Turn, turn, stop turning
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Turn, turn, stop turning

Slichot in River Edge focuses on music by Mahler, Mendelssohn

One of the main themes of the High Holy Days is teshuva.

The word literally means return; it is about repentance, the desire to return to God, to the community, to life as you really meant to have lived it. To try again.

“Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it,” we are told; that lesson is applied particularly to the holidays, with its focus on turning toward redemption.

We usually think of turning as making a circle, a full 360 degrees. What if it’s only 180, and you end up facing away from where you began?

And what if that direction points away from Judaism?

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Cantor Ronit Josephson and pianist Drew Peterson

That’s the idea that the pre-Slichot program at Temple Avodat Shalom in River Edge will examine.

It started with the pianist who will play that evening, the synagogue’s Cantor Ronit Josephson said. “His name is Drew Peterson, he is very gifted, it came to my attention that he was available, and we wanted to use him.”

It is perhaps necessary to add that to call Mr. Peterson, who is 20 years old, “very gifted” is to understate significantly. His musical and academic achievements are extraordinary. He is considered a musical prodigy, and in fact the writer Andrew Solomon included him in his chapter on prodigies in “Far From the Tree,” his exhaustive and enlightening book about children whose deficits or gifts put them outside normal parameters.

Mr. Peterson is local – he grew up in Oradell. On the other hand, he is not Jewish.

So, Cantor Josephson was presented with an opportunity to have him play – what to do?

“Every year, we sit with coffee and cake, and we have a talk, or somebody lectures, or we watch a movie, and there is a mood of privacy and intimacy and soul-searching,” she said. “So together with Rabbi Paul” – that’s Avodat Shalom’s rabbi, Paul Jacobson – “we put our thinking caps on. We thought what if he would play the music of Jewish composers – some of them converted, and some who didn’t.” (She was using the word “converted” to mean “converted out,” she clarified.)

“Conversion is such a painful subject in Judaism,” she continued. “And nowadays the world is so crazy, people are being killed, and religion is something that is used in good ways and bad ways at the same time in different parts of the world. So we were thinking – what’s the difference between us, the Jews who remained Jewish – and the ones who didn’t?

“So we thought, what better examples are there than Mendelssohn and Mahler, two composers who did convert?

“So the rabbi and myself were going to gather some information about their lives, to try and figure out what made them convert.”

(Both composers were Central Europeans. Felix Mendelssohn, a grandson of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, lived from 1809 to 1847; Gustav Mahler’s dates were 1860 to 1911. Both were Romantic-era composers; both converted from Judaism, but their careers and their reputations nevertheless were marred by their perceived Jewishness.)

“Drew is also playing Gershwin – a Jew who remained Jewish,” Cantor Josephson continued.

“The question for us is why are we still Jewish? It is sort of a rhetorical question, but it is very appropriate for this night of soul-searching and reaffirmation. And it flows us right into the service.”

Will it be controversial? Cantor Josephson paused. “I’d like for it to be,” she said. “Who knows if there will be non-Jewish people visiting, or other people who converted out of Judaism? But the main purpose of this evening is soul-searching, and to discuss whether our faith is taken for granted. Do we know exactly why we are Jewish? I hope it’s not just because we are so used to being Jewish, and so comfortable with it. I hope that we can reaffirm it.”

Information
Who: Pianist Drew Peterson

What: Playing the work of Gershwin, Mendelssohn, and Mahler

When: Saturday, September 20; concert at 7:30 p.m., Slichot by candlelight at 9:30

Where: Temple Avodat Shalom, 385 Howland Avenue, River Edge.

For information: Call (201) 489-2463 or go to avodatshalom.net.

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