A Musical 'Light' on Hebrew Texts
Composer's Works Sung by Congregations Nationwide
By Joseph McLellan
Washington composer Norma Brooks has been writing melodies for Hebrew texts from the Bible and from the texts of great rabbis since 1984. She first set Hebrew words to music in memory of her husband Paul Lichterman, whom she met in graduate school and who she said became "my husband, my best friend and my teacher." He died in 1983, leaving her with a young son, Daniel.
For the first anniversary of Lichterman's death, she put music to words from the Torah service that includes the passage "may You bestow on us of Your bountiful light."
"Your Bountiful Light" became the title of a book containing a collection of her songs, with arrangements by Argentine guitarist-cantor Ramón Tasat and Russian pianist-cantor Natasha J. Hirschhorn, who are international leaders in the field of Jewish religious music.
They perform the music on a compact disc just issued, and, on March 2, were featured in the premiere of their arrangements.
Their treatment "gives my music a new dimension, a whole new level of meaning", Brooks said in an interview. Brooks composes her music with a deliberate simplicity to make it suitable for a cappella, congregational singing.
The new arrangements make the music suitable for concert performances outside of worship services, she added. But her melodies, sung without accompaniment, have a separate and vigorous life of their own.
She taught her memorial melody for Lichterman to members of her congregation, Fabrangen, a local prayer community. They began to sing it at services. It was heard by visitors who brought it home, and now it is sung in congregations throughout the United States.
That was the beginning of a second career in music. Brooks, whose family name, Brushansky, was changed at Ellis Island, decided to divide her life into equal halves: Monday to Thursday (3 1/2 days) given to her profession as a clinical psychologist, and the last half of the week to music.
Her melodies are inspired mostly by events in her personal life –Daniel's bar mitzvah, memorials to her parents and friends and one for Yitzhak Rabin, celebration of friends' birthdays, wedding anniversaries, the birth of a baby.
Mostly, she uses texts appropriate for liturgical services. These are learned by her congregation and eventually spread to others. "My music is sung, anonymously, in services all over the country", she said.
The premiere of the collection included a chorus and an instrumental ensemble (flute, violin, cello, piano, guitar and drums) with vocal solos by Tasat, Hirschhorn and others. Brooks soloed briefly, with a beautiful voice suffering from traces of laryngitis, but she spent most of the evening humbly in the chorus.
Her music sometimes resembles a Hasidic nigun, or tune, and often draws on cantorial traditions and klezmer styles, but it also reflects her experience as a music teacherin New York, where she directed a trilingual choral group that sang in Chinese, Spanish and English and that was called Voices of the Lower East Side.
The music has vitality and limpid simplicity and invites even the most unmusical bystander to sing along. That invitation was made clear in the excellent performances this month, and a standing-room audience clearly enjoyed joining in.