Forum: The song lives on

In Perry Como's rendition of an important song in the Jewish High Holy Days, Bonnie Theiner hears the sounds of tolerance, respect and shared humanity

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In these times when we all have experienced the terrible effects of intolerance, it is comforting to recall a time, an occasion, a person whose actions represented more than tolerance. They exemplified the capacity for respect and appreciation.

The time was the early 1950s, the occasion was just prior to the Jewish Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. The person was native son and entertainment icon Perry Como, who died two years ago.

I was reminded of those days just recently when I received a birthday gift from my son -- a boxed set of audiotapes covering Como's career. As I enjoyed it, I commented that the collection was missing one piece of Como's music that I remember from my youth. On his hourlong weekly variety show, which held a highly honored place in the television viewing of its time, Como sang "Kol Nidre" at the appropriate time on the Jewish holiday calendar.

    Bonnie Theiner is a writer living in Squirrel Hill.  

Kol Nidre (pronounced Kol Nidray) refers to both the evening which precedes the day of Yom Kippur (the Jewish Day of Atonement) and the beautiful prayer that is chanted in synagogue and temple that evening. This year Kol Nidre is observed today. Yom Kippur begins this evening and concludes tomorrow evening.

Yom Kippur is the culmination of a 10-day period, beginning with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, of prayer, repentance and charity, of self-examination and reflection upon one's attitudes, behaviors and relations with God and with one's fellow man and woman. It is a time to seek forgiveness for wrongdoings, for not living up to one's potential for doing good and for resolving to be a better person through actions and aspirations. Yom Kippur is the end of the period of the High Holy Days and is the most holy of days of the Jewish holiday year, marked by prayer and fasting.

Tradition says one's fate, whether life or death in the coming year, is decided on Yom Kippur and written -- metaphorically, one hopes -- into the heavenly book of Life. The traditional greeting from the month before Rosh Hashana through Yom Kippur is "May you be inscribed [in the Book of Life] for a good year."

On Yom Kippur the mood is both solemn and hopeful, beginning with the chanting of Kol Nidre by the cantor of the synagogue or temple congregation. That evening to the next evening is spent prayer and fasting.

In search of information about Perry Como's rendition of Kol Nidre, my son went online and surprised us both by finding only one such record that was still available. Someone wanted to sell a small collection of Como's 45-rpm's and costing but "a song!"

When the records arrived, I was thrilled to find among them a recording of "Kol Nidre, "accompanied by the Mitchell Ayres Orchestra and Chorus. On the flip side was another unexpected treasure -- Perry Como singing "Eli, Eli," a plaintive folk prayer.

As I put the Perry Como's 45s on the record player, I expected a "blast from the past." Instead, when I played them through for the first time, tears rolled down my cheeks and chills ran up and down my spine. Como's renditions of "Kol Nidre" and "Eli, Eli" are amazingly beautiful.

The main languages of Jewish liturgy and its music are Hebrew, Yiddish, Aramaic and the native language of the congregation (mostly English in the United States). In his glorious voice, Como's interpretation of both prayers is impeccable -- his pronunciation of Aramaic for "Kol Nidre" and Hebrew and Yiddish for "Eli, Eli," his phrasing, his emotional emphases.

Then questions ran through my mind as I listened from the mature perspective of an adult. How did a son of Italian immigrants, a singer of mostly popular songs, come to sing and record Jewish prayers? How was Como coached in these efforts? Where? When? Who was his instructor? How did the Mitchell Ayres Orchestra and Chorus come into play? Most of all, why?

I had read an article about Perry Como by Salvator Caputo, former popular music critic for the Arizona Republic, which he had written for that newspaper and was carried by the Post-Gazette on May 27, 2001.

I contacted Mr. Caputo, and he was kind enough to give me some informative impressions about my queries, which included the dates and places of the recording. The answers to those questions are 1953 and Manhattan Center, New York City. The Mitchell Ayres Orchestra and Chorus was the musical group with which Como was regularly recording at the time.

I learned that Como's longtime manager was Mickey Glass, with whom I subsequently spoke personally. Glass informed me that Como had been coached by a member of the Mitchell Ayres Chorus who was a rabbi's son.

And the "why" of it all? There seems to have been a combination of reasons: the desire on Coma's part to do inspirational songs of all faiths; the immediate recognition of these two Jewish prayers by a significant segment of the audience; the poignancy and context of the words and the beauty of the music.

A person does not have to be a member of a faith to appreciate and enjoy its music and culture. I am reminded of the splendid singing of a profoundly beautiful Christian classic, "Ave Maria," at the funeral of former Vice President Hubert Humphrey by the Jewish operatic baritone Robert Merrill.

Another factor in Como's choice may have been the close availability of the tutor. I can only imagine the relationship between the knowledgeable tutor and talented and eager student. In addition to being a singer, Perry Como was a musician and musically astute. After all, the apt student, Como, mastered the music and the words in three unfamiliar languages with exact correctness and exquisite sensitivity.

I have always enjoyed listening to recordings of Jewish liturgical music by famous Jewish cantors and opera stars such as Richard Tucker and Jan Pierce. I'm so glad that when a man of another faith, a devout Christian, chose to sing Jewish liturgy that it was Perry Como. He was a true gentleman -- family man, devoted husband and father, with unblemished character and reputation in show business.

Today, on the eve of Yom Kippur this year, as my fellow congregants and I enter our synagogue, anything we carry, including a cloth bag that holds a talis (prayer shawl) will be inspected by a Pittsburgh police officer at each entrance. There will be security, both in uniform and in plainclothes, guarding the sanctuaries and the entire building. Attending a house of worship in these times of terrorist threats is more than an act of faith in the usual sense. And carefully planned security is required.

On the eve of Yom Kippur, I will listen raptly to the magnificent voice of the cantor of my own synagogue as he chants Kol Nidre, the dramatic prelude to the Jewish Day of Atonement. Two elders from the congregation will each hold a Torah scroll, taken from the Holy Ark, during the service.

At other times during the year, when I need to remember that people of different faiths can not only tolerate, but respect and truly appreciate the culture and music of others, I will listen to these Perry Como recordings.

In this world of war, terror, child murder, suicide bombers and religious hatred, these provide uplifting hope, what was and might again be. May you be inscribed for a good year.


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