By: Mozelle Mimran
For Jews of Syrian descent, perhaps nothing defines the rich heritage of the old country more than the delectable foods and melodic tunes that are part of our tradition. As a community, we can confidently assert that transmission of our culinary heritage is assured thanks to the countless recipes for kibbe, lahmagine, yebraand other delicacies diligently recorded for posterity in a plethora of quality cookbooks that have circulated throughout the Jewish world. But when it comes to chronicling our musical tradition– pizmonim, makamim, and hazanut–it seems that documentation efforts have been markedly less abundant.
Of course, the wonderful sounds of pizmonim will flow at our celebrations, passed down from father to son verbally and ephemerally. I still remember to this day the thrill of hearing my father’s rendition of the Azharot (liturgical poems which enumerate the 613 commandments) and Megilat Rut (the scroll of Ruth) every Shavuot. The pizmon and ta’amim (cantillation notes) still give me such a sense of wonder and pleasure, and it became my deepest wish that my own son would learn the melodies in order to pass them on to his children. Every year, I lamented that I was not able to tape my father’s recitation for posterity, due to the observance of yom tov (the Jewish holiday). I worried that the traditional tunes would be lost – that feeling of connection to our great heritage, forgotten.
Indeed, the tunes of many pizmonim and nuances of traditional Syrian hazanut might have been lost if not for the efforts of acclaimed hazanim (cantors) like Gabriel Shrem a.h. and Moshe Dwek a.h. who painstakingly recorded these treasures. Now, thanks to a handful of dedicated community members, the old recordings of Hazan Moshe Dwek, a.h., have been remastered and organized into an exquisite collection of Syrian musical history that reflect his vision and talent.
A dedicated hazan in the Jersey Shore community, Moshe Dwek understood the need for preserving our great Sephardic melodies and traditions. He took it upon himself to tape record the various liturgical melodies as well as pizmonim and makamim, a distinct series of notes, characteristic of our ancient music. Silvana Dwek, his beloved wife, related “Moshe, a.h., purchased the tapes of Gabriel Shrem a.h. and studied them diligently so he could then teach others in the same way.”
A Born Educator
Moshe was hired as the hazan of the Sephardic minyan in Brother’s of Israel Congregationin Elberon, New Jersey – the precursor to the now thriving Ohel Simha Congregation. He would serve the kinees (synagogue) for some 20 years, during which time he honed his mastery of the art of hazanut, until his untimely passing in 1999.
In addition to teaching congregants the pizmonim and traditional melodies of the prayers and running a youth program at the Sephardic minyan, Moshe was also the director of Sephardic studies at Hillel Yeshiva where he taught students the traditional Syrian style of praying. To enhance his teaching program at Hillel and, later, at Deal yeshiva, he prepared his own tapes of the pizmonim, te’amim and holiday prayers – including arrangements from Shabbat, the High Holidays,Selihot (penitential poems and prayers), and Shalosh Regalim (Three Pilgrimage Festivals). Although the tapes were made in a rudimentary way on a cassette recorder in Moshe’s living room, they became the mainstay of his educational program and a wonderful resource to all his students.
Countless young boys learned the proper way to read the Torah for their bar missva under his tutelage. Mrs. Dwek adds, “Moshe was a born educator. He would always say, ‘I am not a singer or an entertainer. I am a hazan.’ Moshe was a humble man who loved his children and his students, loved his kinees and his kahal (congregation)”.
In a day and age when there are so many distractions for children, Moshe was able to attract a surprising number of young boys to a Sunday youth program where he taught them pizmonim. “The boys knew that he loved them and would come to sit and sing with him during se’uda shelisheet”, recalls Silvana.
A Hazan’s Legacy Lives On
When Moshe Dwek passed away, a vital part of our heritage went with him. Thankfully, to his brother Haim the tapes were gathered and organized in their proper order. Then some years later Jack Falack and Haim Arking, hazan at Congregation Ohel Simha organized them on cd with tracks and accompanying booklet. “Moshe, a.h., was a dear friend with a tremendous amount of talent and knowledge of traditional songs,” Mr. Falack describes. “In addition to his professionalism and ability to set just about any prayer to a traditional pizmon melody, he would bring happiness with his music.”
After reviewing the tapes, Mr. Falack and Rabbi Arking collaborated with Rico Toussoun – who was known for his work in distributing recordings of Torah classes in the community for many years – to re-master the cassette tapes. Each individual song was placed on a separate track so that they could be easily accessed by the listener and the sound was digitally enhanced and fine-tuned. The result is a quality, user friendly 15 CD set.
“When you listen to the CDs,” Mr. Falack comments, “you can hear Moshe smiling. He loved what he was doing. “ The CD’s encompass the full gamut of liturgical melodies, pizmonim, megillot, selihot, ta’amim for the Torah and haftara readings, as well as authentic hazanut in the Syrian tradition.
For the more advanced student, the recordings even reveal the secret of how to smoothly change from onemakam to another.According to Rabbi Arking, “The CDs are a very useful tool for hazanim, with several renditions of the tefilot like kadish and repetition of the shemona esre, as well as for the lay person who would like to know the traditional melodies.”
Along with the help of Moshe’s brother, Haim, a six-page reference catalogue of the contents of the CDs was created to make the set more user friendly. “We referenced the CD to the famous pizmon book Shir Ushvaha, the red book that we all use,” Mr. Falack explains, “giving the page number so the listener can follow along.” If a listener is looking for a specific pizmon or prayer, he can easily locate it using the table of contents guide. Mr. Falack noted that the original tapes are such a profound record of our heritage that they will be included in the archives of the new Sephardic Museum that is being planned.
Though modern technology may help us preserve the rich musical and liturgical tradition of our heritage, keeping that tradition alive is another matter. Few young people are fortunate enough to have access to someone from the older generation who can impart hazanut with impeccable fidelity. That’s where the value of Hazan Dwek’s work will have the most impact, ensuring that the essence of our community’s proud legacy of inspiring melodies continue for many generations to come.
The Hazan Moshe Dwek CD set makes a wonderful gift for a bar missva, graduation or any occasion. They can be purchased at Mekor Judaica in Brooklyn or by contacting Jack Falack at 646- 872- 2992.
Traditional kibbe is a torpedo-shaped fried croquette made of bulgur and stuffed with chopped meat; lahmagine, literally “meat with dough,” is a round, thin piece of dough topped with chopped meat; yebra is stuffed grape leaves.
Pizmonim are traditional Jewish songs and melodies with the intentions of praising Gd as well as learning certain aspects of traditional religious teachings; makamim are standard melody types and sets of related tunes; hazanut is the cantorial performance of songful prayer recited in a synagogue.