It’s not easy for Cantor Dr. Gerald Cohen to describe his occupation in one sentence.
Cantor? Check. Composer? Check. Teacher? Check. Happily, he loves all three jobs — although he admits to a lifelong passion for songwriting.
“I’m very fortunate to have a life with all those different aspects that I care about greatly,” he said. “They enrich each other. In some sense, being a composer is my primary passion in life professionally. But I so much love being a cantor and getting a chance to teach the next generation of cantors.
“I have the wonderful experience of seeing my students become my colleagues and leaders in the field.”
Dr. Cohen was the cantor at Shaarei Tikvah in Scarsdale, New York, for more than 30 years. For seven of those years, Dr. Cohen worked alongside Rabbi David Fine, who now leads Temple Israel in Ridgewood. It is therefore fitting that Dr. Cohen will be that congregation’s Adele Rebell Memorial Scholar in Residence this Shabbat. (see box.) The chazzan, who lives in Yonkers with his wife, Caroline, and their son, Daniel, recalled the time he spent with Rabbi Fine. “He was an amazing colleague to work with,” he said. “A wonderful leader and scholar. I’m really touched and thrilled that he asked me.”
Dr. Cohen will have much to talk about. An assistant professor at the H. L. Miller Cantorial School of the Jewish Theological Seminary since 1993 and a faculty member of Hebrew Union College for the last five years, music has been his passion since he was 7 years old. “From an early age I knew I wanted to be a musician, although as I grew up, I was more of a pianist and composer, not so much of a singer,” he said.
After college — he majored in music at Yale — Dr. Cohen decided to focus most of his efforts on composing. Still, “I had been a shul-going kid. It was musical and I loved it.” Not surprisingly, he began to take the idea of becoming a cantor seriously. “I studied privately with Cantor Jacob Mendelson, becoming a cantor in the old-fashioned way,” he said. Not one to do only one thing at a time, he was also in the midst of getting a Doctor of Musical Arts degree at Columbia University.
Dr. Cohen has composed two operas on Jewish themes as well as a much-performed setting of Psalm 23, which has been heard not only in synagogues and churches but also in Carnegie Hall and at the Vatican.
As for choosing stories that might work as operas, “It’s a question of hearing a story and imagining it on stage and thinking about the different characters and situations and what makes them call out to be an opera,” he said. “The story of Sarah and Hagar is one of the central stories in Genesis”; that story was the impetus for his first opera, which is named for these two biblical characters. His interest, he said, was “focusing on the women in the story but also on the fact that Abraham has to sacrifice both of his children. The parallel’s there. As with so many stories, it is told in terse language.” His challenge was to “open it up and create a dramatic situation.”
The opera has been performed in a concert setting. “An opera is good for a story that is both intimate and universal,” he said. “This is a story about the intimate life of a family but also about how that affects all of Jewish history and the way we think of ourselves as a people.
Dr. Cohen’s second opera, “Steal a Pencil for Me,” is based on a true concentration camp love story and arose from a desire to tell a story about the Shoah. “My parents both came from Europe, fleeing the Nazis,” he said. “My grandmother died at Auschwitz. I knew Jaap and Ina Polak from the shul. They fell in love in the camp. Jaap was married to someone else, whose boyfriend had been seized by the Nazis.” Real life conflicts were rendered as a “romantic drama against the backdrop of being imprisoned.”
As he composed the opera, he had many talks with Jaap and Ina, as did the librettist, Deborah Brevoort. “We did a semi-staged version at the synagogue in 2013 in honor of the couple’s 100th and 90th birthdays,” he said. “It was incredible. By the time the opera had its real premiere last year in Colorado, they had both passed away.”
While Dr. Cohen has composed hundreds of orchestral, choral, liturgical, life-cycle, and holiday pieces, this was his first fully staged opera, performed by a professional company, Opera Colorado.
This weekend, Dr. Cohen will speak about both congregational tunes and American Jewish music.
Asked why particular prayer melodies seem to spread among congregations, he said, “It’s so hard to know. But my idea is to talk about the history of congregational song and go through some of the favorite melodies.” Some tunes, he said, are assumed to be chasidic folk songs when in fact they’re much more modern.
On Friday night, he hopes to set the record straight. “Every song we sing has a history, a composer,” he said. “Someone wrote it, and it has a place in the history of how we daven and do services in our synagogues. There’s a mosaic of different tunes that come from different times and places in Jewish life.”
Dr. Cohen’s Saturday evening session will focus on well-known Jewish composers, including Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and Kurt Weill, “who wrote music on sacred texts in some way. Kurt Weill wrote a wonderful kiddush. Copland produced a choral piece setting of the first chapter of Genesis. And Bernstein did Chichester Psalms, which included some melodies that were supposed to be used in West Side Story.” Cantor Cohen will also showcase some of his own music, playing excerpts from his operas. He will be accompanied by pianist Alexandra Joan.
Who: Cantor Dr. Gerald Cohen
What: Will be scholar in residence
When: On Friday and Saturday, March 1-2
Where: At Temple Israel and JCC, 475 Grove St., Ridgewood
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