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Articles » All His Geese Were Swans: Cantor Reuben Rinder and Temple Emanu El
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It may be considered the height of effrontery for me, a Judy-come-lately, to write about this most beloved man but it is done in a spirit of deep admiration. When I was researching the lives of Yehudi Menuhin and Isaac Stern, I found that both of them were discovered as very young children by the cantor. He made sure that wealthy members of the community supported them as they grew and developed, launching these prodigies on world famous careers. As if that were not enough, Reuben Rinder nurtured two wonderful modern Jewish composers and smoothed the path of a great adult violinist at a time of immense need.

His name needs very little introduction in the Bay area, but I thought he deserved to be more widely known in the rest of California and the Western states. Reuben Rinder, 1887 – 1966, epitomized the qualities of the Jewish teacher: knowledge, compassion, persistence and resourcefulness. He served as cantor of the Temple Emanu-El for fifty three years, from 1913 to 1966, possibly a record.

Seven rabbis presided during that period but he was a constant presence. It was not only his music which endeared him to so many but also his pastoral devotion and rich community involvement. As he grew older, he was called “Mr Chips” after the protagonist of the James Hilton’s best-selling novel Goodbye Mr Chips because of his sweetly absent-minded ways. The rabbis were respected, the cantor was loved.

In 1923, after Rabbi Meyer died, Rinder became acting rabbi for the rest of the year in addition to everything else he had to do. Fred Rosenbaum in Visions of Reform comments that in the eyes of the congregation “the year’s cycle of the Jewish holidays was inextricably bound up with him”.

Cantor Rinder fitted into the tradition of chazzanat, singing the sacred words of the Hebrew service in a manner uniquely associated with Jewish worship. Briefly exploring Jewish music will allow us to see him in context. The metaphor of a tree with its branches offers the best way of tracing it.

One principal division is between composers who wrote great music, such as Felix Mendelssohn, Gustav Mahler and Aaron Copland and who happened to be Jewish, and Jews who wrote and performed in the purely Jewish tradition. This latter tradition was again separated into Sephardic, Oriental and Ashkenazi. The Sephardic style was deeply influenced by Spanish and Portuguese songs which in turn descended largely from Moorish (or Arab) sources. The Oriental style alluded to North Africa and other Mediterranean lands.

Within the Ashkenazi category, there was music based on traditional themes and then there was the whole somewhat separate world of cantorial singing or chazzanat. Some of the seemingly traditional Jewish themes reflected centuries of living among other peoples such as Russians and Poles. Their folk music can be discerned in the Ashkenazi melodies.

These divisions were not immutable. Copland and Leonard Bernstein both drew on traditional themes from time to time and wrote music which expressed the essence of Judaism even though it was in a classical form.

The origin of the traditional themes and the development of the unique style of chazzanat took place over a long period but crystallized in the late eighteenth century. Those of us who inhabit an Askenazi world instantly know when a melody is “Jewish”, recognizing the minor key and modal texture without realizing that is what we are doing. “Jewish melodic contours especially sacred motifs, must be harmonized in a non- dominant, modal manner, rather than in the usual major/minor system”.

In the earliest known eras the vibrato-like modulation of the sounds known as biblical cantillation began as a way to focus attention on the text. It was a “melodically shaped speech intonation”. As the body of music grew and developed these systems became relatively fixed and related to specific texts and services.

The Ashkenazi pattern we now recognize was essentially established by the end of the eighteenth century. Further codifying ritual Jewish music was done throughout the nineteenth century. Well-known German cantors were in the forefront of this movement.

Jewish worship gradually became more Westernized with the Emancipation of the Jews, particularly in Germany. Here was the legacy of Moses Mendelssohn. In the western European countries, including the United Kingdom, Jews tried to combine social assimilation with religious independence. That meant smoothing out some of the “outlandish” style and sounds of liturgical practice and conforming more to the majority usage. The congregation would show their neighbors that going to synagogue was just a different version of going to church.

