All you have to do is ask him and Hazan Aryeh Greenberg will show you the best places to hide in the synagogue: those he used as a child when he needed a break during long Shabbat and holiday services. Take a tour with him to observe the inside walls of Congregation Ezra Bessaroth, and he will interpret the colorful and large stained glass windows set in those walls depicting Torah stories, holiday rituals and Jewish symbols.
Both his memories from childhood and his family tradition have called Hazan Greenberg, son of Rabbi William Greenberg, spiritual leader of the congregation since 1962, back to the Seward Park neighborhood of Seattle as the new Hazan of Congregation Ezra Bessaroth. Greenberg took over in January following the retirement of Hazan Isaac Azose after 34 years at the synagogue.
Greenberg was studying in New York at Yeshiva University after having spent a year at Har Etsion Yeshiva in Israel back in 1982. Although he leaves behind his sister, Dina Greenberg, a judge in Brooklyn, he can now be closer to his brother Rabbi Don Greenberg, who lives in Lakewood, and his sister Sarah Goldman of Mercer Island.
Greenberg brings with him a rich tradition of Sephardic music and the Ladino language and prayers that he learned during his youth in Seattle. That foundation was nurtured and enriched with a part-time position in school as a “Chacham,” a wise or learned one, at Shaarei Rachamim, the only Sephardic congregation in the Bronx.
“I started (in Seattle) on Y2K Shabbat and I’m just getting settled,” said Greenberg. “It feels very good to be here. I have seen many old friends. It also feels very good to be able to preserve these traditions. I’m always keeping track of the subtle differences in the Spanish Portuguese and the Turkish Balkan-type Ladino.
“Here, we use Ladino on the high holidays and between Shavuot we read Pirke Avot in Ladino,” he continued. “On Tisha B’av we read the haftarah in Ladino and sometimes we sing ‘Ain Kelohainu’ in Ladino. We use it when we are taking out the Torah. The custom here is that you basically spend about two and a half hours in a kind of Ulpan so the Ladino won’t get lost.”
In addition to maintaining and infusing Ezra Bessaroth with Sephardic prayer and melodies, Greenberg will be building his own post-expulsion, Sephardic history website. He admits, though, that’s down the road. He also began a six-week series on Shema Yisroel that started Feb.1 at the synagogue. The class explores the implications of different translations of the Shema on the interpretation of this basic statement of Jewish faith.
In addition to his daily responsibilities of morning prayers, increasing Sephardic reading and culture and tutoring his current roster of seven Bar Mitzvah students, Greenberg would like to see a Tuesday evening Ma’ariv service at the synagogue. He says that Monday evening services are already established.
“I want to make the experience pleasant, meaningful, authentic and dignified,” said Greenberg. “With my Bar Mitzvah students, I insist they translate their section. I’ve got a lot of stories I can tell the kids. I want to get people involved and get them to study more. I’ve studied the customs. There’s a certain spirit here.”
Greenberg also has a wide range of interests outside of his professional responsibilities. His musical tastes include the esoteric melodies of the “old countries” to modern Israeli music. He was on the tennis team at Yeshiva University and was also the captain of the volleyball team.
“I’d be interested in playing racquetball or discussing music,” said Greenberg. “I’d like to have an evening of getting together and sharing friends and music with the Israelis in the area. I’m interested in learning with anyone in the community.”