From Boston to Berlin with the Zamir Chorale of Boston
I don’t believe in ghosts. But when Zamir was in Berlin in December of 2011, I had the eerie sensation that we were channeling the spirits of Germany’s departed Jewish musicians.
The Louis Lewandowski Festival committee had invited us to come to Berlin and represent the United States at their upcoming celebration of the life and work of the greatest nineteenth-century composer of synagogue music. I had a feeling we would be interested, but I was unprepared for the enthusiasm with which the members of Zamir responded to the invitation. Thirty five singers (along with a handful of spouses and partners) were eager to travel and pay for a rather expensive flight. But none of us could have anticipated the amazing experience that was about to unfold and change our lives.
The festival was organized and underwritten by Mr. Nils Busch-Petersen, an influential philo-Semitic Berlin lawyer, who has served as District Mayor of Berlin-Pankow, Chief Executive of the National Association of Medium-and Large-scale retail, and Managing Director of the Berlin- Brandenburg Trade Association. He is also CEO of the Friends of the Berlin Synagogal Ensemble, and published author of four books about German Jewish merchants. Busch-Petersen spared no
expense in planning this festival; there were huge billboards advertising the festival all over Berlin, and the choirs were treated like visiting royalty.
Our first concert was in the Krankenhauskirche in Wuhlgarten, a neighborhood of East Berlin, and a 75-minute bus ride from our hotel. United Berlin is a huge city! The Krankenhauskirche turned out to be a former church turned concert hall on the grounds of a former hospital. This beautiful building had been decorated with both a Christmas tree and a Chanukah menorah. The acoustics were gorgeous (unfortunately they don’t seem to make them like that in America any more), and the capacity audience could not have been more enthusiastic. This non-Jewish audience loved our program of Jewish music. They were also appreciative of the fact that I was delivering my oral program notes in German. Our repertoire was essentially devoted to the music of Jewish composers from Germany. The focus, of course, was Louis Lewandowski (1821-1894), the choirmaster who created the most majestic music for the synagogues of Berlin, and whose melodies are still sung today by Jews around the world (think of the tunes for Friday night Kiddush and “Tsaddik Katamar Yifrach”). But we also programmed music by several German Jews who immigrated to the United States after the Nazis came to power in 1933. Arnold Schoenberg was already recognized as the greatest composer of the twentieth century when he left Berlin. After a brief stay in Brookline, Massachusetts, Schoenberg moved to the more comfortable climate of Los Angeles, where he continued to compose and teach, and advocate for the rescue of Europe’s Jews. Heinrich Schalit had been the music director at the Hauptsynagoge in Munich. Shlomo Carlebach was born in Berlin and came to New York in 1939. Kurt Weill, best known for his fruitful collaborations with Bertold Brecht, was also the son of Albert Weill, the Chief Cantor of Dessau. Max Janowski was born in Berlin, but in the early 1930s moved to Tokyo, where he served as head of the piano department at the Musashino Academy of Music for seven years before immigrating to the United States. I had a special connection to Herbert Fromm, who had been opera conductor in Bielefeld and Würzberg, and later an active participant of the Jüdischer Kulturbund in Frankfurt, an apartheid cultural organization invented by the Nazis. When I was a college student, Fromm was serving as Music Director at Boston’s Temple Israel, a post he held from 1941 until 1972. Fromm kindly served as my extra-mural thesis advisor, as well as a general mentor and role model in the field of Jewish music. It was now time for me to re-pay Dr. Fromm for his kindness, and I added his beautiful setting of Psalm 23 to our Berlin programs. During the performance I could swear I felt his spectral presence in the room.
After the concert Thursday night we had a chance to meet the singers from the other choirs. There were more than 200 of us—from Boston, Toronto, Johannesburg, Jerusalem, London, Zurich, Strasbourg, and Berlin. We spoke different languages and hailed from four different continents, but
we shared a common passion—performing choral music from Jewish traditions. Friday we were all treated to a tour of Berlin, and then an emotional visit to the Jewish cemetery, where we sang at the grave of Louis Lewandowski. Lewandowski’s children chose an apt epitaph for the composer’s monument: Liebe macht das Lied unsterblich —Love makes the melody immortal. Friday night services at the Pestalozzistrasse synagogue were enhanced by the beautiful
singing of Cantor Isaac Sheffer and the resident choir, the Berlin Synagogal Ensemble. After the services on Friday night all the choirs convened again at the Crowne Plaza Hotel for a festive Shabbat dinner, with excellent food and wine, and hours of singing, line-dancing and border-busting camaraderie.
Shabbat was appropriately a day off. Several of us walked down the street to the Joachimstalerstrasse synagogue. Most of the regulars at this Orthodox synagogue are emigres from Poland and Russia, with a handful of Israeli ex-pats. The Jerusalem Cantors Choir had been invited to lead the morning services, and they presented quite an impressive musical davening, that had us in shul from 9:30 in the morning until 1:30 in the afternoon.
