October 22, 2019

Power of Song Gives Hope to Mourners

A project that began 10 years ago as a tribute to a dead brother has been expanded as a memorial to the victims of terrorist attacks in Israel.

Chayim Frenkel, cantor at Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, conceived “Nishmat Tzedek” (“A Righteous Soul”) in 1993 after his brother Tzvi, 39, died suddenly, the victim of an undetected blood disease.

He commissioned his friend, Meir Finkelstein, then cantor at Sinai Temple in Westwood, to write new settings for the liturgical passages of the Yizkor memorial service. The cycle — set for solo voices, choir and orchestra — filled with soaring melodies and lush harmonies, was first performed in November 1993.

More recently, the current intifada and the pain it has caused spurred the two cantors to revisit their collaboration and produce a new CD “Nishmat Tzedek.”

“Meir and I realized that we needed to make more of an impact than the few dollars we could give to Jews in crisis, using Meir’s talent as a composer and my talents as a chazzan and producer,” Frenkel told The Journal. “It was important to give these families something that would help them on the road to recovery.”

To that end, Finkelstein, currently senior cantor at Congregation Beth Tzedec in Toronto, composed three more movements for what he calls a “choral symphony,” including a setting of “Avinu Shebashamayim,” the prayer for the State of Israel found in most contemporary siddurim.

While pieces such as “Mima’amakim” (“Out of the depths I called”), “Kaddish,” and “Eil Malei Rachamim” are somber in tone, much of the music is optimistic in sound and impact, expressing hope rather than dwelling on the sorrows caused by death.

At the same time, Frenkel and Finkelstein, along with the project’s producer, Ellen Rudolph, decided to make “Nishmat Tzedek” a “multidimensional work.” They created a companion book of poems by local and national figures, including rabbis Steven Leder, Sheryl Lewart, Steven Carr Reuben and David Wolpe, artist Judy Chicago and Elie Wiesel, with the texts translated into Hebrew alongside the English.

“I feel your presence in a hundred comforts/Wrapping me in confidence/I concentrate on staying with you/A continuing act of will,” Lewart wrote in a passage.

The poems are illustrated by photos of Israel taken by award-winning local photographer Eric Lawton, images originally commissioned by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles to honor the 50th anniversary of Israeli statehood in 1998.

Poignantly, the book includes a list of Israelis killed during the intifada from September 2000 to mid-March of this year. The project is dedicated to Frenkel’s mother, Shari, who died last December.

Because they want Jewish communities around the world to be able to perform the music in “Nishmat Tzedek,” the two cantors also prepared a piano reduction of Finkelstein’s score.

The CD, book and sheet music comprise a package that will be sent to the family of every Israeli victim of the intifada.

“From the get-go, the concept was not just to create the CD, the companion book and the music score, but to have them given to the victims’ families,” Rudolph said.

To locate the families, Rudolph got in touch last year with The Federation and the Israeli consulate. A Federation contact led her to Terror Victims Association (TVA), a support and advocacy group, whose Los Angeles staffer, Rachel Harari, happened to meet Reuben and others at Kehillat Israel around the same time and became interested in the “Nishmat Tzedek” project.

While families of terror victims receive financial help from the Israeli government, Harari said emotional support is harder to come by. TVA, founded in 1986, arranges for counseling for victims’ families, brings them together for social gatherings, organizes public memorials and lobbies on behalf of victims. Proceeds from American sales of “Nishmat Tzedek,” once costs are recouped, will benefit TVA.

Harari sees “Nishmat Tzedek” as a gesture that can have some real effect on the families’ spirits.

“They’re never going to be 100 percent,” she said, but “music itself is something that can help … so they’ll be able to get back to life.”

Frenkel said he sees the music, poetry and artwork of “Nishmat Tzedek” as “very universal in [their] healing powers for those who have suffered loss…. The project’s power goes beyond the loss that these families have suffered.”

Harari expressed wonder at how Frenkel was able to take his own grief and turn it into something positive.

“He found a way to express himself and feel something in common with the terror victims,” she said.

“It’s about finding light in darkness,” Frenkel said.

The “Nishmat Tzedek” package is on sale for $50 at
Village Books in Pacific Palisades and through the “Nishmat Tzedek” Web site,
www.arighteoussoul.org. Information about the Terror Victims Association is
available at www.terrorvictims.org .