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Rabbi Mark Solomon - M’nucha V’simcha

M’nucha V’simcha
Shalom Aleichem
V’hi She’amda

Rabbi Mark Solomon“I was born in Sydney, Australia in 1963 and I am fifth generation Australian on both sides of my family except for my mother’s father who came from Manchester as a young boy in about 1913. His father was born in Russia.

Before the post-war influx there was a small Jewish community in Australia and the first 14 Jews were convicts who came as part of the first white settlement with Captain Phillip in 1788. Many more convicts arrived over the next 70 years or so and from the early 19th century there were also Jewish free settlers, generally young men who went to Australia to seek their fortunes.

I have at least one convict ancestor - Mordechai Moses, a Polish Jew from London who was transported in 1846 for forging Polish bank notes. His son, who had anglicised his name to George Moss, was already in Sydney as a free settler and an upstanding citizen. It must have been a huge humiliation when his father arrived on a convict ship but he found him a job as sexton of the first Jewish cemetery and later shammas of one of the first synagogues. According to the records he was quite knowledgeable in Hebrew and Judaism despite his shady practices in London!

That was on my mother’s side. On my father’s side the earliest Solomon settler was Mordechai Solomon who went as a free settler in 1823, I assume to make his way in the colonies. I had a very Australian background.

Although my mother was always very involved with synagogue life I can’t really say that I have any melodies that have come to me down through the family. However we did have Seders at my grandparents every year and I’m sure that there were melodies that my grandfather sang that he would have learned in Manchester. Those Seders came to an end sometime between the time I was nine and fourteen when my grandmother and then my grandfather died.

My father had a Jewish background but grew up with very little Judaism in his home so really it was I who learned things and brought them to the family table. My mother had been singing in the choir at the Great Synagogue in Sydney all her life but in 1974 the rabbi turfed the women out of the choir on orders from the Chief Rabbi in London. This was all part of Anglo-Jewish orthodoxy becoming more and more right-wing and mixed choirs going out of style. It was horrible but as a result, about a year later, they drafted in some trebles as having only adult male voices wasn’t working. I was one of the first and so I succeeded my mother, which was rather nice.

As a teenager I became more and more religious, much to my parents’ distress, and then became involved with the Lubavitchers which was pretty much the only intensively religious show in town. I spent many years sitting regularly at Shabbat tables of rabbis and chazzans and picked up a lot of melodies, especially for Zmirot. Although the Lubavitchers don’t traditionally sing the standard Shabbat Zmirot, some do sing the Kabbalistic ones written in the 16th century by Isaac Luria. These are in Aramaic and are sung before Kiddush rather than, as usual, after the meal. I know two melodies for M’nucha v’Simcha I know two melodies, the first you may recognise as the one usually used for Lecha Dodi.

I knew from about the age of fourteen that I wanted to be a rabbi and when I finished high school I went to yeshiva in Melbourne for two years, the only one in Australia. After yeshiva I spent a year in Israel and then went back to Sydney for about five years to go to university where I majored in English. I wasn’t deeply involved in Judaism during that time although I did go to schul and sang in the choir. In 1988 I came to England to continue my rabbinic studies at Jews’ College and at the beginning of 1990 I became student rabbi at Watford United Synagogue where I worked for two-and-a-half years.

One of the people I was closest to was Rebbetzin Esther Ehrman, the widow of the previous minister. She was a most remarkable woman, extremely brilliant, amazingly cultured and very devout. I used to go to her very often for Shabbat lunch and she knew lots of interesting melodies that I’d never heard anywhere else. There are a couple I remember - this is Shalom Aleichem and I’ll sing it as best I can although she would sing each of the four verses three times, each verse to a different tune - a Kabbalistic tradition that took ages!

I learned my Seder melodies from a mixture of sources. These days I conduct a lot of Seders and invite people to share their melodies. Amongst some of the unusual melodies I have is a fairly new Lubavitcher version of V’Hi She’amda from the time of the last Rebbe I rather doubt this has gone much beyond Lubavitcher spheres but since I don’t mix in orthodox circles any more I don’t know for sure.”

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