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Jack Gottlieb’s Sharing the Prophets: The More Things Change...

by Cantor Joshua Breitzer

Jack Gottlieb’s Sharing the Prophets: The More Things Change...1

HUCKSTER: You’ve really had a whale-of-a time of it, haven’t you? 

JONAH: I tell you, this business of being a Prophet is a lonely job. 2 

Jack Gottlieb (1930-2011) sought for his voice to be heard, not just as a composer, but also as author and lyricist. In addition to his significant body of scholarship, he possessed an ear for word play, poetry, and even oratory, like a public speaker drawing a crowd. These are some of the same tools that a Biblical prophet may well have used to make his case to the people Israel, in language that his audience could easily glean, in the hope that his speech might move them to action. 

Reform Jews have long seen themselves as successors to the prophetic tradition, with their commitment to social justice and worship services full of stirring sermons and soaring anthems whose aim is, fittingly, to move people to action.3  Reaffirming Reform’s prophetic roots for the 21st century is the topic of a recent CCAR Journal, in which Rabbi Richard Levy writes, “If indeed our heritage as a prophetic movement is under siege, let us work to redeem it, to bring the prophets back into our synagogue, to walk with them into the streets and into the halls of government.” 4

Gottlieb has done some of this work for us with a “musical encounter” called Sharing the Prophets (1976), scored for singers, keyboard and percussion, and commissioned by the Board of Jewish Education (BJE) on the occasion of the American Bicentennial. He transports figures from the first millennium B.C.E. to our day and age, imagines their reactions to contemporary issues, and incorporates traditional cantillation into popular song styles. But despite being a product of 1970s emphasis on personal social action, Sharing the Prophets was conceived to continue making a statement on social action long after its first performance. 

In rehearsal for Sharing the Prophets at the old HUC-JIR campus on W 68th St, 1976.

Paraphrasing former BJE Executive Vice- President Alvin Schiff’s foreword to the score, Gottlieb reminds us, “...that the origins of American civilization are steeped in Biblical history, its places, persons and ideas. Inspired by the universal themes in the teachings of the Prophets, the work is an affirmation of their relevancy to today’s world and for all times.” 5

In keeping with his practice of reworking compositions, Gottlieb subsequently updated the prophet Jeremiah’s solo as a response to the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Although “Jeremiah on 9/11” is the most immediately relevant of the four Prophets selections included in Transcontinental Music’s 2004 anthology Songs of Godlove (the others being “Roll Call,” “The Sensus Census,” and “Duet of Hope”), it is by no means the only one that can speak to Jews in the United States . Given all the challenges facing this country in the 21st century, each song helps show quite plainly that the more things change, the more things stay the same.

If we approach these four Prophets selections with open eyes and ears, we discover that each one plays upon a different emotional aspect of Haftarah trope, the chanting system by which the Prophetic books have long been heard in public and which forms the basis of traditional synagogue chant. The ancient melodic motif munakh etnakhta, roughly corresponding to solfeggio’s do-te-sol-te-re-do, makes for a decisive bass line throughout “Roll Call,” the selection which introduces each of the Biblical Prophets by name.6
Certain prophets, however, remind us that no matter how high they aim or great their efforts, they can still behave as flawed, feeling human beings. The notion of allowing prophets to inspire our conduct continues in “The Sensus Census.”  Subtitled “Jonah’s Song,” it depicts how hometown friends and neighbors receive a decidedly imperfect man immediately following the events of the Book of Jonah. The prophet expresses his frustration at his community’s refusal to pay him full attention as he attempts to share all that he has been through. The munakh-etnakhta Haftarah motif can again be heard in the bass line, but this time it sounds punchy and agitated, appearing only on off-beats. 

