“The spirit of creativity comes from a place deep within us,” observes Dr. Elayne Robinson Grossman. “It comes from a desire to connect and to matter to somebody.”
In Grossman’s case, it quite literally served to connect her with the man who would become her husband, Daniel Grossman, now Rabbi Emeritus of Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville.
But for those who faced the incomprehensible, creativity allowed self-expression under a regime that denied its victims their humanity and often robbed them of their lives. Through the horrors of the Holocaust, the ember of creativity sustained hope.
Grossman was scheduled to deliver a pre-concert lecture for Princeton Pro Musica presentation of “Annelies,” James Whitbourn’s full-length choral work inspired by the diary of Anne Frank. The March 15 performance at Princeton University’s Richardson Auditorium was canceled due to coronavirus concerns.
“Annelies” sports a libretto by Melanie Challenger, who distilled the text from “Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl.” (Annelies was Frank’s birth name.) The diary was published for the first time in 1947. It has been translated into more than 65 languages, making it one of the world’s most-read books. Seventy-five years after Frank’s death, it continues to be taught in public schools.
Frank was 13 when she began her diary. Over the next two years she would confide her innermost thoughts while documenting her family’s experiences and interactions as they lived in hiding in their “Secret Annex” overlooking Nazi-occupied Amsterdam. Her last entry was made on August 1, 1944, three days before the family’s discovery and arrest. Having survived Auschwitz, Anne and her sister, Margot, died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen. Her mother, Edith Frank, died of starvation. Her father, Otto, miraculously survived. It is he who edited Anne’s diary for publication. In more recent years an unexpurgated version has also been made available.
The diary continues to resonate because it puts a human face on unfathomable statistics — the murder of 17 million people, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, six million of them Jews; also, Roma, Blacks, Slavs, homosexuals, the physically and mentally disabled, clergy, artists, Communists, and other religious and political undesirables. Anne’s light is only one of millions to have been snuffed out, but her diary makes the Holocaust tangible in a cumulatively powerful way.
“We can’t fathom the millions,” Grossman says. “We can focus on the one girl. We can focus on her family and her circle of people. It makes us feel, which is what a good work of art does. She kept a diary, but it is so much more than a diary. It’s so much more than the one girl in hiding. It’s a diary that calls out to the entire world.”
In relation to Whitbourn’s piece, Grossman says, “The music on top of it, expressing these emotions, but in an unsentimental way, makes it all the more compelling. It takes the already heart-wrenching and universal story, and it heightens it. There’s fear, there’s fright, there’s hope, there’s coming of age, there’s longing, there’s looking up at the sky and still being able to say there are good things in the world.”
Even in hiding the Franks were in constant danger of discovery. Yet Anne continued to put pen to paper. What’s remarkable is that so many others did the same.
“Anne Frank’s diary is but one of many, many diaries that were written by children,” Grossman says. “As the years have gone on, they’ve been found in attics, in basements, in concentration camps. People had books and artworks and diaries in floorboards, inside walls, in empty milk bottles. Things were written in the hope that they would be found.
“One of the things I’ll be talking about is how people had a burning urge to be alive and to do something that would make them feel connected. They’d write on whatever they could find. They hid these crumpled bits of whatever, and they did so at the peril of death.”
Frank herself had literary ambitions. After listening to a 1944 radio broadcast from London, in which exiled Dutch Minister for Education, Art, and Science Gerritt Bolkestein called for civilians to preserve their diaries and letters as evidence of the atrocities wrought by the Nazis, Frank decided to redraft her diary, for clarity and consistency, with future readers in mind.
Whitbourn’s “Annelies” sports a number of Princeton connections. The work was given its U.S. premiere at Westminster Choir College in April, 2007, in a version for choir and chamber orchestra. The soprano soloist was Lynn Eustis, and the performance was directed by James Jordan, with the composer in attendance.
Whitbourn, who is on the faculty of music at Oxford University, has served as composer-in-residence at Westminster and enjoys a special relationship with the college.
Jordan would record “Annelies” with his Westminster Williamson Voices for the Naxos label. On that occasion, Arianna Zukerman was the soprano. The instrumental parts were played by the Lincoln Trio and clarinetist Bharat Chandra. The recording was nominated for a 2014 Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance.
The participants reunited last April for another, special performance at Washington National Cathedral, to mark what would have been Frank’s 90th birthday.
Lily Arbisser, Princeton Pro Musica’s scheduled soloist, is a 2008 Princeton University graduate. She received her bachelor of arts degree in art and archeology and a certificate in vocal performance. She earned her master’s from Mannes College of Music in New York. She divides her time between operatic, choral, and recital performances. With Princeton Pro Musica, she has performed Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ “Serenade to Music.”
Princeton Pro Musica artistic director and conductor Ryan James Brandau is also a Princeton alumnus. He received a B.A. in music in 2003 before heading to Yale for his master’s and a doctorate. He also attended Cambridge University as a Gates Scholar, earning an MPhil in historical musicology.
