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Gerald Wolpe

I met [Stefan] at a concert, and we began a delightful relationship that was regrettably short. We spent a great deal of time talking about the family background. The Wolpe family originated in Lithuania, although there was a tradition (later established by a genealogist in the family) that we were the descendants of a convert to Judaism from Italy. We were not able to trace a direct relationship, but we found enough instances where we were related to the same people to establish that we were cousins. He was delighted to know that we were related to Arnold Volpe, who was born in Lithuania in 1869 and came to America in 1898. Arnold was a fine conductor. He founded the Lewisohn Stadium Concerts in New York in 1918, and then founded the University of Miami Symphony Orchestra in 1926. After Arnold died in 1940, his wife Marie was executive director of the University of Miami Symphony Orchestra, and Stefan indicated that he wanted to be in touch with her. I am not sure if he did.

As I went through my rabbinic training Stefan and I would meet from time to time. We had one important evening's conversation about my work in rabbinical school. He surprised me with his knowledge of Jewish sources, and I had the feeling that he was in the midst of a search for some of his religious needs. His connection with leftist causes was clearly articulated, but there were also piercing questions about the meaning of the Tradition as I understood it. He was clearly sympathetic with my choice of career.

Cantor David Putterman commissioned a work from Stefan, and, since I knew both of them, I was present at many of their meetings. The Third Annual Sabbath Eve Service of Liturgical Music by Contemporary Composers was held at the Park Avenue Synagogue on May 11, 1945. While the compositions by the other composers--Bernstein, Milhaud, Tedesco, Binder, etc.--were given complete, only an excerpt of the Yigdal was performed. Some time later Putterman arranged a concert of liturgical music at the Seminary. It was, to my knowledge, the first time that he created a concert outside of the Park Avenue Synagogue. It was an extended program of both instrumental and vocal music, but unlike the Park Avenue Synagogue concert, it contained more liturgical pieces. I remember Leonard Bernstein's Hashkevanu and Stefan's Yigdal. To my recollection it was the debut of the complete Yigdal.

Frankly, much of the music was above the understanding of the audience. There were some students from Juilliard, which was at that time directly across from the Seminary. They were enthralled. Many of the others wondered why it sounded different from the pieces they were used to hearing in the synagogue. I was a little uneasy for Stefan. His ire was not directed toward the audience, but rather to the musicians, for he felt that the chorus and the soloists were not chosen well. We had a cup of coffee together after the concert, but it was not one of our most pleasant meetings. He was clearly upset.

Rabbi Gerald Wolpe (b. 1927), a graduate of New York University, received his Doctor of Divinity from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he later became Director of the Finkelstein Institute. He spent 46 years as a pulpit rabbi, of which 30 years were at Har Zion Temple, Penn Valley, Pennsylvania. His career also includes a twenty-five year history of teaching in medical schools and numerous publications on ethics and theology. He retired in 1999. Written communication, 1997.


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