On a commemoration of September 11, 2001, when so many people witnessed the World Trade Center collapse, the right music could give voice to communal feeling far better than any spoken word could. “Jeremiah on 9/11,” Gottlieb’s revision of the character’s solo from Sharing the Prophets, expresses shock, awe, anger, and bitterness. Following a prelude punctuated by quotations from the Book of Lamentations (traditionally thought to be by Jeremiah) and outbursts of clashing chords and cymbals, the bass line yet again gives a home to the Haftarah munakh-etnakhta motif, this time sounding driving and insistent, falling squarely on the strong beats, to be delivered “with bluster.” It provides the groundwork for cynical allusions to patriotic texts like “My country ‘tis of thee,” “From sea to shining sea,” “Go Yankee Doodle Dandy,” and “Oh, say can you see.” Gottlieb even works in allusions to classic American marches, first subtly, then overtly with a direct quotation of Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” 

In “Duet of Hope,”  the last of the Prophets selections to be included in Songs of Godlove, Gottlieb sets two anthems hand-in-hand: the European-Israeli “Hatikvah” and the Appalachian-American “Wayfaring Stranger.” Each of these beloved folksongs possesses the same essential harmonic progression and, when paired together, take on even more poignancy. Both, after all, are bound up in the notion of reaching a “promised land.” And although the only explicit prophetic element comes from Isaiah 2:2 (“And it shall come to pass at the end of days...”), Naftali Imber’s Hebrew refrain for “Hatikvah,” “od lo avda tikvateinu,” (“Our hope is not yet lost,”) is thought to have been inspired by Ezekiel 37:11, “hinei omrim, yavshu ‘atzmoteinu ve’avdah tikvateinu...” (“Behold, they say ‘our bones are dried up and our hope is lost...’”). Moreover, we can still hear that same Haftarah motif, munakh-etnakhta, in the melody of “Wayfaring Stranger,” at the words, “I’m going there...” Juxtaposing these texts and melodies together represents a unique articulation of the American Jewish experience—where we have come from, where we are going, and how we are getting there. It is a startlingly significant example of how music can move us on multiple levels simultaneously and make us eager for an encore. 

Each of the four selections from Jack Gottlieb’s Sharing the Prophets has the potential to be music of significance in the synagogue. Service leaders can find in them kernels of ancient cantillation as well as contemporary truths about being fully present, taking action, coping with disaster, and yearning for a better place. In a time of constant knowledge-seeking, when we are accustomed to choosing from among several simultaneous voices the one that speaks to us best, the voices in these songs can help American Jews remember that sometimes the way forward is to look back and consider what our Biblical forebears have to say. For unlike the solitary business of prophesying, being Jewish means never being alone. Communally, then, we are all “just a-going home.” 

1. Adapted from Shirei Yedidot: The Music of Jack Gottlieb in Contemporary Worship (masters’ thesis, HUC-JIR, 2011).

2. Jack Gottlieb, “Fish Story,” from Sharing the Prophets (New York: Board of Jewish Education, 1976), 29. 

3 Lawrence A. Hoffman, On Swimming Pools, Sound Holes, and Expanding Canons,” in Sacred Sound and Social Change, ed. Hoffman and Janet R. Walton (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), 337. 

4. Richard N. Levy, “Politics: A Prophetic Call to Rabbis,” in CCAR Journal (Summer 2010), 11. 

5. “Notes and Translations,” Songs of Godlove, Volume II (Transcontinental Music, 2004), 119. 

6. All audio recorded live in October 2010 at HUC-JIR New York, featuring Cantor Joshua Breitzer and Donna Breitzer, vocals; Cantor Jonathan Comisar, piano; Ivan Barenboim, clarinet; and Benny Koonyevsky, percussion. Used by permission of the Theophilous Trust, Inc.

Joshua Breitzer is cantor and music director of Congregation Beth Elohim in Brooklyn and the founding conductor of HaZamir Brooklyn, a chapter of HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir. A mid-Michigan native, Cantor Breitzer attended Interlochen Arts Camp and holds voice degrees from the University of Michigan and the New England Conservatory. Prior to receiving ordination at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2011 and eventually joining the adjunct faculty there, Cantor Breitzer presented a graduate thesis on the sacred vocal works of Jack Gottlieb, with whom he worked closely during the last months of the composer’s life. Cantor Breitzer has performed throughout America and Israel and has taught under the auspices of many prestigious Jewish and secular music organizations. He was elected to the ACC Executive Board in 2015 and in summer 2016 will be installed as Vice President of Professional Development, External Policy, and Placement. Cantor Breitzer makes a home in the Park Slope neighborhood with his wife Donna and young sons Jonah and Gideon.