for self-understanding.

On Oct. 9, at 5:45 p.m., Rabbi Abner Weiss will be speaking at the Academy for Jewish Religion/California, 11827 Venice Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 398-0820.

A Bissel ‘Kvetch’ Goes a Long Way


“Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods” by Michael Wex (St. Martin’s Press, $24.95).

If you asked me whether I enjoyed Michael Wex’s hilarious and learned book, “Born to Kvetch,” I would find myself in an impossible quandary. To admit the rare pleasure I derived from reading it would be to violate what Wex argues is the very essence of Yiddish sensibility: a stubborn, cynical and often maddening refusal to concede satisfaction, with anything. So, despite my enjoyment of Wex’s fresh linguistic psychoanalysis of Yiddish culture, I am bound as a Jew to respond — aftselochis! (spitefully) — with nothing more flattering than a kvetch. Thankfully however, Wex provides a variety of ingenious Yiddish idioms whereby I might indicate approval of his work, without betraying my Yiddishkeit by “speaking goyish” — that is, by expressing satisfaction or direct, cordial flattery.

So, did I like this book, you ask?

Let me tell you: “Mayne sonim zoln nisht hano’e hobn fun a aza bukh!” (“My enemies should never enjoy such a book!”)

Wex analyzes the many ways that Yiddish — a language that has perfected the art of the curse while experiencing deep discomfort with praise — developed a strategy to deal with those rare times when a Yiddish Jew (henceforth, the “Yid”) has nothing negative, nasty or bitter to say.

Imagine, for example, that the Yid has somehow managed to spend the night with Halle Berry and is asked, “Iz zee shayn?” (“Is she pretty?”). Without lying — or risking sounding satisfied by responding in a goyish (positive) way — the Yid can turn his reluctant concession of Berry’s undeniable beauty into both a kvetch and a curse: “Mayne sonim zoln zayn azoy mees” (“My enemies should only be as ugly” [as she is pretty]).

The inquirer gets far more than he asked for, always a risk when conversing in Yiddish. Not only has he received an honest, if tortuously indirect, response to his question, but he also has learned that the Yid has bitter enemies, and he has shared in the nasty Yiddish curse that these enemies should all turn metaphysically ugly.

The “my enemies” trope is one of dozens of Yiddish expressions that Wex not only expertly translates and probes, but also psychoanalyzes with never-failing comic insight in constructing his depiction of the essential sensibilities of Yiddish, the Jews’ language of never-ending displacement, dissatisfaction, disillusion, deflation and denial. Wex argues that to understand Yiddish properly — he dubs it “the international language of nowhere” and “dybbuk-infested German for blasphemers” — one first must understand the history and sacred literature of the Jews since biblical times, with a particular focus on the long Jewish historical experience with goles, or exile.

Wex is at his best when tracing Yiddish expressions back to their Hebrew and Aramaic roots in biblical and talmudic sources, then mining their deeper meanings and what these reveal about the essential Yiddish mentalité. According to him, the history of the Jews as a people was inaugurated by what is arguably the most audacious collective kvetch in recorded civilization: Having been freed from centuries of brutal slavery by God’s spectacular plagues visited on their enslavers and then His dazzling miracles to enable their own escape from Egypt, the Jews almost immediately complain about the catering services in the Sinai desert. They’re sick of the manna, they’re thirsty, they want meat. Why couldn’t they have just stayed in Egypt, where they got free room and board, instead of having to die of starvation in the desert? Worst of all, what will the non-Jews say when they do indeed die in the desert? God responds to the Israelites’ astonishingly ungrateful kvetching with what Wex defines as the counterkvetch.

God decides to answer the Israelites’ complaints about the food in the desert by giving them something to kvetch about. The Jews want meat instead of manna? Moses tells them: “God’s going to give you meat and you’re going to eat it! Not one day or two days; not five days or 10 days or 20 days. But for a month you’re going to eat it, until it’s coming out of your noses” (Numbers 11:19-20).

Every demanding child of Yiddish-speaking parents has encountered a well-worn version of this maddening, all-purpose counter-kvetch to a simple, innocent request (though Wex doesn’t cite it explicitly). The child wants ice cream? “Ikh vell dir bald gebn ayz-kreem!” (“Oh, I’ll give you ice cream, all right!”) the parent retorts. Unlike the biblical paradigm, though, this really means “No!”

Wex contends that almost two millennia after the biblical period, Yiddish became the most effective vehicle ever to express “dos pintele Yid,” the essential spark of a Yid since ancient times, particularly that which always has differentiated him from the goy. Yiddish, more than just a language and less than most languages, embodies a skeptical state of mind, a discouraging posture and a perennially suspicious attitude toward an ever-hostile world. Yiddish is, as Wex illustrates abundantly, fundamentally a language of exile (goles) and alienation, and it has developed hundreds of expressions to convey the Yid’s jaundiced view of life, which centuries of displacement and oppression have engendered.

