3: Prayer in Hebrew with English translation and recording excerpt, Gershon Sirota performing "Rosh Chodesh Benchen," nd.
Gershon Sirota (1874-1943), was one of the leading cantors of Europe during the “Golden Age of Hazzanut” (cantorial music, “khazones” in Ashkenazic Hebrew), nicknamed the “King of Cantors” and the “Jewish Caruso” in reference to the legendary opera and recording star Enrico Caruso. He served as cantor in Odessa, at the Shtatshul (State Synagogue) of Vilna, and as head cantor at the Great Synagogue of Warsaw. During his tenure at the Great Synagogue, thousands of people flocked to hear him perform. Sirota also performed in concerts throughout Europe, and his commercial recordings were so popular that he became one of the first recording celebrities in the Jewish world. He perished with his family in the Warsaw ghetto in 1943. In this recording, Sirota interprets the beginning of the blessing of the new month in the classic cantorial style of Eastern Europe, notably characterized here by dreydlekh, or florid vocal ornaments. The excerpt contains the first part of the blessing, which can be found in the first paragraph of the PDF, up to the words translated as “a peaceful life with goodness and blessing.”
Suggested Activity: Have students read the words of the prayer and then listen to the recording and discuss the following questions: Does hearing the prayer change the way you interpret the words? How would you describe the emotional tone of this recording? Aside from establishing the calendar, what do you think Rosh Chodesh is about? What kinds of hopes or intentions does the prayer, or Sirota’s performance of the prayer, invest in the holiday?
If your students are interested in exploring more interpretations of the prayer, you may wish to send them to the website of the Florida Atlantic University Recorded Sound Archives to search for “Rosh Chodesh,” or to this version. After listening to various interpretations of the prayer, if your students are musically inclined you might ask them to write or perform their own version, or to describe some qualities they would try to bring to the piece if they were to compose a new setting for it or perform it.
Sources: Gershon Sirota, "Rosh Chodesh Benchen," The Art of Cantor Gershon Sirota, Volume 2. Greater Recording Co., nd. Used with permission from the Florida Atlantic University Recorded Sound Archives.
Siddur Sim Shalom: A Prayerbook for Shabbat, Festivals, and Weekdays, ed. Rabbi Jules Harlow (New York: The Rabbinical Assembly and the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, 2004), 418-19.