In addition to his duties as artistic director of Princeton Pro Musica, he is director of Monmouth Civic Chorus and Amor Artis in New York City. He is on the faculty of Westminster Choir College.
Elayne Robinson Grossman was born in Brooklyn. She settled in the area when she married Rabbi Daniel Grossman, who was born in Philadelphia. The two met at a bar mitzvah in 1979. Again, the attraction was creativity — the desire to communicate.
“We both felt very close to the creative exploits and accomplishments of the Jewish people,” Grossman says. “My connection was through music, and he was somewhat of a poet.”
She relates that he was wearing a modern, multi-color tallit, or prayer shawl, when they met, and that children flocked around him. “He loves to tell stories. He’s very creative. I asked him the story of that tallit, and we haven’t stopped talking since.” The couple married in 1980.
Over the course of his career Rabbi Grossman dedicated himself to inclusivity as an advocate of special education programs and counseling for those who often found themselves marginalized. With his wife, he has performed “Siman Tov,” an entertainment that incorporates sign language, mime, music, and storytelling to bring an audience closer to the world of the Jewish deaf. The couple also produced a recording of songs for Jewish children, “Help Us Bake a Challah.” Rabbi Grossman retired in 2014 after 25 years of service at Adath Israel. The congregation was founded in Trenton in 1923 and moved to Lawrenceville in 1991.
Elayne Grossman directs her own choir, Sharim v’Sharot (Hebrew for “People of Song”), a four-part a cappella group she founded 20 years ago. In 2006 the ensemble joined with Princeton Pro Musica for “A Tapestry of Jewish Music by Gerald Cohen.”
Grossman is the first to admit that great art transcends ethnicity to speak to the wider world. Not all of Sharim v’Sharot’s members are Jewish. Nor is all of the music it performs by Jewish composers. Certainly, the appeal of some of its concerts, like the one coming up at Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, is broad.
On Tuesday, March 17, at 8 p.m., the group will participate in “Sing Hallelujah,” a celebration of Jewish voices for the Kimmel stage. Congregation choirs from Pennsylvania and New Jersey will join for an evening of songs by George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein, Sheldon Harnick, Stephen Schwartz, and Leonard Bernstein, with a special tribute to Stephen Sondheim in honor of his 90th birthday. Also featured will be two stars of Joel Grey’s acclaimed production of “Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish,” Steven Skybell (Tevye) and Jennifer Babiak (Golde). Selections from “Fiddler” will be performed. Cantor David F. Tilman will conduct.
On a more somber note, Sharim v’Sharot will be directed by Grossman as part of an annual Yom HaShoah observance, to be held at Adath Israel, 1958 Lawrenceville Road, in Lawrenceville, on Sunday, April 19, at 1:30 p.m. The interfaith Holocaust memorial will also include a lecture.
Then on Sunday, May 31, at 3 p.m., the choir will celebrate its 20th anniversary with a concert at Congregation Beth El, 375 Stony Hill Road, in Yardley, Pennsylvania. The program, “Music Inspired and Created by Jewish Women,” will include “Sim Shalom,” a newly commissioned work, by Cantor Benjie Ellen Schiller.
Grossman’s earliest musical memories concern her grandfather, a Polish immigrant who played Russian and Yiddish songs on the mandolin. “I, being the youngest grandchild, would sit at his feet in the apartment in Brooklyn and say, ‘Play me another, play me another!’” Now she owns the mandolin.
Her mother often assisted her father in the operation of his kosher butcher shop, but when Grossman began to study music, she took on other jobs. One of those was with a Cuban sugar company. One of the side benefits was that her mother was often sent home with tickets to the opera. Grossman attended performances at the Old Met and grabbed standing room tickets for Broadway shows.
She took piano lessons and attended Juilliard Prep, but when she graduated from high school at the age of 16 she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do. The siren call of music kept her in its thrall. At Brooklyn College she took voice lessons, sang in choruses, and even took early music classes. Along the way she learned every instrument she could lay her hands on.
She got to the point where she thought she wanted to be a general choral conductor. “I wanted to play the B minor Mass,” she says, “until I got a scholarship through NYU to study at the Rubin Academy of Music (now the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance). There I discovered the choral music of the Jewish people. And one thing led to another. The music was contemporary, it was classical, it was meant for the concert stage, it was creative. It was all the things I felt were important. I was hooked.”
Grossman would collect a master’s degree and a doctorate from NYU. From 1977 to 1999 she served as music director of New York City’s Rottenberg Chorale. She studied choral arranging with Alice Parker and edited and transcribed “The Flory Jagoda Songbook,” a collection of Sephardic songs from Yugoslavia. In demand as a voice teacher and as a vocal coach, she also taught woodwinds at Abrams Hebrew Academy in Yardley, where she served as director of the instrumental program until her retirement.
“I came back not to my father’s brand of Judaism, but to something that was more meaningful and egalitarian,” she says of her studies abroad. “Through whatever lens we filter the Creator — whether it’s Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist — whatever it is, I feel a connection to everybody, to all people.”
For more information on Princeton Pro Musica: 609-683-5122 or www.princetonpromusica.org.