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Eleanor Wexler - Adir Hu

Adir Hu
Ki Lo Na’eh Ki Lo Ya’eh
L’shanah Haba’ah Birushalayim


Eleanor Wexler“These tunes come from the Ukraine, where my parents were born. My late mother, Anna Antonovsky, came from a farming village called Targovitsa in the province of Podolya Gubernia. The village was later incorporated into a larger town and no longer exists. My late father, David Wexler, was born in Uman, near Kiev. My maternal grandfather was the village chazzan. I don’t know whether these tunes are his or just those most popular with the local Jewish community. My grandparents never left the Ukraine.

My mother was a brilliant linguist and her gift for languages saved the lives of many of her fellow-Jews during the pogroms, when she hid them in the cellar of the chemist shop where she was apprenticed. She dealt with the pursuing mob in flawless Russian, Polish or Ukrainian dialect, without a hint of Yiddish inflection, which was usually a giveaway of Jewish identity. Despite the opposition from her orthodox father, even more than from the anti-Jewish Czarists and Bolsheviks, she had a secular education but was unable to complete it before she had to flee the country. She also outraged her father by sneaking off to sing and dance with the local peasants.

My parents escaped the worst of the pogroms in the Ukraine and arrived in New York, a young married couple, in 1921, after a long and difficult journey in steerage and the usual Ellis Island processing. My parents and my mother’s brother Isaac, who followed soon after with his wife and child, settled in Brooklyn, where I was born. The rest of my mother’s family remained in the Ukraine and, fortunately, survived World War II. My father’s elder brother settled in Washington, D.C. His eldest sister had gone to England much earlier on. Two more sisters remained in the Ukraine, and sadly, disappeared without trace during the war. They were living in Kharkov at the time, where the fighting was very intense.

At the time my parents came to the United States immigrants had to have a sponsor and so my great-uncle, Nahum Spector, who had emigrated much earlier, vouched for them and found my father a job as salesman for a small wholesaler supplying chemist shops. His first customers must have been immigrants as well, as he didn’t speak a word of English. I don’t how he handled all those pharmaceutical terms. As soon as my elder sister and I were off to school my mother enrolled in the state education program for foreigners and earned a diploma which was presented by Eleanor Roosevelt in New York’s Carnegie Hall.

At home our religious life was expressed more in faith than in practice. Formal observance was minimal - synagogue once a year, rather lax kashrut, extra cleaning on Friday and candles for Shabbes. I was taught the Sh'ma for bedtime and the Modeh Ani upon arising. Missing school for the festivals was the best part. My sister Leah went to Talmud Torah and I learned the ‘Aleph-Beis’ from her copy of the ‘Reishis-Das’. I got the piano lessons! As we were Zionists I studied Modern Hebrew, all in the Sephardic accent, at high school and later at New York University, which was the first in the country to establish a Chair of Hebrew Studies. Yiddish was my second mother-tongue and at home we spoke both English and Yiddish, with great helpings of Yiddish jokes and songs. With my great-uncle it was strictly Yiddish. It was considered more respectful. Despite the absence of formality in our religious life, faith crept in when I watched my mother at the kitchen sink, head back, eyes closed, holding a dish in the air midway to the sink, singing her favourite bits of chazzanut for the pleasure they gave her. There was no escaping the waves of fervour.

Seder was where fun and religion met. We always held it with my Uncle Isaac and his family, and we recited every word, start to finish, both nights, singing where possible, interrupting for discussion. We used the Eastern Ashkenazic accent in the early days, and as children we thought that was the way Jews spoke Hebrew all over the world. Later on, when we learned Modern Hebrew in the Sephardic accent, we thought it very comical and old-fashioned, but some of it stuck despite ourselves, and explains the mixture of accents and the irreverent mimicking in this recording.

My eventual synagogue affiliation came about when I worked in Brussels for the US Forces. In the late 1960s I played a part in starting a progressive Jewish congregation, more for the company of other Jews - European, British and American - than for religious reasons. The World Union for Progressive Judaism sent Rabbi Lionel Blue to assist us and a Mrs Librovitch, the UK Reform Synagogues’ music librarian, sent us music for services. For our first High Holy Day services we hired a squeaky old harmonium which I played like a combination of piano and bicycle, and fashioned an Ark out of a second-hand armoire. Although I could sight-read well I hadn’t a clue what the cues were, so a rabbinic student called Mickey Boyden stood over me and said “now” in a loud whisper when it was time for me to play. This was the start of my synagogue life.

I started making trips to England for conferences and other events and got to know members of the British Reform community. At that stage my office was miraculously ordered by the US Government to relocate from Brussels to London and I arrived on Erev Rosh Hashana in 1969. Spoiled for choice, when I lived in London I didn’t officially join any synagogue, but once retired I moved to Leeds where I became a member of Sinai Synagogue. With Brussels as the gateway, I finally made my way to a flourishing Reform Jewish community.”

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