Miron, Issachar:  Eighteen Gates of Jewish Holidays and Festivals.
Reviewed by Hazzan Samuel Rosenbaum,
the Executive Vice President of the Cantors Assembly
Illustrations by Arthur Szyk.  * Foreword by Elie Wiesel *.
Epilogue by Rabbi Irving Greenberg.

The richness of Issachar Miron’s masterpiece makes it difficult to classify.  His use of the English language is unique in that the variety of meanings one can take out of his words can be endless to the thoughtful reader, so multifaceted are they. 

Because he is an inspired poet and an acclaimed folk and classical composer, Miron has beautifully captured the essence, the honey and the vinegar of the wisdom, the mysticism, the liturgy, the folk culture, the melodies, the mysteries, the treasures of the Jewish heritage as it evolved through two millennia, in word and sanctity-evoking song woven around Israel’s ancient and contemporary festivals and holy days.

The concept of capturing the many meanings of Jewish life and traditions in terms of “Gates” is not unique, but Miron’s choice of “Gates” and the original perspective his words and music cast upon the ancient texts and teachings, qualify this volume as a valuable addition to the treasure of Jewish thought and philosophy.  He is in love with the Jewish holidays, for he adorns them with flowers:

Like flowers, our festivals reflect on earth
the savory splendor
from the scriptural gardens,
renewing your plain-spoken
commitment to others as to yourself.
Then inhale just a tiny,
yet larger-than-life,
puff of their redolent sanctity,
making peace with yourself,
keeping in your heart
the promise of our unity, asking yourself:
“Isn’t this what I must do every day?”
and following your answer right away
by an even more important question:
“Have I done enough today?”
“The time of singing is come.”

Anyone even faintly familiar with Jewish religious literature must know the fascination that Jews have had for the number 18 and for the popular ethnic symbol of our days as “gates” through which we all must pass.  For instance, every classic edition of both the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds has a title page adorned with a drawing of a gate.  Its title page is known as the Sha’ar Blat, Yiddish for “gate-page.”  Most European-published prayer books from before the Holocaust likewise adorned their title pages with a rendering of a gate, and usually used the word “Gate” in their titles, e.g., “Sha’arey Tefillah,” Gates of Prayer, “Sha’arey Yehudah,” Gates of Judah, etc.  Miron facilitates our journey by introducing before his Eighteen Gates two destination-marker

gates, “In Front of the Gates,” with an epigraph pinned to it, Lamps and Legends Turning On Your Headlights; and, “On the Threshold to the Gates” gate, again with a road sign:  Lord’s Life-Giving Gates, to make sure that we won’t misstep from the right course.

A brief survey of only a few of our older prayer books revealed some seventy-five prayer phrases referred to as Gates of Wisdom, Gates of Mercy, Gates of Forgiveness, etc.

A little-known penitential prayer (tehinah) recited at the close of the Sabbath lists sixty-five “Gates of . . .” in alphabetical order:  “Gates of Light,” “Gates of God’s Beneficence,” all the way through the alphabet to “Gates of Redemption for the Pious Ones.”  The text is borrowed from the Jerusalem Talmud.  Another prayer, Sha’arey Armon, Gates of the Temple, com-posed by the great 16th-century Hebrew poet Eleazar Kallir, is recited in the early part of the Neilah service, the final service of Yom Kippur, which refers to the “closing of the gates of prayer” as the last opportu-nity for prayers of mercy before the conclusion of the Day of Atonement.

As one can see, Miron’s choice of this work and its title is not casual but rather a rich mother lode of thought and meaning.  Each of Miron’s Gates sheds a fresh insight into the possible variety of meaning one can extract from the cycle of the Jewish festival and holy day calendar with word and song artfully crafted.

Where there’s a dream there is a song
to awaken the voice,
a melody to restore the will,
and a flame to illuminate the way.
So I believe that jointly we can open
the Lord’s life-giving gates,
turning the divine streams of light
and love onto the salvation-thirsty
deserts of our being.

And although a thoroughly twentieth-century faithful Jew, he is in direct contact with our sages.  Long ago the rabbis of the Midrash (collection of commentaries of the Torah and Talmud) advised:  “If you come to the house of worship, do not remain standing outside the gate.  But enter delet lifnim delet, gate after gate, until you reach the innermost gate.  Miron has added immeasurably to the variety of gates.

In “Before the Law,” one of the great parables of modern literature, Franz Kafka describes a man who comes to the gate of the Law.  The doorkeeper says that he cannot admit him at the moment.  The man waits.  The gate of the Law stands open, so the man strains to look inside.

The doorkeeper wants to help.  He advises the

man:  “Try to get in without permission.  But note that I am only the lowest doorkeeper.  From hall to hall, keepers stand at every gate, one more powerful than the other.”

The man is puzzled; he thinks the Law should be accessible at all times.  But he decides to wait until he receives permission to enter.  He waits for days and years.  During all the long years he watches the doorkeeper constantly and learns every detail of his appearance.  He forgets about all the other keepers of the other gates.  This open gate seems to be the only barrier between himself and the Law.  Finally, his life is about to end.  Before he dies, all that he has experienced forms into one question.  He beckons to the doorkeeper, since he can no longer rise.  “Everybody strives to attain the Law.  How is it, then, that in all these years no one has come seeking admittance but me?”

The doorkeeper answers, “No one but you could enter here, since this gate was reserved for you alone.  Now I shall go and close it!” 

Must man remain forever outside the gate? Kafka does not give us an answer.  But the Midrash—and somehow, Miron, too—does give us the answer:  “Do not remain standing at the outside gate, but enter delet lifnim delet, gate after gate, until you reach the innermost gate.  In his inimitable fashion, Miron offers a reminder:  At God’s gate there is no keeper.  The gates are always wide open.  All there is for man to do is to enter. Miron has presented us with the gift of Eighteen Gates, which will now and forever always remain open to our prayer: 

O Interactive Grantor
of the gift of life and learning,
restore to us:
the seeds—for love,
the wings—for hope,
the truth—for justice,
the harmony —for soul,
the tears—for happiness,
the equality—for freedom,
the swiftness—for compassion,
the perceptive vision—for mind,
the warmth of feeling—for heart,
the outstretched hand—for peace,
the congregational response—for Amens,
the chorale of mixed voices—for Hallelujahs,
the world full of marvels—for every day of the year,
instantly updating our covenantal communications as the sacred bond
of equal commitment.

Eighteen Gates is a must for anyone concerned with the continuity and under-standing of the unique heritage which is Judaism.

MUSIC Vol XXV • No 1. © Copyright 1996