Across the great swath of Eastern Europe, the scattered Jewish communities developed distinctive cantorial styles. While travel was still very difficult, these regional variations persisted. The arrival of a visiting cantor was a huge treat for a beleaguered small community with only its own resources for entertainment. It was the equivalent of a rock star descending on them nowadays. When the Jews emigrated to America, the cantors went with them. The familiar sounds in an overwhelmingly strange and dreadful environment were a source of comfort.

Cantor Rinder understood composition but he began with a background and training in the cantorial side. He came from a small town near Lemberg, in Galicia where his uncle was a cantor. There were Poles, Ukrainians and Jews in his community. He was blessed with a wonderful baritone voice, an important prerequisite for any singer.

Reuben Rinder was apprenticed to his uncle. Both his parents died when he was still a child. In the early 1900s, Reuben emigrated to New York. He studied at the Hebrew Theological Seminary. Although the reasons for his emigration were educational it was still part of the great Jewish migrations of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Russian pogroms of 1881 and the repressive legislation against the already persecuted Jews in the Russian lands fueled this flight. Even in Austro-Hungarian Galicia, Reuben Rinder’s home province, where the Habsburgs had a laissez-faire policy, more than 800, 000 Jews fled during that epoch.

The Jewish community in New York quickly recognized his wonderful singing and frequently engaged him for weddings and bar mitzvahs. His first appointment was at a small synagogue in Brooklyn but then he worked at Congregation Bnai Jeshurun in 65th Street for four years. Reuben’s wife Rose (“Rowie”) had grown up in a Hasidic village.

During this period he met Rabbi Stephen Wise and sometimes participated in the latter’s Carnegie Hall services on Sunday mornings. Rabbi Wise gave his name to the directors of Temple Emanu-El when they were searching for a new cantor. In 1913, Rinder accepted an invitation to visit the temple in San Francisco.

After some probing interviews and a brief trial period Rinder replaced the ailing Cantor Edward Stark. He stayed for fifty years. Rinder’s arrival in San Francisco was considered important enough for there to be a column in the July 27 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle about it. Some of the information in this article conflicts with the private memoir Mrs Rinder prepared for her family. It is more likely that Mrs Rinder had the correct facts.

Cantor Rinder can truly be said to have been a fixture at the temple. The congregation named a side chapel for him.

Rinder wrote many liturgical compositions and a book in 1959 which summed up his knowledge and experience, Music and Prayer. His titles included a revised version of Kol Nidre, a Hymn to Peace, and the Battle Song of Zion. The Kol Nidre was widely distributed and used in many congregations. In 1937 it was broadcast on the radio.

The Battle Song of Zion was published by the Pacific Coast office of the Zionist Bureau and the proceeds were donated to the Jewish National Fund. This indicates that the cantor was an active Zionist, rare in the San Francisco Jewish community of that epoch. He and Rabbi Meyer were not in tune with the rest of the congregation on that point, but both had seen the terrible suffering of Jews in the First World War and believed that a Jewish homeland was a necessity. The Second World War and the Holocaust clinched the matter.

Mrs Rinder supported her husband’s ideals. She founded a chapter of Hadassah in 1916. When the somewhat assimilated wealthy women in the congregation realized that Hadassah was not just a charitable organization but that joining involved being a Zionist, the chapter was disbanded a few years later.

When the cantor wrote a new version of Adon Olom in 1953 his faithful publisher in New York, Mr J. Freudenthal of the Transcontinental Music Corporation, balked at taking it. Freudenthal’s letter of August 17, 1953 regrets that he was not in the market for any setting of Adon Olom. “Time and again we encountered great reluctance on the part of the synagogues to change the music for the final hymns of the service. You may be interested to know that Helfman’s Hashkivenu outsells his setting of Adon Olom, surely not a bad piece, more than than 30 to 1.”

The little that is known about Rinder’s early life is only available because his wife recorded what she knew while he was still alive. There are many unanswered questions. I had the privilege of meeting one of his grandsons but the only time he had even seen his grandfather was on the day the cantor died. He himself was five years old.

