Remembering Ben Steinberg z”l
Last Friday, the Jewish World lost a magnificent composer and musician as we said goodbye to Ben Steinberg Z”L. Ben was not only a renowned composer and musician but before serving as Temple Sinai’s Composer-in-Residence he worked at Holy Blossom Temple as a music professional for 20 years. His musical influence is world-renowned and he elevated the reputation of Jewish music across the globe. The tributes below are from Temple Archivist Michael Cole, a friend and colleague of Ben Steinberg, as well as words from our Cantor Emeritus Beny Maissner, along with an audio clip of his performance of Salom Raav accompanied and composed by Ben Steinberg himself, and a video tribute from myself and Cantorial Soloist Lindi Rivers.
Cantor David Rosen
By: Michael Cole, Holy Blossom Temple Archivist
I can barely remember a time when I did not know Ben Steinberg. My first memories of Ben are of his leading Holy Blossom’s Religious School’s music assemblies and conducting the Religious School choir. That would have been some seventy years ago! I was seven, and Ben would have been twenty-two. Ben led music classes accompanying himself on an accordion whose name was Oscar. (This was in the days before the guitar became the universal instrument of song leaders.)
Our Religious School Choir was large, perhaps close to a hundred students coming from grades 1 through 10. Not all Religious School students were in the choir. We had to audition—kind of. Ben came into our class, asked everyone to sing together while he went around and chose those he thought would best add to the sound of the choir. However, I suspect that no one who wanted to be in the choir would be denied the opportunity.
The Religious School Choir had a reunion in 1963. Many alumni got together under Ben’s direction for a Friday night service at which the dedication of the Abraham window honouring Rabbi Feinberg took place.
I next knew Ben as the Program Director at Camp White Pine during its first four years (1956—1959). In those days, White Pine had a large contingent of Holy Blossom kids as campers. Once again, Ben led sing-songs after breakfast, accompanied, of course, by Oscar. Ben’s wife, Machi, led Israeli folk dancing after services on Friday evenings. (I liked Machi; I didn’t like folk dancing.)
In his early years, Ben was a music teacher at South Prep elementary school in Forest Hill. After some time there, he left to pursue a Bachelor of Music degree at U of T. He then taught high school in Scarborough for a few years before returning to Forest Hill, this time at the Junior High and Collegiate. I just missed having him as my teacher at the Collegiate; I graduated the year before he arrived. However, when I became a music teacher at Mackenzie Collegiate in North York, Ben and I had a couple of exchanges with our bands. We even co-authored an article for a music teachers’ journal on how to run exchanges between schools.
Ben came to Holy Blossom in 1950. After about ten years of working in the Religious School, he became the organist and leader of the professional choir and was given the title of Music Director of Holy Blossom. For a while, the choir sang in the choir loft behind the bimah. Then, clad in blue robes, they performed from the rear balcony where the consul of the newly installed Saville organ was placed. (It’s still there, although the organ itself has been inoperative for many years.) At the dedication of the organ, in 1969, our guest was Max Janowski, the composer of the melody to Avinu Malkenu that we have sung for so many years on high holy days.
It was only after he had established himself as an outstanding choral leader and teacher that we came to know Ben as a composer. One of his first major compositions, from 1964, was a setting of the Friday night service from the Union Prayer Book. He titled it Pirchay Shir Kodesh (a clear reference to Holy Blossom), and he dedicated it to Rabbi Plaut.
Ben may have begun his compositional career rather late in life, but he soon became one of the most prolific composers of Jewish liturgical music in North America, if not the world. He joined a number of prominent Canadian composers who crafted Jewish themes into their music, including John Weinzweig, Milton Barnes, Louis Applebaum, and Srul Irving Glick. Srul Glick, for many years the Music Director of Beth Tikvah, and Ben are best known as composers of music written specifically for the synagogue.
We are familiar with much of Ben’s music, likely without knowing it. Cantor Rosen remarked, in the Shabbat morning service following Ben’s death, that Ben always had the words in mind for the music he wrote. The music follows the words, not the other way around. Think of the beautiful melody of Shalom Rav that we sing at our Kabbalat Shabbat services.
Ben left Holy Blossom to become the Music Director of Temple Sinai in 1970, where he became one of the most sought-after and commissioned composers of liturgical music. He also established a reputation as a scholar and lecturer on Jewish music.
Ben has left us all with an incredible legacy of beautiful music. I will remember Ben as a teacher, mentor, and friend. May his memory be for a blessing!
With a heavy heart, we learned the sad news of Ben Steinberg, a magnificent human being, renowned composer, friend, and a Jewish Neshamah. Ben was one of the most celebrated Jewish composers of our time. It was heartbreaking for so many of us who knew Ben personally and sang, performed and conducted his incredible musical compositions.
Ben was the highest example of a true, honest, intellectual, emotional, traditional, authentic composer of Jewish music. He breathed and lived the sound of our People.
With every note, phrase and nuance, Ben delivered the best of excellence.
So many of us choir members and congregants adored his kind and gentle nature, sweet smile, and humorous style in which he explained and taught his magnificent musical creations.
His musical creativity enriched us at Holy Blossom. There was not one worship service, be it Shabbat festivals or High Holiday, where Ben’s music did not resonate loud and clear throughout the sanctuary.
I was privileged to perform, conduct and sing his music wherever we traveled with our LACHAN choir, around the globe. His Hal’luyah Psalm 150 was received with great applause by audiences wherever we performed it. His Liturgical music was written in a traditional but contemporary style, brought to life in majestic moments of exaltation and deeply inspirational messages of every text he treated with sacredness.
ELU D’VARIM, V’ERASTICH LI, ZH HAYOM ASA ADONAY, ESA ENEI EL HEHARIM, MI CHAMOCHA, SHALOSH REGALOIME CROWN OF TORA, ASE L’CHA RAV UK’NEH L’CHA CHAVER, and endless other compositions enriched our Jewish identity. Among the ones that penetrated deeply into my heart were the two glorious compositions, NIGGUN TALMIDEI BESHT which I sang with him in the cantorial Duet, and the VISION OF ISAIAH which describes the authentic antiquity of our people. Above all Ben was a loving and kind Jewish Neshamah.
A great loss to the world of Jewish music. May his memory be for a blessing.
With deep sympathy to his family, colleagues and endless admirers,
Beny Maissner, Cantor Emeritus, Holy Blossom Temple