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A Night at the Jewish Opera (2004)


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Hazzan Boroff was, like Rafi, a short, wide man who wore business suits that looked like those of his Wall Street congregants. Barnoy was sitting forward in his plush chair, with his muscular arms balanced at the elbow on the maple desk. Like Rafi, Boroff was also an athlete; he had represented Israel in powerlifting in the 1994 Olympics in Los Angeles, the same Olympics that motivated Rafi to take up distance running because of the woman whose drama was played out in front of 80,000 horrified spectators at the L. A. Coliseum and hundreds of millions of others around the world on television. Gabriela Andersen-Scheiss, the former ski coach, was dragging herself, seemingly near death, around the track for the final 6/10 of a mile in the women’s marathon. Boroff had Rafi’s build, but extra heft on the shoulders and much larger arms – a fact that all his congregants knew whenever he flexed his arms as he was doing now. The warp of his pinstripe really had to warp to contain the 17” arms, while the woof just weft.
Lo yuchal la’asot konsert k’mo zeh b’million years,” Boroff cautioned Rafi, when he heard of the idea of an opera concert on Long Island. “Kulam y’cholim lik’not  kartisim la Met o City Opera. Lamah rotzim lishmo’a lanu? Boroff added that because Rafi was the cantor of Suffolk County, he had an advantage.
Az ani m’argen um’kayem oto, v’atah y’chol lashir bazo!” Rafi’s offer to put the concert together and then have Boroff and his choir be guest artists made the other sabracantor-athlete flex his muscles with excitement. His fabric weft louder this time, so he took off his jacket and grabbed a stack of promotional material.
“Here, look over this. Make sure your best graphic artist in your shulworks with the best photographer you’ve got. Blow your budget on these. They are durable, and they sell tickets.”
The heavy card with a high gloss finish displayed HazzanBoroff, first in a High Holiday robe, and then in costume as the chimney sweep in Mary Poppins. In both shots, the face popped. Rafi could see that he had a lot to learn still.
First he had to sell his choir. Never, not in Israel, not in Cleveland, certainly not in Philadelphia, did he have a group of people who wanted a result without working for it. The choir had hated Rafi’s first High Holidays. No folk tunes. No unison. No Long Island Hebrew. Music. Four parts. He wants us to sing in four parts! Who does he think he is, Leonard Bernstein? Every note was tightly composed, and this kid (Rafi was really 40) wants us to sing what the composer wrote and not what we think she wrote. But Cantor Ben-Berak got us through it, and the composition professor at Stony Brook said we sounded great. So maybe.
First he had four come back. Then a fifth. Another two. Rafi got on the phone and called all the old members who had left out of boredom under the previous cantor. Now there were thirteen. No, that wouldn’t do. Rafi sang bits of all parts to help the women who coutldn’t read music.  That means he counts. Fourteen. Winter concert on Shabbat Shirah. You’re not supposed to applaud during a service. But that V’al Kulam that starts as easy as can be, the one that gave a scintilla of confidence to the ragtag bunch of wayward silver singers that Rafi inerited, silence. Then a buzzing, and a few hugs in the choir loft. Then Rafi decided he would be Leonard Bernstein, winked at his pianist, the jazz/classical/Renaissance star from Stony Brook, and sang bekol ram, “SING! GOD A SIMPLE SONG! To Him be praise,” by which time Gabe had the music to “Simple Song” from Bernstein’s Mass out, in time to slam the chord for, “MAKE IT UP!”
The last big musical event in Suffolk County, at least until the open air concerts began in Huntington, the Hamptons, and the North Fork, was Rafi’s Night at the Jewish Opera. Hazzan Boroff couldn’t make it – family emergency in Israel. Two other guest soloists, a cantor and his wife, a doctoral candidate in Early Music at Stony Brook, came. Several members of the Shelter Rock choir offered to come. Boroff said they wanted to come. If all five of them came, they would have reduced the average age by at least fifteen years, but Rafi’s choir voted them out. This is OUR event, they said. We have this music, and we are going to blow them away. Rafi didn’t have to ask his troupe to sell tickets – everyone they knew paid full price for this.
The choir opened with Gott Bensch Amerike by Irving Berlinski, as the famous Broadway legend had signed the Yiddish manuscript. The transliterated Yiddish appeared in the program so that everyone could join. With the good feeling among the 280 concertgoers still bouncing off the walls and creating ether for the forthcoming sound to dance on, the choir and soloists performed sections from Judas Maccabeus, finishing with “Hail, the conqu’ring hero,” to which Rafi was practically tap-dancing. The choir almost giggled. Rafi had asked Gabe early on, when all the notes were in place, what he’d change. Gabe replied,
“Can you make it dance?”
Now it was dancing. Next came three arias from Elijah, the two tenor arias and “It is enough,” the baritone aria which would have been an Act II finale if this were an opera. Two arias from La Juive – by the guests, the husband singing Eleazar, the wife, Rachel. Then Samson et Dalilah – part in French, but the final solo and chorus in English, again with the words printed in the program. Intermission.  A Rossi psalm. Then, the banned music of the Holocaust, including the great aria of der Kaiser von Atlantis by Victor Ullmann. Hagada shel Pesach, by Paul Dessau. And finally the death aria from The Golem, by John Casken. Gabe and Rafi had worked like mathematical slaves to get this one right. It came out perfect – but it was the piece nobody understood. Pure Rafi.
All was redeemed when the choir took up positions on the main steps to the stage, wrapped a white yoke over their collective shoulders, waited for Rafi to join them under the yoke, and sand the Chorus of the Slaves from Verdi’s Nabucco. Pin drop. Rafi emerges and sings Nebuchadnezzar’s conversion aria. Choir! Bravos echoing on that ether! Three encores!
The next year, the congregation had a fight over hiring a new rabbi. The families that left created a cantor-sized hole in the budget. Rafi and Segal, who had bought a house shortly after this magical moment, were left with half their income, and their future, destroyed.
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About Ronald FIschman

I am a public school teacher who had a prior career as a cantor, opera singer, and composer. My greatest notoriety comes from my settings of Dylan Thomas's "Vision and Prayer" and Percy Byssshe Shelley's "Ozymandias" for singers and large instrumental ensemble. My first poetry collection, "Generations," honors the roles of son, husband, and father, and is available at Amazon.com.

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