Riff on a ram’s horn

Happy New Year!

Today I offer you an audiovisual mash up that’s best appreciated during this holiday. It’s brought to you by a biblical blast from a ram’s horn, and one of the musical heroes of my childhood.

Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, begins an annual ten-day period of spiritual renewal that calls for deep introspection, repentance, and atonement. We get one shot, once a year, to think about… everything. It’s Judgement Day. That’s some New Year, huh. There’s much more to it, but I give you Rosh Hashana Lite.

On the first morning, the shofar – an ancient instrument made from a curved ram’s horn – is sounded like a great wake up call, in a series of sustained and short blasts, announcing it’s time to let go of what’s wrong, go inward, return to being mindful, ethical, spiritual, engaged. It’s deep and it’s stirring. Hearing the ancient sound of the shofar is a big deal, even among the not so observant.

When Leonard Bernstein began composing the music for West Side Story, it wasn’t yet set among Irish and Puerto Ricans on Manhattan’s West Side. Shakespeare’s ill-fated young lovers and their feuding families had been sketched out for a show called East Side Story, as Jews and Italian Catholics on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Whatever the ethnicities of Tony and Maria, the conditions that lead to their tragedy are universal human flaws: pride, racism, xenophobia, misplaced values, lost moral compasses, hotheadedness, turf wars… the works. Bernstein, who was raised in Orthodox tradition, thought of the ancient calls that speak directly to the Jewish conscience about universal conditions. (He wasn’t Sephardic; we all share the shofar). The setting was rewritten, but the shofar’s calls stayed on in the signals of the Jets and Sharks. They’re the opening notes, and then some. The hills may be alive with the Sound of Music, but the backbone of West Side Story is the sound of the Jewish New Year.

Moses heard the shofar when he received the ten commandments, by the way. What a sound that must have been! It’s compelling, whether coming from a big ram’s horn in a synagogue,  or a haunting whistle in an asphalt jungle.

If you’ve never heard the shofar, or you don’t know every note of West Side Story the way I do (I told you – childhood hero) – or even if you do – have some fun with these. Play the videos together and peek inside the head of a brilliant composer; when Riff cocks his head or looks over his shoulder, suddenly it’s his own conscience calling.







Filed under History, Holidays (fiestas judias)

2 responses to “Riff on a ram’s horn

  1. Ilene Mirkine

    ‘Never thought of the whistles from West Side Story tied in with the blowing of the shofar. Lovely!

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