Beginning with a chapter on the linguistic and cultural foundations of the kvetch (“Kvetch-que C’est?”), and ending with myriad Yiddish expressions for death (“It Should Happen to You: Death in Yiddish”), Wex explores just about every aspect of exilic Jewish life, as reflected in Yiddish idiom. The chapters, “The Yiddish Curse: You Should Grow Like an Onion” and “Sex in Yiddish: Too Good for the Goyim,” are particularly rich (and shmutzig). Wex’s 10-page discussion of the various forms of corporal punishment and insults meted out to generations of Jewish children by kheyder-melamdim (Hebrew school teachers) is a fine example of the author’s ability to produce a long and ribald rant that would turn comic Dennis Miller green with envy. His long, descriptive list of the forms of assault at the melamed’s disposal (the knip, shnel, patsh, zets, klap, flem, frask and, finally, the much-dreaded khmal, whose victim will be so knocked out as to “see Cracow and Lemberg”) will have readers falling out of their chairs, as will the melamed’s extensive repertoire for demeaning his students’ intelligence. Beyond being physically assaulted, the less gifted kheyder student risked being called any, or all, of the following: nar (fool), shoyte (moron), sheygets (non-Jew), shtik fleysh mit oygen (piece of dead meat with eyes), puts mit oyren (prick with ears), puts mit a kapelyush (prick in a hat), goylem af reyder (golem on wheels) and shoyte ben pikholts (the idiot son of a woodpecker). As for the institutions of the kheyder and its melamed, Wex offers this insight:

Airless and overcrowded, full of preadolescents forced to trudge through steaming jungles of syllogisms, bubbe-mayses and kid-eating prohibitions — you can’t touch your hair while praying, you can’t pet a dog on Shabbes or go swimming during the hottest three weeks of the year — the kheyder had to be run by a combination of prison guard, exegete and child psychologist. But we’re in goles; we got the melamed instead.

Wex is a rare combination of Jewish comic and scholarly cultural analyst. Between his lines, brimming with linguistic comedy, there is a more serious message in “Born to Kvetch,” one that includes a trenchant, basically fair, critique of the earnestly humorless, secular enthusiasts of “modern Yiddish,” particularly the advocates of what is known as klal shprakh — the standardized version of the language invented mainly for academic purposes by the founders of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. While klal shprakh certainly fulfills an important need for, say, classroom instruction, it is not, never was and, Wex argues, can never be an adequate replacement for the idiomatic, natural, mimetic Yiddish of native speakers, so steeped in what Yiddish’s greatest scholar, Max Weinreich, famously coined, “derekh ha-Shas,” (the pathways of the Talmud). Other than a handful of klal shprakh devotees — described by Wex as “strident nudniks talking to their children as if they were all speaking Yiddish on ‘Meet the Press'” — most of today’s native Yiddish speakers are Chasidim of Hungarian origin, whose Yiddish is incomprehensible to those who know only klal shprakh. And, as Wex wryly observes: “Klal shprakh has adherents; Chasidim have babies.”

The vexing (or, should I say “Wexing”?) problem that lovers of Yiddish must face after reading this marvelous book is: What kind of a future might this bountiful and beautiful language — one that, Wex observes, “likes to argue with everybody about everything” — have in an America of catastrophic Jewish cultural loss? In this era of unprecedented Jewish success and comfort, when most Jews desire little more than to imagine that their long and bitter exile — whose conditions nurtured all that is so rich, moving and comical about Yiddish — is a thing of the past, and when the main association most American Jews have with Yiddish is happy, campy klezmer music, can we find a way (to paraphrase Jesse Jackson) to “keep kvetch alive?”

Article reprinted courtesy The Forward.

Allan Nadler is a professor of religious studies and director of the program in Jewish studies at Drew University, and a consultant for academic affairs at YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

 

Shalom Y’All


"Shalom Y’all" sounds suspiciously like a slogan designed to sell souvenirs to Jewish visitors in the American South, and indeed the phrase adorns T-shirts, mugs and other paraphernalia in the gift shop of Charleston’s Beth Elohim Synagogue.

But the drawled greeting is also common parlance amongst the Jews of South Carolina, who have enjoyed 300 years of virtually uninterrupted prominence and prosperity in this unexpectedly rich corner of the Diaspora.

Unexpected indeed is what the community of refugees preoccupied itself with after flocking to these shores in the 17th century. It was not only non-Jews who profited from rice and cotton plantations, kept slaves, presided over grand antebellum mansions, dueled with pearl-handled swords and engaged in a futile fight to defend the Confederate flag. Ex-Londoner Francis Salvador, elected to the South Carolina Congress in 1774, became not only America’s first Jew elected to high office but the first to die liberating his colony from British rule.

