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Hinda’s article published in the Jewish Voice and Herald of Rhode Island

January 6, 2012 1 comment

Reposted from The Jewish Voice Herald of Rhode Island, published in print January 6, 2012. For the record, this is the first article I’ve written to ever be printed in a syndicated newspaper… Pretty proud of this one.

Hinda with Lewandowski

From Boston to Berlin
by Hinda Eisen
Friday, 06 January 2012 02:30
Strong pro-Jewish, pro-Israel ambience in Berlin

BERLIN – Three times a day, observant Jews pray the weekday Amidah, which includes the words, “v’kabb’tzénu yahad mé-arba kanfot ha’aretz” (“and gather us together from the four corners of the Earth”). The first Louis Lewandowski Festival in Berlin was a taste of this age-old wish come true.

From Dec. 15-18, eight choirs from four continents assembled in Berlin to honor the music and memory of maestro Louis Lewandowski (1821-1894), perhaps the most influential composer of modern synagogue music. Singers from the Zamir Chorale of Boston, representing the United States, gathered with singers from the Synagogal Ensemble Berlin, the Jerusalem Cantors’ Choir of Israel, the Johannesburg Jewish Male Choir of South Africa, the Zemel Choir of London, Les Polyphonies Hébraïques de Strasbourg, France, the Toronto Jewish Male Choir, and the Synagogenchor Zürich of Switzerland.

Our shared experience reminded us that while Genesis says God spread people throughout the earth and made them speak different languages because of the episode at the Tower of Babel, He never unraveled universal musical understanding. Though our choirs may speak different languages, observe Judaism differently, and regularly sing different styles of music, we were able to sing the same compositions in glorious unison and enchanting polyphonic harmony.

Besides walking in the neighborhood of our hotel and the guided bus tour of Berlin that took us to the maestro’s grave in the Weissensee Cemetery, the only Jewish cemetery in Berlin not desecrated during World War II, we had little time for sightseeing, but the opportunity to sing with these people for the Berlin community was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

At the entrance to the Weissensee Jewish Cemetery stands a haunting memorial to victims of the Holocaust. We read the stone monument’s inscription from Lamentations 5:1: “zakhor Adonai meh hayah lanu” (“Remember, O LORD, what has befallen us”). As the 250 singers gathered around the memorial, Cantor Isaac Sheffer of the Pestalozzistrasse Synagogue in Berlin, garbed in old-style cantorial robes and hat, chanted the El Malei, the memorial prayer, for the 6 million Jews who perished. We then spontaneously sang “Ani Ma’amin,” a song associated with Jews walking to their deaths in the concentration camps. As that song faded, someone in the crowd began to sing “Hatikvah,” the Jewish national anthem even before the founding of the State of Israel. Many of us sang through tears.

At the maestro’s grave, the Johannesburg choir sang an El Malei for Lewandowski himself. Members of Zamir, eventually joined by other choristers, sang a life-affirming rendition of Lewandowski’s “Halleluyoh”. But perhaps most potent, a septet of Zamirniks sang Lewandowski’s “Enosh” in the reverberating Weissensee chapel. “Enosh,” one of the pieces Zamir was privileged to perform later in the weekend at the Rykestrasse Synagogue concert, is a piece sung often during the Yizkor service about how fleeting life is, and how all humans are subject to God’s kindness and mercy. Yes, here we were, in the oldest Jewish cemetery in Berlin, singing about mortality and life.

In preparing for this trip, I wondered how or whether Holocaust history has remained in German consciousness; this was a question that stuck with me throughout our tour. The answer? One cannot walk through the streets of Berlin without constant reminders of the tragedy that happened there. As one enters the Tiergarten train station, one sees a list of concentration camps, with a charge to “remember the horrors.” Stolpersteine, “stumbling stones” installed in the ground in front of buildings throughout Berlin and throughout Europe, remind passersby of the Jews who once lived in these places and owned these properties. The Pestalozzistrasse Synagogue’s prominently displayed plaque commemorates its desecration on Kristallnacht (Nov. 9, 1938) and its rededication 11 years later. This city is not in denial.

