Worship the Lord in gladness; come before him with joyous song” (Psalm 100). Perhaps that is why so many synagogues have cantors and choirs that can bring congregants closer to God.
At my synagogue, Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair, we don’t have a cantor or a choir. Instead, we have a band. Yes, a band! In fact, two of them! The Park Street Band (named for our Park Street address) is a grassroots quartet or quintet (depending on who is in town) that performs every second Friday night of the month. I’m the piano player. With Rabbi David Greenstein’s mellifluous voice and the other instruments of the band — the flute, mandolin, bass, and violin, and more — we enhance an already spiritual Kabbalat Shabbat service.
However, it is our multi-generational Simcha Band that has stolen my heart. We debuted on Purim 2010. The eight of us — ranging in age from 10 to 75 years old — banged, pounded, clinked, clanked, and tooted at the mention of Haman’s name. As the little kids marched in the costume parade, our cacophony became music. We played traditional songs about three-cornered hats and a wicked, wicked man. Between chapters of the Megillah, we performed songs about miracles and the joyous month of Adar. We even added a few Israeli folksongs to our playlist.
After our initial Purim performance, the band was invited for repeat appearances and you couldn’t keep us away! My treasure trove of Jewish music, overflowing from my piano bench or crammed into a cabinet in the family room, finally served me well. I became one of several piano players as well as band manager and archivist. Mark, a philosophy professor and professional jazz flutist, became our conductor.
What about our musicians? We’ve watched our 10-year-old saxophone players mature into middle and high school musicians. I confess I had a lump in my throat when the teen “veterans” mentored the new recruits. We were as proud as grandparents when our 10-year-old cellist graduated from playing his child-sized instrument to an adult one.
Occasionally, a retired schoolteacher played violin next to our school-age violinist. Our New York Times journalist and violinist often came directly from work, jumping off the DeCamp Bus and landing in the pit. Our cardiologist/bass fiddle player had two hands on the bass and a third hand on his cell phone in case of an emergency.
When Rob joined our congregation two years ago, he simultaneously joined the Simcha Band. Rob played his great-grandfather’s 100-year-old saxophone, which his mother had played in her high school marching band. He called the sentimental value of his sax “priceless.”
Sylvia, our new trumpet player, picked up her horn for the first time since her husband Mel, also a trumpeter, died five years ago. I like to think the allure of the Simcha Band was irresistible. Sylvia got her embouchure back in no time and as a bonus, her daughter, Alice, joined us on the cello.
New to the synagogue and new to Judaism, Fred decided to take out his gorgeous Italian accordion, buried in his closet for 30-plus years, and learn some holiday songs. At his debut last Chanukah, he sat next to one of our four piano players, who ranged in age from 12 to over 60.
This year’s Chanukah performance on Dec. 9 is rapidly approaching. Sixteen musicians played in last year’s Chanukah band. I know I can’t count on that extraordinary number all the time. Unfortunately, our French horn player has a business trip and one of our saxophone players is singing elsewhere in a choir. Our original drummer is away at college but fortunately, two drummers — a law professor and a tween — will replace him.
The band is ever-changing but I do know the psalmists were right. No matter who is in the band and how many musicians we have, the multi-generational Simcha Band will “Sing to Him a new song; play sweetly with shouts of joy” (Psalm 33).
Merrill Silver of Montclair is an ESL teacher at JVS of MetroWest in East Orange and a B’nei mitzvah tutor at Congregation Shomrei Emunah in Montclair.