The cantor was a slightly-built man but that did not affect the strength of his devotion or the grit of his character. All his endeavors were to serve the Jewish people through music. He did not discriminate against music of other faiths but forged significant links with them. The California Chapter of the American Guild of Organists invited him to become their chaplain in 1943. On three occasions he officiated at the guild’s services in Grace Cathedral.

Relevant classical music was also included in his agenda. In 1922, the late Rabbi Martin Meyer suggested the cantor hold an annual performance of a great classical work such as Handel’s Israel in Egypt. This became a tradition. At the end of the war in 1945, Cantor Rinder put on a performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah, a huge undertaking. An oratorio needs an orchestra, a choir and skilled soloists. Even if he could use the temple’s own choir, he had to engage many additional professional musicians elsewhere. It says something about the esteem in which the congregation held him that they underwrote this large expense. That was the time the United Nations were meeting in San Francisco. Members of that body were invited to attend the performance at Temple Emanu-El.

All the energy and drive he invested in these undertakings were rewarded when he needed the wealthier members to assist his protégés. The leading families in the congregation included him in all their social events. Mrs Daniel Koshland invited him to give musical evenings at her house and he often used additional excellent performers.

He never asked for anything for himself. The community was willing to back him because the cantor had established how important music was to the temple. It increased their prestige and complemented the congregation’s powerful reputation for charitable action.

In a lecture at the Calvary Presbyterian Church a few years ago, on the role of religion in the development of the city of San Francisco, Kevin Starr, the stellar historian of California, pointed out that the Jewish community organized model social services long before the other denominations caught up with them.

Elijah was a popular event with the public. The cantor had some sort of internal compass which kept him moving in the right direction, gently, calmly but implacably. It showed it self very early. He had only been in the position for a few years before the Menuhin family arrived from New York almost destitute, in 1918.

Yehudi’s mother, Marutha Menuhin, had a relative in the Bay area and they had left the cold and discomfort of New York based on this connection. The best they could afford was a tiny basement apartment in Berkeley. Moshe Menuhin needed a job, the sooner the better.

Moshe had been born in Russia into a family of scholars but as an adolescent went to live in then Palestine to escape a complex home situation. He was very knowledgeable in sacred studies and very fluent in Hebrew. In spite of being highly agnostic and politically quite radical, the best chances he had of work were within the Jewish community. Moshe applied to Temple Emanu-El to become director of the synagogue’s Hebrew school.

The cantor had nominal charge of the school but preferred that someone else do the actual teaching. In reviewing the application the board asked Cantor Rinder to visit the Menuhins at home, to verify that they led an appropriate Jewish life. One wonders what actually transpired at the visit. The cantor only seems to have recorded his impression of the infant Yehudi and very little else about the household. He recommended the father for the job. The two year old Yehudi was probably the reason. Reuben Rinder heard him singing a Hebrew lullaby to himself, in perfect tune. This so affected him he claimed that the child was a musical genius and would be a great violinist.

The facts bore him out though how he could have known from such slender evidence is uncanny. It was not as if he had previously been in the habit of assessing small children for musical genius but the congregation took Rinder very seriously. This reflected how attached they had become to him in the five or so years since he arrived. It was just assumed he was correct. The board contained some very hard-headed businessmen but they simply acquiesced in his judgment. He was 35 years old at the time, and quite unworldly in the best sense.

A few years later, in 1927, he was told about a little boy named Isaac Stern who was quite good at the piano. Cantor Rinder visited the family, and listened to Isaac. Isaac also had perfect pitch. The cantor stated that with this degree of inherent musicality he should play the violin rather than the more mechanical piano. He thought that Isaac had a great future as a fiddler. Stern records this phase in his memoir My First Seventy Nine Years.

It was all very vague to Stern as a child but one outcome was that for the first time he had to attend Sunday school at the Temple, a quid pro quo for the cantor’s support. He had never had to do that before. From the cantor’s point of view it would hardly do to have a heathen child representing the community. Stern did not understand the connection at the time.