Saturday night we hopped back on the bus for our next concert at the Jewish Museum. This striking new building, designed by Daniel Libeskind, has become one of Berlin’s most popular attractions. Our concert was in the beautiful new glass courtyard. The Museum had asked us to include some music for Chanukah, which was just three days away, so we added a few holiday songs from Italy, Serbia and England. After the concert an unbelievable surprise awaited us. All the choirs were bussed to the Television Tower, Berlin’s tallest building. The Festival organizers had rented the entire building for our
pleasure. We were whisked up 669 feet in 40 seconds to the visitors’ platform and the revolving restaurant, where we were again feted to a sumptuous kosher buffet, as well as stupendous panoramic views of the city. Sunday morning was time for learning: the festival participants were treated to their choice of eight
lectures on topics relating to Louis Lewandowski and the music of the Jews of Berlin. The teachers were Prof. Dr. Tina Frühauf of Columbia University, Dr. Russel Lurie of Johannesburg, Cantor Binyamin Glickman of Jerusalem, Cantor Prof. Josée Wolff of the Hebrew Union College in New
York, Prof. Dr. Eli Schleifer of the Hebrew Union College Jerusalem, and myself. Sunday night was the final and main event of the festival, a program featuring all eight choirs, singing individually and together. The concert took place at Berlin’s largest synagogue, the recently restored Rykestrasse Synagogue, a beautiful neo-Romanesque building. Zamir performed Lewandowski’s tender setting of “Enosh kechotsir yomov” from the Yizkor memorial service, and
the majestic “Ewiger, and den Himmel reicht deine Huld” from the composer’s collection of Eighteen Liturgical Psalms in German. Our performance was greeted with the most sustained applause of the evening.
Jewish life in Berlin today is experiencing a renaissance. The Jewish population, 160,000 at its prewar peak, and virtually empty after the war, has begun to grow again. There are now 25,000 Jews in Berlin, as well as synagogues, kosher shops, schools, and a new seminary that trains rabbis and cantors. Of all the European countries, Germany may be Israel’s most supportive ally today, and the strongest combatant of anti-Semitism. And if the Lewandowski Festival is any indication, the people of Berlin, Jews and Gentiles, greatly appreciate the Jewish contribution to German culture. The singers in Zamir felt a tremendous satisfaction in having lent a hand, and a voice, to the revival of Jewish life in Berlin. We really could feel the grateful ghosts of German Jewry past.
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On this recording, we will share with you some of the excitement from our tour to Berlin in December of 2011. Our program begins with three compositions by Berlin’s greatest synagogue composer and choir director, Louis Lewandowski. Lewandowski arrived in Berlin from the east in 1833, a twelve-year old orphan, and by the dint of his great talent and his forceful personality, rose to become Royal Professor of Music and in charge of all music at the new 3,000-seat
Oranienburgerstrasse synagogue. The core of our trip to Berlin was the Lewandowski Festival honoring this great composer. You will then hear two settings of the liturgy of sanctification, common to synagogues and churches. The first is by Lewandowski’s contemporary, Felix Mendelssohn, grandson of the great
Rabbi Moses Mendelssohn. And the second is by the great American composer, Leonard Bernstein. On our tour we honored the work of the many Jewish composers who were active in Germany but were forced to leave after the Nazi party came to power in 1933. Kurt Weill was best known for his fruitful collaborations with Bertold Brecht, in works such as Die Dreigroschenoper (The Three Penny Opera). But Kurt Weill was also the son of Albert Weill, the Chief cantor of Dessau. Max Janowski was born in Berlin, but in the early 1930s he moved to Tokyo, where he became head of the piano department at the usashino Academy of Music. He immigrated to the United States in 1937. Herbert Fromm was an established opera conductor, and later an active participant of the
Jüdischer Kulturbund of Frankfurt. After immigrating to the United States he served for many years as music director at Temple Israel in Boston. “The singing rabbi,” Shlomo Carlebach was born in Berlin and came to New York in 1939. His magnetic personality attracted many thousands of Jews, and his unforgettable melodies have become an indelible part of the soundscape of the Jewish people.
In Berlin of the 1920s, cabaret was the address for witty experimental entertainment, political satire, and social criticism, the meeting place of high and low art. Friedrich Holländer grew up in Berlin and became the greatest cabaret songwriter of the 1920s. In the 1930 film, Der blaue Engel, Marlene Dietrich portrays a cabaret singer, and performs Holländer’s most famous song, “Falling in Love Again (Can’t Help It)” “Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuss auf Liebe eingestellt.” Arnold Schoenberg and his student Hanns Eisler made their reputations in the world of serious concert music, but they also contributed to the cabaret stage, as you will hear. While our tour was about discovering and reviving music of German-Jewish composers, at the same time, we were the only chorus at this festival representing the United States. And so we made a point of introducing our Berlin audiences to American-Jewish culture. Next on the program are two
modern settings of the synagogue hymn, Adon Olam; a Hebrew version of the 1940 American hit, “Java Jive;” and Sholom Secunda’s song from the New York Yiddish Theatre, which, thoroughly Americanized, became the best selling pop song of 1938, under its Germanized title, “Bei mir bist du schön.”
Next, a different sort of Berlin song. This one composed by Irving Berlin, with lyrics by Emma Lazarus. We sing it as a tribute to the Statue of Liberty on her 125th birthday.
To round out the CD we have included two “bonus tracks” Lewandowski’s setting of Psalm 36 from his collection of Eighteen Psalm Settings in German, and we end with the concluding hymn, Adon Olam, performed together with Kol Arev, the chamber choir of Hebrew College.
-Professor Joshua Jacobson