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Faculty Profile: Joshua Jacobson

By Laurel Leff

During his first 20 years as a Northeastern music professor and director of choral activities, Joshua Jacobson had no interest in teaching Jewish music at the university.

Prof. Jacobson

Jacobson experienced Jewishness in his private life and with the Zamir Chorale of Boston, the Jewish ensemble he founded and directs. But at Northeastern, “I just wanted to be accepted as a real professor, as a real musician,” Jacobson recalled. “I didn’t want it to be ‘too Jewish’, as Jackie Mason would say.”

That changed in 1992 when Jacobson became the university’s first Stotsky Professor of Jewish Historical and Cultural Studies. Northeastern alumus Bernard Stotsky created the professorship to encourage Northeastern faculty to engage in research on the Holocaust. Jacobson took up the challenge, researching the music of prisoners in the Terezin ghetto in Czechoslovakia. His research set him on a path toward becoming a founding member of Jewish
Studies at Northeastern and for years the teacher of a popular course on the Music of the Jewish People.

As he prepares for retirement after 45 years on the Northeasternfaculty, Jacobson, 70, reflects on how he and Northeastern have changed in their approach to Jewishness.

Prof. Jacobson, 1972

Jacobson hadn’t even considered applying to Northeastern when
he graduated from Boston Latin School in 1965. Northeastern was considered a commuter school that gave “short shrift” to the humanities and liberal arts. He went to Harvard, with the intention of studying music. He had become interested in Jewish music as a 14-year-old at Camp Yavneh in New Hampshire, inspired by the camp’s music counselor, Stanley Sperber.

“I was a folk singer back in the 60s,” Jacobson recalled. “We played guitar and sang. I wasn’t interested in classical music until I met the man who became my mentor [Sperber], who interested me not just in classical music but choral music and specifically Jewish music.” Sperber became a world renowned conductor and is now a professor at the Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance in Israel where he has lived since 1972.

At Harvard, Jacobson felt like a latecomer to classical music. “All of these other students who were child prodigies were way ahead of me,” Jacobson said. “It was very disheartening.” His classmates included composer John Adams, whose works are now among the most performed of contemporary classical music. Robert Levin, a pianist, musicologist and artistic director of the Sarasota Music Festival, was a class ahead of him. “They were geniuses,” Jacobson said. “I managed to stick it out.” Jacobson sang in the glee club and wrote his senior thesis on Jewish liturgical music in the first part of the 20th century.

Jacobson graduated from Harvard in 1969. That same year Jacobson’s former camp counselor, Sperber, asked him to start a Jewish chorale group in Boston as Sperber had done in New York. Jacobson started the Zamir Chorale of Boston, which like its New York predecessor, performs Jewish liturgical pieces, major classical works, music of the Holocaust, new compositions, as well as Israeli, Yiddish, and Ladino folksongs.

As he organized Zamir, Jacobson also began a masters’ program in choral conducting at the New England Conservatory of Music. He received his masters’ degree in 1971. “I applied to Ph.D. programs and I didn’t get in anywhere I applied so I hung around NEC post graduate for a while,” Jacobson recalled. (He eventually received a Doctor of Music Arts in Choral Conducting from the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music.)

As he hung around the New England Conservatory, Jacobson noticed Northeastern needed someone to teach music appreciation courses. In the spring of 1972, he became an adjunct professor and soon after applied to be a chorale conductor and a faculty member. Jacobson got the position and joined the Northeastern faculty in the fall of 1972. He has never left.

But he has switched his focus at Northeastern since his early days.“There was very little Jewish activity on campus, very few Jewish students.” The chorus concentrated on masses and requiems. With the Stotsky professorship in 1992, Jacobson carved another path.

Prof. Jacobson

“I had to do research. It was very depressing, needless to say. But then when I saw the role that music played in the lives of victims and survivors, that was uplifting.”

Jacobson first tackled the music of those imprisoned in Terezin, the concentration camp in a Czech fortress town often known by its German name of Theresienstadt. His goal was to find music that had been composed or performed in the camp and learn what the music had meant to those imprisoned there. He began searching for scores and researching musicians’ lives. He traveled to Czechoslovakia to interview former inmates.

Jacobson’s research culminated in a November 1994 international symposium at Northeastern, “The Music of Terezin,” that included the world premiere of an opera written there.

The symposium also featured survivors who had been musicians in Terezin. “We brought … those who sang in the choir, who played in a chamber music group, as well as some who were professional musicians,” Jacobson said. “I’ll never forget the scene in the corridor outside my office when two of the survivors who hadn’t seen each other since the war saw each other.”

The Yavneh Choir, 1963.  Prof. Jacobson is second row, second from right.

Jacobson said he also was moved by “what music was able to do for the children” in Terezin. In 1942, the children had performed an opera, Brundibar, that was a thinly veiled attack on Hitler. “The children who are now adults would speak of the joy it gave them to hum these tunes as they went down the streets” of the ghetto, “like a secret message from one to the other.”

