Jersey City Cantor Marsha Dubrow wins award for liturgical settings
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Jersey City Cantor Marsha Dubrow wins award for liturgical settings

Liturgical music continues to evolve, says Cantor Marsha Dubrow, recently honored for her new setting of Va’tikakh Miryam Ha’Niveah, Miriam’s Song.

Dubrow – a musicologist and performer as well as religious leader and cantor of Cong. B’nai Jacob in Jersey City – told The Jewish Standard that Shalshelet, the group that selected her composition, received more than 400 submissions this year.

The foundation promotes the development and creation of new Jewish sacred music across all denominations and styles of music, said Dubrow, a resident of Upper Montclair, calling it “a catalyst, giving composers an opportunity to come together and to focus around new sacred music.”

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Cantor Marsha Dubrow

At B’nai Jacob, which contains some 200 member-units, “I definitely encourage people to sing with me,” said the cantor, “although not all [the pieces] are for community singing.” Friday night services always begin with a nigun, she added, a wordless melody. Since not everyone knows Hebrew, the music is “a good way in.”

On Dec. 4 and 5, Dubrow will join other composers at a festival showcasing the winners of the Fourth International Competition for New Jewish Liturgical Music. The event, to be held at Cong. Anshe Chesed in Manhattan, will include not only a concert but a “meet the composers” segment, said Dubrow.

“One of exciting things about the festival is that it features all musical styles – folk, rock, classical, all sacred music,” she noted. “And in addition to representations of various diaspora communities … [the music] comes from all denominations, from Orthodox to secular.”

Judges are not given biographical information or told the religious affiliation of the composers, said Dubrow, who has won Shalshelet competitions three times.

“It’s a great validation for me,” said the cantor, who holds a doctorate in music from Princeton University and spent 30 years in the business world. “Over the last decade, I turned my attention to music and Jewish studies,” she explained. Holding a pulpit gives her a “platform to disseminate ideas and music.”

Describing her synagogue’s services as Conservative egalitarian, Dubrow, who was trained as a Schubert scholar, was enthusiastic about her setting of Tov L’hodot, which Schubert had also set to music many years earlier.

“He was interested in Jewish sacred music,” she said, noting that he occasionally attended a local synagogue, becoming friendly with its music director. Asked to write a vocal setting for the prayer, he obliged.

Dubrow said there are “fundamental abiding principles” she uses in her compositions. At the top of the list, she said, is nusach, a term that has many definitions but might best be described as the traditional order and form of the prayers. She is also committed to using the Hebrew language – although, she said, a lot of contemporary Jewish sacred music is in English.

While she may use English sometimes, most of her works are “straight out settings of Hebrew liturgical texts.” When she does use English, it is when “a message needs to be carried forward to a greater population.”

For example, she said, she created a version of Sim Shalom, with English, immediately following the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

“I wanted to inform the liturgical intention of the text by using contemporary English language,” she said. “I felt that was a reflection of intention of the text. The refrain, ‘spread peace,’ was in English. Adapting a piece [in this way] gives it a more universal purpose and carries the message outside of the synagogue,” she said, adding that the desire to transmit Jewish values underpins much of her work.

Dubrow was honored in previous competitions for her settings of Mah Tovu and Haskiveinu. This year’s winning submission, Miriam’s Song, arose from her realization that there is “so little information about the thousands of women who crossed the Sea of Reeds.”

By writing this piece, she said, “I had an opportunity to elevate the text to a higher level by according it respect through a musical setting. It’s musically an embellishment of what little we know from the biblical text of the lives of these women.”

Dubrow pointed out that while songwriter Debbie Friedman has dealt with the same text in a “very festive” way, she herself has chosen a different feeling.

“My intention is to stress gentle gratitude combined with a sense of the loss suffered by other women – the mothers and sisters of the enemy,” she said. “Through music, we’re able to make those kinds of emotional choices.”

In celebration of Chanukah and the Shalshelet festival, next Shabbat Dubrow will share the bimah in Jersey City with Israeli composer Orit Perlman, also an award-winner. The two will offer musical selections during services both Friday night and Saturday morning.

For further information, call Jane Cantor, (201) 435-1172, or e-mail info@bnaijacobjc.org.

Lois Goldrich can be reached at lgoldrich@gmail.com

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