Isaac took up the violin with the result that everyone knows. Initially he felt it would be a bond with a school chum but hated practicing and was not too diligent. The first supporter the cantor found, Mrs Jennie Baruh Zellerbach, grew disgusted with his lack of progress and withdrew her support. Cantor Rinder turned to and found another wealthy lady who pledged to continue where Mrs Zellerbach had left off and kept her promise handsomely, Miss Lutie Goldstein. Cantor Rinder bought the bow for Isaac’s first violin.

Once again Reuben Rinder recognized latent talent in a seemingly unlikely place. Once again I am at a loss to know how he did it. Possibly it was the presence of the perfect (or absolute) pitch, the ability to know without any reference point which note in the Western diatonic scale is being played, that gave him the idea. While this gift is not common it usually has very little relation to actual musical ability. Many great musicians have had it. Many others, equally great, have not.

Mrs Rinder commented that her husband often deplored the lack of fine Jewish music in the synagogue services. Christian churches were enriched by centuries of music. He would ask “Where is the Jewish Palestrina?” He believed it was his duty to repair the deficit. Fred Rosenbaum considers that Rinder was the greatest force for improving Jewish liturgical music in the 20th century. One step he took was to found an association for synagogue music. The other was to approach living composers and encourage them to write sacred services.

His wide interests and connections enabled him to do this. Perhaps the two most famous ones were Ernest Bloch and Darius Milhaud, Jewish composers from the continent of Europe. The others were Jewish composers who did not become as renowned as Bloch and Milhaud, Marc Lavry, and Paul Ben Haim. Both the latter men lived in Israel.
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The story of Ernest Bloch’s composition remains very striking. While traveling by train to New York in the early 1920s, Rinder decided to stop in Cleveland to visit Bloch, 1880 – 1959, who at that time was director of the city’s music institute. One of his most famous works is Schelomo, a rhapsody for solo cello and orchestra. Bloch had been born in Switerland and had stuggled with being Jewish over the years. He did not deny his heritage but was attracted to certain aspects of Christianity.

The cantor managed to entice Bloch to become director of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. It was a good move for both. Bloch was happier in San Francisco than he ha been in Cleveland. In 1928 the cantor requested him to write a sacred service for Temple Emanu-El. Bloch was reluctant to do this. It took some persuasion but Bloch finally agreed.

Cantor Rinder arranged that Bloch would be supported financially while he worked on this service, relieving him of the grind of earning a living. Rinder obtained a grant of $3000 from Daniel Koshland and other members of Temple Emanu-El. This was augmented by a gift of $10,000 from Felix Warburg’s son Gerald, a professional cellist with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. The two men underwrote the project.

With this security Bloch decided to return to Switzerland in 1930. He believed he could write music more effectively in his homeland. Cantor Rinder was very interested in the progress of the service and Bloch had many questions at his end. Their correspondence is in the Western States Jewish History Archive.

By 1932, the piece was finished. The first performance was in Turin, in 1933. Ironically San Francisco had to wait for five years to hear the work. It was first offered at the temple in 1938. Since then it has been given numerous times all over the world and is considered to be one of the finest liturgical works of its kind. The manuscript of Avodath Hakodesh is in the music library at the University of California at Berkeley.

Rinder approached Darius Milhaud many years later, in 1948. Milhaud, 1892 – 1974, was a Jew from Provence who had to leave France with the onset of the Second World War. He had grown up in a traditional French Jewish family of ancient lineage. Being Jewish was of the utmost importance to him. Eventually he reached California after many vicissitudes and was given a position in the music department at Mills College. Pierre Monteux, conductor of the San Francsco Symphony orchestra was also a French Jew and helped Milhaud very enthusiastically.

The cantor seized upon his presence in the Bay area with joy. They shared many meals and festivals together. Milhaud was one of the founding members of the avant-garde French composers’ group “Les Six” which included Francis Poulenc and other famous men.

