A Rabbi at the Piano
Moshe Cotel (Photo by Russell Fish)
Rabbi Moshe Cotel (B.M. ’64, M.S. ’65, composition) thought he had his career all mapped out—not just once, but twice. Things still aren’t unfolding as planned, but at 65, he isn’t worried. “It says in the Torah that many are the thoughts in the heart of man, but God’s plan will be fulfilled,” he observes.
The Baltimore native (who was known as Morris at Juilliard) was immersed in both Judaism and music early on, attending an Orthodox Jewish day school and studying music at Peabody Prep. By 13, he had composed a four-movement symphony. After a couple of years at the conservatory as a double major in composition and piano, Cotel transferred to Juilliard to concentrate on composing. His Symphonic Pentad, which received its first reading by the Juilliard Orchestra, netted him the prestigious Rome Prize at 23. Cotel spent two years in Italy and four in Israel before returning to the U.S. to teach composition at the Peabody Institute, where he eventually headed the department.
Though classical music had become his “religion,” he said, Jewish themes informed many of his works. What he calls a “political protest piece” based on the writings of poets and intellectuals murdered in the Stalinist pogrom of 1952 was premiered in New York with actor Richard Dreyfuss as narrator and performed around the country in the early ’70s. Cotel’s two-act opera Dreyfus, about the famous anti-Semitic incident in France in the 1890s, was premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1985. A choral work commemorates the Holocaust; the 1996 Trope for Orchestra is based on Torah cantillation.
An extraordinary event tipped the balance for Cotel. Asked to conduct Dreyfus in Vienna, he sought to expand his conversational German through lessons with an elderly German widow in his neighborhood, with whom he discussed his opera. Many months later, on his way up the street to synagogue, a voice from behind greeted him in Hebrew … and he turned with astonishment to face his old German teacher, who told him she was studying with a rabbi. “And I said, ‘What’s going on here?'” recalls Cotel. “And she said, ‘I didn’t tell you when you took those lessons from me, but I was born Jewish … and I’m coming back now, and it’s all because of you.’ My life changed right then and there; it was like a voice came down into my head: ‘Become a rabbi.’ Without knowing it, I had changed this woman’s life … and she had no idea that she had just changed mine.”
After 28 years of teaching at Peabody, Cotel took early retirement in 2000 to devote himself to rabbinic studies (which he had been juggling part-time since 1996) at the Academy for Jewish Religion. Ordained in 2003, Cotel has been spiritual leader of a Conservative congregation, Temple Beth El, in Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn, for five years.
Cotel thought he was trading his composing pencil for a Torah pointer, but it hasn’t turned out that way. His rabbinic thesis blended Jewish wisdom and classical music in a series of monologues examining topics ranging from kavanah (spiritual attentiveness) to the pianistic and religious roles of the left hand, paired with performances of piano works by Mozart, Bach, Scriabin, Bloch, Gershwin, and others. Cotel titled the presentation “Chronicles: A Jewish Life at the Classical Piano”—and word of mouth brought requests from around the country, as far afield as Hawaii. “At first I played in synagogues, as you would expect,” says Cotel, “and then churches started requesting this; increasingly, performances are in interfaith settings. A number of rabbis have told me this is very helpful in terms of outreach.” A second program, “Chronicles II,” features Cotel’s own music, ending with Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (after a discussion of the mysterious source of the dye for the blue threads in the traditional prayer shawl). And he is at work on a third program, “A Rabbi Looks at Chopin,” paying tribute to Mieczyslaw Munz, the great Polish-Jewish pianist who was Cotel’s teacher at Peabody. (Munz later taught at Juilliard.) With some 25 performances a year—all he can manage while serving as a pulpit rabbi—and his wife handling his concerts and travel arrangements, Cotel is booked solid for the next two years … and as the original "Chronicles" program reaches its 100th performance, he may eventually find himself at another career crossroads.
While still a rabbinical student, Cotel traveled to Uganda in 2002 as part of a rabbinic delegation to formally convert to Judaism a community of some 600 black Jews practicing in isolation—an experience that awakened him to the rising wave of Jewish interest in far-flung places. Now, he’s able to see his mission on the piano bench as part of that larger tide. “I’ve learned by now that, at all the critical junctures of my life, I wind up moving in a direction that I didn’t expect. So I’ve given up trying to predict what will happen next. Maybe the whole world is my pulpit now. I’m just thrilled that I have a chance to put the two halves of my life together, because that wasn’t in my plan.”
— Jane Rubinsky