What brought the first, mainly Sephardic, Jews to Charleston was its remarkable religious tolerance, not to mention the economic prospects elevating them to a new aristocracy to which their Ashkenazi kinsmen who followed greedily aspired. Thus the shameful lust for slaves, the choice accessory of the period even for Jews paying annual lip service to their own release from slavery in Egypt. However, it was a high-principled Jewish grocer who redeemed the community by refusing to segregate his black customers in the dark days before civil rights prevailed.

As well as the exhibits celebrating Jewish life at the excellent Gibbes Museum of Art, there is much to delight the visitor to Charleston, whose beautiful and historic homes, churches and public buildings have been preserved in aspic by poverty. For more than a century after the Civil War, there was no money for urban renewal, though now the city is enjoying a boom, new buildings are creeping in and the slow pace of life associated with the South is confined in this city to Battery Park, where magnificent colonnaded mansions line streets lined with cobblestones brought from England. A plethora of horse-drawn carriages and trolleys tour the streets of the historic district, but the only way to get into the side streets and alleys, where so much of Charleston’s elegant residential life is played out, is to take a walking tour.

Ruth Miller covers Jewish history as well as all the general sights in her Charleston strolls, including handsome Beth Elohim, built in Greek-revival style in 1840 to serve a congregation already a century old. Against the trend of European synagogues designed for Ashkenazim but now used by larger, younger Sephardic congregations, this one has evolved in the opposite direction. It comes as a shock to find that while there is no separation of worshippers at Beth Elohim, where America’s Reform movement was founded in 1824, there is a gallery in place down the road at St. Michel’s Church, designed to separate not men and women but whites from blacks "and other strangers" in the bad old days.

You don’t need a tour guide to get into the handsome church or many of the town’s historic homes and gardens, since local groups — from august preservation societies to the flamboyant Hat Ladies of Charleston — are falling over themselves to open their doors to visitors. Away from the "Gone With the Wind" opulence of the townhouses — notably the 1818 Aiken-Rhett House, where antebellum urban life is faithfully showcased, Drayton Hall documents plantation life warts and all, and the Charleston Museum’s Heyward-Washington house offers a glimpse of the neighborhood that inspired the setting for "Porgy and Bess." When it comes to accommodations, there is an embarrassment of choices in Charleston, choc-a-bloc with historic inns. Opting for a modern red-brick hotel seems on the face of it bizarre, but Orient Express endowed its award-winning Charleston Place property with the kind of luxurious and festive atmosphere that must have prevailed in the heady, prosperous years of the Confederacy. Rooms are large and opulent, and the hotel’s grill room, presided over by double-Michelin-starred Bob Waggoner, offers a sumptuous dining experience.

But perhaps the finest food in the state is to be found at the Beaufort Inn, a favorite haunt of Tom Hanks, who filmed "Forrest Gump" in this delightful little seaside town, an hour’s drive south of Charleston. Like Charleston, Beaufort boasts a plethora of historic mansions but is a lot sleepier. One of its greatest charms is access to the marshy sea islands where the world’s finest cotton was once grown. Since the abolition of slavery the area has become a hotbed of African American culture; check out the acres of colorful and highly collectible folk art on view at the Red Piano Too gallery on St. Helena Island before continuing to Hunting Island State Park with its primeval jungle, wild beach and lighthouse. Lazybones might never get beyond the verandah of the beautifully appointed Beaufort Inn or the delightfully indolent urban pursuits — browsing excellent bookshops, fressing sundaes in the old-fashioned ice cream parlor or taking a slow Carolina horse-drawn buggy ride round town.

Golfers and serious shoppers are lavishly catered to nearby on swanky Hilton Head Island, with its pricey top-end resorts, championship courses and designer malls, but there is less specialized and more affordable seaside entertainment on offer a couple of hours’ drive north at Myrtle Beach, which must be America’s largest and most economically democratic resort. The Grand Strand, a fabulous stretch of wild, wide white beach stretches 60 miles from Shag, where the young and funky crowd hang out, all the way down to much posher Pawley’s Island. This may be the pleasantest place to stay, thanks to the Litchfield Plantation Inn, which offers period rooms, contemporary cottage and haute cuisine. Many guests never get beyond their private deck beside a creek lined with live oaks dripping Spanish moss, the state’s most evocative attribute. But it’s worth a 35-minute drive to seek out the high-quality live entertainment for which Myrtle Beach is famous, including top-class variety with a country twist at the Carolina Opry, Dolly Parton’s hokey North-vs.-South Dixie Stampede, tribute bands at Legends, and top rock and R&B acts at the House of Blues, where live music is served up free to outdoor diners and the folk art collection alone demands a trip. Culture vultures will enjoy the sculpture trail at nearby Brookgreen Gardens, where some magnificent 19th and 20th century pieces are displayed in a verdant setting.

Note that travel into the Carolinas is painless now with the opening of Charlotte as a gateway, its airport compact, efficient and a fine introduction to southern friendliness.

Courtesy of featurewell.com.

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