The Curator and The Cantor

The Curator and The Cantor

Local art curator finds his roots among Jewish artifacts at Judah Magnes Museum.

Lawrence Rinder has only one memory of his grandfather.

In 1966, when he was 5, Lawrence and his family rushed across the country by airplane, from New York to California, to be with the dying cantor. “I didn’t meet him until the day he died. I had never been out of Manhattan before and ended up in San Francisco standing by my grandfather’s deathbed.”

But now, in a new exhibition at Berkeley’s Judah L. Magnes Museum, Lawrence Rinder, a nationally known curator of the visual arts, has brought his grandfather’s musical legacy out of the synagogue and into the Bay Area art world. Shahrokh Yadegari: Through Music is a kind of belated eulogy from a grateful grandson to the elder he hardly knew.

For nearly half of a century, Cantor Reuben Rinder, Lawrence’s grandfather, had been the celebrated cantor at Emanu-El, the landmark reform temple in San Francisco. A cantor, or hazzan, is the trained musician who leads his synagogue in songful prayers. Cantors with musical talent and rapport with the congregation sometimes become as important as the rabbi. This was Reuben’s fate, a destiny that he embraced as a teenager.

Reuben Rinder was born in Ukraine in 1887, immigrating at age 12 to the United States after the death of his parents. Shortly after his arrival he took up the cantorial profession, following a brief stint at the Hebrew Theological Seminary. After working in several New York temples, he accepted a position at Emanu-El in 1913, traveling across the continent to the city of San Francisco.

Reuben remained with Emanu-El until his death. “He was himself a composer and performer, but his greatness lay in his impact on others,” writes author and historian Fred Rosenbaum about Reuben Rinder, in Visions of Reform. “His penetrating mind discerned musical genius; his warm personality nurtured it; his generous friends financed it. No individual in the 20th century did more to enrich the music of the synagogue.”

For nearly 40 years after his death, Reuben’s ideas have held sway over his grandson Lawrence Rinder, who has made his name as one of the brightest and most sought-after curators working in America today, known for his inclusive attitude toward contemporary art. Beginning in 1988 as the MATRIX curator at the Berkeley Art Museum, a bimonthly project that introduces the Bay Area to new international artists, Lawrence has worked his way back and forth across America, founding the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art in San Francisco, acting as curator for contemporary art at New York’s Whitney Museum and compiling their 2002 Bienniale, then returning to the Bay Area three years ago to become dean at the California College of the Arts.

Lawrence, now 46, bears a striking resemblance to the Reuben seen in old photographs. From a kind face, intense eyes pull one’s attention into Lawrence’s verbal musings. “At some point I began to feel this uncanny sense of ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’—as the father so the son,” recalls Lawrence. “My grandfather saw that his position was to bring an aesthetic dimension to the practice of worship—by commissioning new work, by deciding what pieces would be sung or played, and through those particular choices creating an ambience that would assist the goals of the whole congregation. Being a curator is close to being a cantor.”

A little over a year ago, Alla Efimova, chief curator at the Magnes, approached Lawrence about curating a show as part of the museum’s ongoing “Revisions” series. “Revisions” are exhibitions where art world personalities and scholars are invited to create a show inspired by or drawn from the museum’s collection.

“I’ve known Lawrence and his work for a long time. When he became the dean at CCA we invited him to be on our advisory board. Shortly after this, while going through some paperwork I noticed that we housed Cantor Rinder’s archive—the Magnes has had a long relationship with Temple Emanu-El; we have a number of archives from their members. I asked Lawrence if Reuben was his grandfather.”

Not sure what to expect when he first encountered his grandfather’s archive, Lawrence thought maybe it would contain personal effects—a gold watch, a fur hat. When three legal-size cardboard storage boxes full of papers, mostly formal notes and missives, were presented as Reuben’s estate, his grandson was initially crestfallen. After an extended survey, though, Lawrence noticed correspondence with many important figures of his grandfather’s era—notes from Eleanor Roosevelt, messages from violinists Isaac Stern and Yehudi Menuhin. He could have pulled these pieces out and installed them in the museum, establishing the importance of his grandfather as a cultural mover and reintroducing Reuben Rinder to younger generations. But then Lawrence came across a score that his grandfather arranged for the “priestly benediction.” Long-forgotten memories returned to him.

