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Remembrance and Renewal

Reprinted from The Jerusalem Post

By RICHARD SHAVEI-TZION (My wife Jill’s cousin)

Remembrance and Renewal

One of the great accomplishments of German and other European communities destroyed in the conflagration of World War II was the magnificent performance of Jewish liturgical music composed in the 19th and 20th centuries.Fortunately, unlike great works of visual art, music can be written and copied.Thus, although great composers, cantors and choristers were murdered and splendid synagogues were burned to the ground, many of these choral and cantorial works were saved by the publication and distribution of musical scores before the war.Rather surprisingly, in the second half of the 20th century, the city of Cape Town at the southern tip of Africa was one of the vibrant centers of this Central European synagogue music. South African Jewry is quite rightly known as a Litvak community, mainly comprised of descendants of immigrants from Lithuania and other Eastern European countries. However, the first trickle of Jews arrived decades before the Litvaks, mainly from England and Germany.It was these pioneering Jews who set the tone in the Orthodox shuls that sprang up in the cities and small towns of South Africa, and they brought with them the music of the wonderful Central European composers.In 1965, I was drafted into the choir of the Gardens Shul as a young boy soprano. This grand edifice, known as South Africa’s “Mother Synagogue,” set in leafy, shaded gardens with the majestic Table Mountain as a backdrop, featured the warmest cavernous acoustic. I was spellbound by the harmonic four-voice settings to passages from the siddur and mahzor – none more than “ Zacharti Lach ,” sung on Rosh Hashana as composed by Louis Lewandowski (1821- 1894), who served for many decades in Berlin as the age’s first synagogue choir conductor, and was perhaps the greatest of the composers of this genre.The sublime words of Jeremiah describing God’s love for the youthful Jewish people, who devotedly followed Moses out of Egypt into the wilderness, are echoed in the piece, evoking a haunting, nostalgic longing.The impact of this initial choral experience was immediate and lasting. Fifty years later, I find myself directing Jerusalem’s Ramatayim Men’s Choir.

Over the past decade, the city of Berlin has made huge efforts to commemorate the Jewish community and its great social and cultural achievements before the Nazis obliterated this vibrant society. One such project is the annual Lewandowski Choral Festival. It was with great emotion that I received confirmation that our choir had been selected to participate in this significant event, and to sing “ Zacharti Lach ” at the closing concert.

For a number of our choristers, some of whose close relatives were murdered by the Nazis, the idea of participating in a cultural event in Germany was an anathema. However, after a number of intense discussions, many of these choristers came to the understanding that a Jewish choir from sovereign Jerusalem performing Lewandowski’s music in the heart of Berlin represented both a victory and a Kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name).

More than anything, I believed we would be renewing the life force of our great culture in the heart of the society which tried, with great savagery, to snuff it out.

We joined six other ensembles from around the world for academic lectures, performances and a tour of the city that included the Jewish cemetery, which contains 150,000 graves. And as snow gently drifted across this vast place of commemoration, 150 choristers from Europe, Africa and Asia surrounded Lewandowski’s grave and sung his compositions, which resonate to this day.

The closing concert featuring all of the choirs was, by design, coincidence or cosmically bashert, scheduled for the afternoon of 10 Tevet. This concert did not take place at the Neue Synagogue, where Lewandowski served as choir master.

That 3,000-seat building was set ablaze on Kristallnacht in 1938 and although partly restored, was extensively damaged in the bombing of Berlin by the Allied forces in 1943. Rather, it took place at the magnificent Rykestrasse Synagogue – built in 1903, gutted on Kristallnacht and restored after the war – Germany’s largest synagogue at present.

On the way to the synagogue on a gloomy Berlin afternoon, we passed the sprawling Holocaust Memorial consisting of some 2,700 drab, featureless concrete blocks of varying heights in neat rows, symbolizing the bleak fate of the victims. I pointed out the significance of our presence especially on that day of remembrance, and asked our choristers to elevate their singing for those whose voices were snuffed out by the Nazis.

We walked up the steps of the ornate stone bima, flanked by two gilded menorahs and backed by an arched ark framed with filigree and marble pillars.

And it occurred to me that “ Zacharti Lach, ” this glorious mid-19th century tune, had found its way to England, from there to South Africa, then to Israel, and now we were about to sing it here in Berlin – where it had been created.

As we lifted our voices on that late December night in the elegant synagogue packed with 1,200 people, Jews and gentiles, to chant the soulful, poignant melody, I thought I heard the echo of a haunted past. But more than that, I felt the force of those of our people whose indomitable inspiration and spirit lives on in our music.

 

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