TORONTO — Ben Steinberg, left, has spent half his life serving Toronto’s Temple Sinai Congregation, where he is composer-in-residence.
On the synagogue’s website, Steinberg is credited as “our guardian of tradition and keeper of sacred music.” To honour him and celebrate his 80th birthday, which was in January, the synagogue is hosting a musical celebration on Friday, April 30.
The evening will feature the Cleveland Duo and James Umble, a musical trio who as part of their performance will perform Asei L’cha Rav, originally written in honour of the retirement of Temple Sinai’s founding Rabbi Jordan Pearlson, who died in 2008. The piece features a traditional misheberach prayer that blesses those who serve their communities.
In his comfortable and calm office at the temple, Steinberg spoke of his “very close and warm relationship” with the congregation. After he retired as music director in 1996, he was invited to stay on in his current role.
“I’m still composing, and sometimes I continue to do a little bit of lecturing,” Steinberg said. His career has included travel to several American cities, as well as Hong Kong and Australia, often as a scholar-in-residence.
A Japanese koto – a stringed musical instrument – on display in his office is a souvenir from Japan, where Steinberg has toured four times, most recently three years ago.
A widely respected composer, conductor and lecturer, Steinberg has received numerous awards and honours, including two from the city of Jerusalem, where he was an artist-in-residence in 1978. His 1979 cantata, Echoes of Children, commemorating the 1.5 million children murdered in the Holocaust, won a prestigious International Gabriel broadcasting award.
A native of Winnipeg who grew up in Toronto, Steinberg was a child soloist by the age of eight and conducted his first synagogue choir four years later. His father, the late Cantor Alexander Steinberg, who had immigrated from Russia, was serving Shaarei Shomayim Congregation at the time.
After completing his studies at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory of Music and the University of Toronto, Steinberg got his professional start composing for radio and television shows in the 1950s.
But he never really left synagogue music, he said. “The path I was most comfortable with was synagogue music. I loved it. I remember from my earliest childhood that the two forces that were strongest in my life were music and Judaism. That was my identity.”
He had minimal contact with Reform Judaism until about 1950, when he discovered that “good music was going on” within the movement.
“My [Orthodox] father, to his everlasting credit, encouraged my path.”
Most of Steinberg’s work is inspired by Jewish text, he said. The Hebrew words have “great depth and meaning… [connecting] us to our peoplehood and to our past.”
Sounding a lighter, personal note, Steinberg – who is also an amateur carpenter and a grandfather of four – said it’s fun to deal with the texts in the context of the music, which may be more modern.
The word “fun” crops up often when Steinberg talks about his work, despite his seriousness about the music and about imparting his knowledge of aspects of Jewish music ranging from Yiddish – his first language – to Yemenite Jewish music.
“You can sweeten the teaching process if you can use humour,” he noted. “But the purpose was always very serious. I wanted Jews to learn more about Judaism and our tradition.”
That was the basis for the series he founded 40 years ago at Temple Sinai, named – with deliberate intent – “Our Musical Legacy.” An affiliated award for young Jewish musicians – some of whom are now affiliated with major symphony orchestras – was renamed in Steinberg’s honour on his retirement.
Among the events Steinberg organized at the temple over the years were chamber music performances, and an annual Yiddish night that Steinberg “stretched” to include Sephardi music.
“I got a kick out of that,” he said.