Jacobson continued his work in music of the Holocaust. He studied “Judischer Todessang” (the Jewish death song),
written by a Sachsenhausen inmate and based upon a Yiddish folk melody. The inmate wrote the song upon learning that other prisoners were about to be sent to a death camp. In “Judischer Todessang,” the 10 brothers of the original folk song (“Tsen Brider”) were killed in a gas chamber, the ultimate fate of the composer and the Sachsenhausen choir. Jacobson researched the background of the song in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and eventually published the music and conducted a performance of the song.

Given Jacobson’s growing research interest and his position as the Stotsky Professor, which was renewed for another three years, it’s not surprising the university turned to him when it wanted to develop a Jewish Studies program. The Dean of what was then the College of Arts and Sciences approached him about forming a Jewish Studies Committee.

The university realized “how few Jewish students there were at Northeastern compared to other universities in the area and how very weak Hillel was in terms of services offered to students whether it was kosher food or liturgical services,” Jacobson recalled. “It became like a chicken and the egg thing. There’s not that much because there are not that many Jewish students, and there are not that many Jewish students because there is not the kind of atmosphere to attract them. How do you break that vicious cycle? The thought was Jewish Studies could do that.” Because he held the Stotsky professorship, “I was the public Jewish Studies person at that time,” Jacobson said. In addition, Jacobson’s home college, Arts and Sciences, “would be the natural place for” a Jewish Studies program. “I was just coming off being [music] department chairman for nine years and had just gone back to the faculty,” Jacobson said. “I was ready for something else special.”

Prof. Jacobson conducting NUCS

Jacobson formed a committee with other faculty teaching courses with Jewish content or researching in the area, including
sociologist Debra Kaufman, history professor Gerald Herman and journalism professor James Ross. In 1995, the Jewish Studies Program with a Jewish Studies minor was launched. Jacobson’s course, “The Music of the Jewish People,” was a particularly popular part of the curriculum.

Jacobson made another major contribution to Jewish Studies at Northeastern through the Gideon Klein Award, named after the pianist and composer who was imprisoned at Terezin and other concentration camps until his death in 1945. (Klein’s sister was one of the Terezin survivors who attended Northeastern’s 1994 symposium.) Northeastern chemistry professor Bill Giessen established the Gideon Klein Award for a student to research the role of artists during the
Holocaust. Jacobson’s student, Virgil Bozeman, received the first Gideon Klein award in 1999 and presented a concert on Nazi censorship of the arts. The concert included the Nazi version of classical works, such as a Mozart opera in which the lyrics had been changed because the librettist was a Sephardic Jew. During the first years of the award, all the recipients were musicians who performed under Jacobson’s tutelage.

During his 45 years at Northeastern, Jacobson continued to conduct the Zamir Chorale of Boston, which has become the world’s premier Jewish chorus. For several decades, he also has taught in the cantorial school at Hebrew College and served as cantor at Congregation Shaarei Tefillah in Newton. Among his many publications is the book, Chanting the Hebrew Bible. Last spring Jacobson organized a major conference at Northeastern, “Chanting the Word of God: Cantillation in the World’s Religious Traditions.”

Prof. Jacobson and the Zamir Chorale of Boston

Jacobson plans to continue many of his current activities upon his Northeastern retirement. He will teach at Hebrew College, and work on several writing projects, as well as do guest conducting and guest teaching. He has one goal above all else, however.

“One of my big Don Quixote quests is to get more Jewish-connected repertoire into the programming of not just Jewish choirs but of high school choirs, community choirs, college choirs, professional choirs,” Jacobson said. “Most conductors don’t know of the existence of this music or they might be pressured by a parent or an organization to put something into the December concert. So they put in a stupid dreidel song which is more embarrassing than having nothing.”

Jacobson hopes to educate conductors and teachers about the Jewish compositions they could perform from Mendelsohn to Kurt Weil. The Zamir Chorale of Boston, which Jacobson will continue to direct, plans to establish a website to act as a repository with links to sheet music, audio and video recordings.

“I want to make sure this resource gets in the hands of conductors, conducting teachers, conducting students everywhere,” Jacobson said. As part of his outreach effort, inspired by Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir, Jacobson is creating the “Halleluyoh Virtual Choir,” using German-Jewish composer Louis Lewandowski’s setting of Psalm 150. Singers from around the world will video record themselves performing. The videos will then be synchronized into one single performance. “Hopefully, it will go viral as another way of introducing people to this repertoire that they may not know,” Jacobson said.

“This music deserves to be on programs and not just in December,” he said. “It’s sacred music, why not?”

Despite all his plans, Jacobson admits “a part of me is afraid of retirement.” Teaching and conducting at Northeastern have been so much a part of his identity. And having Jacobson teach and conduct at Northeastern has been so much a part of Jewish Studies’ identity. We will miss each other.

Read the rest of the Spring 2018 Haverim newsletter here:

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