Cantor Rinder asked Milhaud to write a sacred service during a seder while the composer was singing “One Only Kid” in Provençal. He accepted immediately. Isaac Hellman’s daughter Mrs E. S. Heller provided financial assistance. The piece was ready two months later. The composer conducted the premiere of the Sacred Service himself in 1949 at the temple. Rosenbaum reports that Milhaud was touchy about his status as one of the world’s great composers but that Rinder was up to the task of keeping him happy.

Cantor Rinder took up the cause of Bronislaw Huberman, one of the finest violinists of his day. Huberman, 1882 – 1947, had been taught by teachers who had themselves learned from Joseph Joachim. Joachim was also a Jew. He was outstandingly successful in Germany and Europe in spite of that disability. He was a friend of Brahms and conductor of the court orchestra in Weimar, city of Goethe and Liszt (but later of Buchenwald too). Brahms wrote his violin concerto for Joachim and the latter gave its first performance.

Huberman stood on some very tall shoulders, but once the Nazis gained power in Europe he was forced to flee. He picked up his career in America but was extremely distressed by the plight of many colleagues who did not have his fame or resources. German orchestras and those in other countries which had been invaded by the Germans were obliged to discharge their Jewish musicians. Only a few very brave conductors defied this edict.

Huberman had the idea of starting an orchestra in Jerusalem, to employ these displaced musicians. That orchestra has survived to the present and is now the Israel Philharmonic. Cantor Rinder was among the first to give money to Huberman’s cause and persuaded many wealthy members of his congregation to do so too. The skill and dedication of the musicians created a great ensemble. Without the cantor’s actions the orchestra might have taken much longer to develop or not even have existed at all.

In 1938, Arturo Toscanini went to Jerusalem at his own expense to conduct the orchestra in a benefit concert, as a way of showing his solidarity with the victims of Fascism. Toscanini would not set foot in Italy until Mussolini was dead and the country liberated. It was sad that Huberman died before the State of Israel was established in 1948.

By 1953, the cantor had served for forty years. The congregation gave him and Mrs Rinder a trip to Israel to recognize his outstanding service. True to his usual behavior he immediately sought out the composer Marc Lavry, 1903 -1967, and asked him to write a sacred service too. Lavry was director of the Israel Broadcasting Station. The service was first introduced to the congregation on March 11, 1955.

On a subsequent visit to Israel in 1962 Rinder approached Paul Ben Haim, 1897-1984, the “dean” of composers in Israel. He asked Ben Haim to write closing anthems rather than a complete service. Together in Tel Aviv they chose the Fourth, Twenty-third and One Hundred and Forty-seventh Psalms to be set to music.

Leonard Bernstein had a very high opinion of Ben Haim. He said that in spite of his German origins and training, Ben Haim penetrated the Jewish soul and wrote true Israeli music. The Psalms, under the headings of “Supplication”, “Consolation” and “Praise”, were first played at a temple festival to celebrate the cantor’s 50th anniversary in 1963.

Closer to home the cantor discovered and encouraged Ludwig Altman who became the temple’s organist and choir director in 1937. Altman replaced the ailing Walter Sabin. He was a fine scholar, finding and publishing antique manuscripts. There might have been trouble between two such talented and effective men but they co-existed very harmoniously for years.

The end came in 1966. Reuben Rinder developed a brain tumor which was first diagnosed in 1965. Up until then he had continued to preside over the services even though his voice was gone and Joseph Portnoy was now cantor. After the first symptoms manifested themselves in an acute attack while on duty, he could no longer do that. He died in 1966.

The above is merely a brief canter through a rich and rewarding life and cannot do more than hint at Rinder’s accomplishments. There are very few others who have left a similar legacy to Reuben Rinder. He did it all by applying the basic principles he had learned as a young man, nothing fancy.

Aaron Kornblum, archivist, Western States Jewish History Archive
Paula Freedman, archivist, Temple Emanu-El

Rinder, Cantor Reuben R. 1959 Music and Prayer New York Sacred Music Press
Rosenbaum, Fred 2000 Visions of Reform Berkeley, California Judah Magnes Museum
Heskes, Irene 1994 Passport to Jewish Music Westport, Connecticut Greenwood Press