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By Cheryl Kempler

Numerical passwords, flowing vestments, obscure biblical symbols: the forgotten remnants of old fraternal organizations.  It may be surprising that even B’nai B’rith members found such ceremonies enjoyable in the 19th century and incorporated them into lodge meetings—even after President Julius Bien wanted to modernize the organization and requested that they cease.

But rites and ceremonies persisted among members of The International Order of B’nai B’rith in Germany, Eastern Europe, America and the Middle East. Many ritual books have survived. A large collection of papers and memorabilia donated to the B’nai B’rith archives included a rare find: music for two initiation rite marches.

The sheet music cover for the processionals of the B’nai B’rith Ritual Suite illustrates The Ark of the Covenant, a golden casket which housed the original 10 Commandments in Solomon’s Temple.  Established by German Jewish immigrants with ties to philanthropies like the Order of Odd Fellows and the Masons, B’nai B’rith incorporated a number of visual symbols associated with these organizations.

Commissioned in 1928 by the women’s lodges of District 4 (the Western States, at the time), the suite was written by Aaron Avshalomov (1894-1965), the director of the Portland lodges’ B’nai B’rith Orchestra and Chorale.  A Russian émigré who had lived in Shanghai, his pioneering works were some of the first to fuse Chinese and Western musical styles. 

The entire suite is made up of the two processionals for the leaders (“Monitors”) and initiates, followed by three sequences, called “tableaux,” according to the composer’s introduction in the sheet music. The sequences are meant to depict Biblical heroines Ruth, Naomi, Rebecca and Esther on a stage, or bima. The themes may have been specifically requested by the women’s lodges.  Soon afterwards, Avshalomov provided music for the dedication of Portland’s Temple Beth Israel, a tribute honoring the same biblical heroines, titled Four Biblical Tableaux.     

Avshalomov wrote the musical sequences of the Four Biblical Tableaux in a Western style, but their oriental rhythms can be traced to the authentic Chinese music Avshalomov knew so well, and were most emphatically revealed in the gong-like percussion punctuating the tableaux “Rebecca at the Well.”  Describing this work, his son, the composer and conductor Jacob Avshalomov (1919-2013), recalled that Aaron “had scant Jewish education or religious upbringing…[but] that he had absorbed enough of his… heritage to both inspire and facilitate the composition of this work…”   

In his introduction to the B’nai B’rith music, Avshalomov declared that he conceived the piece as a tribute to the origins of Judaism’s ancient liturgy:

 “I only tried to find…the form and harmonies which would satisfy me as the Jew and musician of the present day…I may add that you will not find that in this music the wailing strains [of] the music of an abused and helpless nation, for in the flight of my imagination into the past I tried to avoid the times of the ’Pogroms,’ I flew back and heard the music of a proud, free and brave people…whose king was David and whose prophets spoke direct to God.”

In 1929 or 1930, Avshalomov, who by then was living in the United States, returned to Shanghai, where he became a powerful influence as a teacher and composer to generations of Chinese musicians.  In later years, Leopold Stokowski and other eminent conductors included repertory by Avshalomov in concerts in the United States.  Aaron and his son Jacob, who directed the Portland Youth Philharmonic for many years, would co-author a book of memoirs, Avshalomovs’ Winding Way: Composers Out of China-a Chronicle.

The subsequent history of the B’nai B’rith Ritual Suite is unknown.  But, 40 years after its Temple Beth Israel premiere, Four Biblical Tableaux was rediscovered by Jacob, who led a performance in Portland in 1971.  Gerard Schwarz and the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra made recorded it in Germany in 1999.

As the founder of a musical dynasty, the legacy of Avshalomov continued to resonate through Jacob and Aaron’s grandsons, Daniel, a concert violist and music professor, and David, a conductor, vocalist and composer whose award-winning pieces for chorus, orchestra, band and chamber groups are heard worldwide.   Compositions for viola and strings by Aaron, Jacob and David, are played by Daniel and other musicians in the 1997 CD album, Three Generations: Avshalomov.