The benediction, translated into English, says, “May the Lord bless you and keep you; may the Lord cause his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; may the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and grant you peace.” The prayer is recited at the end of services, on Yom Kippur, and at the Shabbat services at home.

“It has a very ancient feeling to me, very true and very beautiful. While living in San Francisco as a young adult, long after my grandfather’s death, I had only been to Temple Emanu-El a few times for services, but I remembered sitting there and hearing these words and thinking these were the words I could most easily accept. It was a wonderful sentiment,” Lawrence recalls. “I felt good. I was glad to be part of a congregation that was sitting together, hearing these words and feeling them together.”

Of all of Reuben’s archive, the benediction was what linked Lawrence emotionally to his grandfather. In fact, among Reuben’s papers were several scores for the prayer. One of them was a treatment that Reuben had written on the occasion of the 1955 Festival of Faith, a celebration in San Francisco commemorating the United Nations’ 10th anniversary. As part of the festivities, people of all faiths were getting together to talk about their religions, attempting to lessen the horrible animosities that were continuing to tear the world apart in the wake of World War II.

His grandfather, Lawrence believes, organized his life around two main goals. The first was to revivify the Jewish musical tradition. The second was to encourage ecumenical healing, reaching across the many religions. Reuben was constantly going to Christian churches and Buddhist temples, and bringing their members to his synagogue, talking about what the faiths had in common.

The way to reach across time and back to his grandfather, Lawrence realized, was to commission new music for the benediction, connecting traditions and continuing his grandfather’s work.

Lawrence contacted Shahrokh Yadegari, one the founders of the Persian Arts Society and a professor at University of California, San Diego. Versed in traditional music, Yadegari is also active in the avant-garde, creating computer-generated algorithmic sound designs.

Yadegari took the simple melody that Reuben had written for the Festival of Faith and added elements of classical Persian and contemporary electronic music to create a layer of purely instrumental music. Next, he added a layer of singing in Hebrew, Farsi and English, including vocals by Siamak Shajarian, the most famous Persian singer living in the United States. Finally, Yadegari crafted a computer program to randomly mix the pieces together, creating an ever-changing sonic tapestry that plays through five speakers installed in the Magnes gallery.

“For many years, my work has been about connecting opposites to each other,” Yadegari says. “It’s kind of my heritage, having grown up Jewish in Iran, and bringing unity among opposites forms my musical world.”

To round out the installation, Lawrence has chosen three objects from the Magnes’ permanent collection: a brass bowl from 18th-century Russia; a 19th-century Persian miniature painting; and a contemporary photograph of Leonard Nimoy.

The painting, a rarely seen treasure from Iran, depicts the tale of Joseph, son of Jacob, interpreting the Egyptian Pharaoh’s dream—an Old Testament example of cross-cultural problem-solving. The bowl, engraved with a striking image of two hands with fingers splayed, was used by the priests, or kohen, to ritually wash their hands before reciting the priestly benediction at the Yom Kippur service. Nimoy’s photograph shows a pair of hands in the distinctive split-fingered gesture of the priestly benediction, which will undoubtedly be familiar to generations of Star Trek fans as the salute of Mr. Spock.

Even though Lawrence met his grandfather only once, Reuben’s passion for nurturing culture has become part of Lawrence’s own curatorial style. “I suspect that some of that sensibility—,” he reflects, “looking for commonality and trying to find the best and the most peaceful aspirations in people and things; a passion for bringing things together—does connect my grandfather’s work with my life.”

Shahrokh Yadegari: Through Music runs through July 6, 2008, at the Judah L. Magnes Museum, 2911 Russell St. in Berkeley. Information at (510) 549-6950 or

Timothy Buckwalter is an artist who resides in Albany.

Faces of the East Bay