At a rehearsal last week for Temple Israel of Hollywood’s May 8 Yom HaAtzmaut service, Chazzan Danny Maseng, guitar in hand, a colorful, knitted kippah on his curly hair, inspired the synagogue’s choir by explaining the context of Hebrew poet Leah Goldberg’s hymn, “Pizmon Le’Yakington” (Moon Tune).
“You have to understand, she writes in a time in Tel Aviv where the tallest building is three stories high, all whitewashed, all avenues are open to the sea,” he told the group. “Not a cloud in this sky. We won the War of Independence. Ain’t nothing bad going to happen again.”
Following his charismatic lead-in, the choir sang with just the right airiness to the four-part harmony Maseng wrote for this song. He closed his eyes as they sang of how “the blossoming hyacinth in our garden abounds,” seemingly transported to a porch in Tel Aviv when all was good in Zion.
Maseng’s blissful smile also bore the satisfaction of hearing a dream materialize. As the new cantor and musical director of the 82-year-old Reform synagogue since last summer, when he assumed a role held for more than 30 years by the highly esteemed now Cantor Emeritus Aviva Rosenbloom, this once mostly itinerant Israeli American composer and performer of Jewish liturgical music has found a home for his vision: the preservation and dissemination of popular Israeli song.
“I believe that in Israel, more so than anywhere else, popular song is not only a reflection of Israeli culture, society, politics, history, war, moods and so forth, but it’s a part of the determinant of what it means to be Israeli,” Maseng (pronounced mah-sing), 58, said in an interview at his synagogue office, which also serves as his studio, with a keyboard and computer. Maseng has composed harmonies for chorale arrangements for many Israeli songs, including those being performed at Temple Israel of Hollywood (TIOH), and he is writing a book on the subject of Israel through its songs.
“So many of the great songs are already being forgotten as we speak.”
Alongside his more conventional cantorial duties, he plans to “make sure there will be in this country’s archive a collection of the finest of Israeli music arranged in a manner that is on the highest professional level that can be sung by any choir anywhere at anytime,” he said, adding “sometimes it’s easier to preserve things away from the source.”
It’s a perfect harmonization of Maseng’s unconventional professional background and lineage.
He grew-up in Tzhalah, a small town known for being home to some of Israel’s top military leaders, including Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon. Maseng rose to fame in Israel as a singer, recording artist and radio and television personality, having written and performed with leading singers and songwriters of the 1970s, among them Natan Alterman, Efraim Shamir, Ehud Manor, Shlomo Gronich and Mati Caspi.
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Video by Orit Arfa
His father was an American of Norwegian-Lutheran descent who converted to Judaism after volunteering as a pilot in Israel’s War of Independence. His mother served in the Haganah.
He learned about Judaism from his grandfather, Rabbi Harry Davidovich, who was among the first immigrants to the land of Israel to hold ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary, but who, as a non-Orthodox rabbi, couldn’t practice in Israel.
“He considered himself a Chasid,” Maseng said, who describes his grandfather as a “genius.” He held four doctorates and translated all of Shakespeare and Chaucer to Hebrew.
Not long after his grandfather died in 1973, Maseng moved to the United States in search of “anonymity,” turning to Zen Buddhism for 14 years. He found a new spiritual guide in his Zen master, who nevertheless kept prodding him to “go home”— to Judaism.
Maseng himself fought in two of Israel’s wars, but now he has taken the fight to the artistic sphere.
“Israel constantly seems to want to push how smart we are, how technologically advanced we are, how strong the army is, which to me isn’t the point,” he said. “What Israel has that’s unique is an extraordinary output of the arts in such a condensed period of time.”
Preserving and promoting Israeli music may seem like an unlikely task for any synagogue in the Diaspora, but Maseng finds a common denominator between Israeli music and Jewish liturgy.
“I’m interested in the synthesis of the finest of Israeli culture with the cantorial part. Hebrew is essentially about what it means to be a Jew, much more so than any other major religion in the world. You don’t need to speak Latin or Greek to be a good Christian.” He sees Israeli popular music — the traditional sort, not necessarily contemporary pop — as uniquely centered around the lyrics, much like Jewish liturgy.
Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi at Temple Israel and president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America for the Pacific Southwest region, has given Maseng his full blessing to make Israel a prominent feature of the synagogue’s cantorial repertoire.
“I loved that he’s Israeli and that he is equally at home in America,” said Rosove, who considers TIOH very Israel-oriented. Maseng’s elementary school in Tzhalah happens to be TIOH day school’s Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership twin school.
Rosove hopes Maseng will draw more Israeli congregants. “There’s a challenge here to bring more Israelis into synagogue life as religious Jews on a liberal plane.”
For now, Maseng is importing some of Israel to Hollywood, as with the Yom HaAtzmaut chorale. “I just wanted to do a service that would feel like what you could imagine one sounding like on Friday night in a kibbutz, or in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.”