While some may see a Jewish music renaissance, Azi Schwartz is here to tell you that it has been around for years.
“You have to look at it in the historical context. Everyplace in history, when Jews had it good with neighbors, Jewish music was heavily influenced by the sensibilities of their neighbors. Old chants, old tropes, old recitations; there are very ancient roots there. We cherish it and treasure that. But we’re not a museum. We’re a religion that continues to grow, evolve, and change.”
Schwartz, the cantor at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York City, will be performing at Beth El Synagogue at 7 p.m. on Oct. 24 — a rare performance outside of his cantorial duties — in a celebration of Beth El’s Cantor Emerita Audrey Abrams, who retired in June 2020.
“This is a concert that has been in the execution for two years. Finally, it’s happening and it’s very exciting,” Schwartz said. “I’m very, very excited to perform there and celebrate Audrey’s retirement. She has given so many years and this is a beautiful way of celebrating her lifelong gift to the community.”
The concert’s host committee is chaired by Jack and Amy Fiterman, and had originally been scheduled for May 2020 — and rescheduled the first time for November 2020. The funds raised from the concert will go towards the endowing of the Cantor Audrey Abrams and Neil Newman Cantorial Chair at Beth El.
“It’s an investment in Jewish music,” Schwartz said. “It makes a big statement, and it’s an example for other communities. This is a community that shows up for Jewish music.”
Beth El Rabbi Alexander Davis wholeheartedly agreed.
“We are a singing congregation and that is due in part to a wonderful tradition of cantors who have lifted our voices and opened our heart with the power of Jewish music,” Davis said. “Establishing an endowed cantor’s chair makes explicit what we intuitively know: Music is central to synagogue life, to Jewish life. It is no wonder that the Song of Songs is considered the holiest book in the Hebrew bible Because song elevates us to that place of holiness and opens us in ways only music can.”
Thanks to a robust YouTube channel, which Schwartz constantly updates with prayers and songs from weekly services, he is able to connect to a global audience of music lovers. One of the most-watched is the 2016 video of his viral rendition of Adon Olam to the tune of “You’ll Be Back” from Hamilton, to end the Bat Mitzvah service of the rabbi’s daughter, who was a big fan of the musical. He said that he loves making the liturgy accessible and connecting people to it — even if he’s doing it through pop culture.
“But there are also treasures from our heritage from all kinds of places, whether it’s a 200-year-old piece we found in an archive or commissions that are new. There are all kinds of components that make it special,” he said. “I’m glad it was popular. It puts your foot in the door to treasures from our heritage.”
Limited tickets are available on the Beth El website.