I was struck by Berlin’s obvious pro-Jewish and pro-Israel ambience. Our festival, coordinated and supported primarily by Nils Busch-Petersen, a prominent gentile businessman involved in Berlin politics, was publicized on beautiful billboards featuring a teddy bear wearing a tallit and kippah. (The bear is the city symbol of Berlin.) Walking to shul on Shabbat, men wore their kippot – which one cannot do safely everywhere in the United States. We drove to a concert down Ben-Gurion-Strasse and passed Yitzhak-Rabin-Strasse near the capitol. Even the hotel’s toiletries were made in Israel.

Zamir was privileged to present three concerts during our tour. The first two featured Zamir alone, in a “pre-opening concert” at a church in the largest hospital complex in Berlin, and another concert at the Jüdisches Museum. The third concert included all eight choirs singing individually and together. The collaborative chorus opened the concert with Lewandowski’s “Mah Tovu” and closed with his stunning “Adon Olam.” In the cathedral-like hall, the forte produced by 250 singers together was enough to happily awaken the long-deceased composer; as for the piano, there is nothing so spiritual as hundreds singing softly together. We were privileged to perform this German synagogue music in the context for which it was specifically composed.

My experience in Berlin with the Zamir Chorale of Boston was incredible. We met so many new people, saw new sights, heard new sounds. Standing among 250 singers filling a synagogue sanctuary with vibrant, godly music, we felt the presence of ruah ha-kodesh (God’s holy spirit). This is not a journey I will soon forget.

Hinda Eisen, ritual director at Temple Emanu-El, is assistant to the conductor of the Zamir Chorale of Boston. Contact her at heisen@teprov.org.

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The Great Concert

December 18, 2011 Leave a comment

I sit on Lufthansa flight #424 from Münich to Boston, and I am surrounded by fellow Zamirniks on the right and left. We are all coming down from the intense high we’ve been riding the past five days, with a combination of sadness, fatigue, and relief. As we await take-off, a movie reel plays through my head. I feel like I’m spinning. Five days? That’s all? Five days can change an entire lifetime.

I don’t know any way to process the random disorganized thoughts in my head except to just write and see where my pen takes me. The flight is eight hours, twenty-five minutes. So here we go.

An overview: The Louis Lewandowski Festival. Eight choirs, four continents. Jews from Boston, Massachusetts, USA; Zurich, Switzerland; Strasbourg, France; Johannesburg, South Africa; Jerusalem, Israel; London, Britain, UK; Toronto, Canada; Berlin, Germany. All for a common purpose – to honor the memory, and the music, of a great maestro.

My brain wants to work backwards, so let’s process the end first. Last night, we sang an extraordinary concert at the Rykestrasse Synagoge. All the choirs together, surrounding our audience, opened the concert with Lewandowski’s Mah Tovu and closed the concert with his stunning Adon Olam. In the cathedral-like hall, the forte produced by about 250 singers together was enough to wake the long-deceased composer with a smile on his face; but the piano — there is nothing so spiritual as 250 singers singing softly together.

Each of the eight choirs got up to sing two of Lewandowski’s compositions, and it was clear that there was a range of styles, interpretations, and proficiency. Three of the eight choirs were all-male choirs, and I experienced that harmonies sound different whether sung by male and female singers in a broader span of octaves than they do with only male voices. In all-male choirs the harmonies are closer together, which is a mixed blessing. They are particularly beautiful when in tune, but particularly jarring when one part (even just one voice) is out of line; and if the blend is not one of unified vowels and tone, the harmonies — composed and accidental — are much more exposed. Without harping on the issue of too much I will say this: given who the chorus members of Zamir are, and our varying levels of talent, I am suddenly much more appreciative of our conductor and his amazing ability to interpret the music we sing and to keep us united in our sound.

ZCB

The concert itself was glorious. The fact that each choir had to sing Lewandowski’s pieces, and that there were sixteen pieces on the program, meant that we were pushed to find lesser-known compositions to sing. Zamir was privileged to sing Lewandowski’s Enosh and his German-language composition of Psalm 36, “Ewiger”.

The transition for the performing between these two pieces was a difficult one. Enosh is a serious piece in C-minor, emotionally intense and demanding of focus and precision. Its dynamic range is broad and its melody haunting. Psalm 36, while no less demanding of precision, is a sweet piece in Enosh‘s relative major (E-flat), which talks of God’s glory and His kindness to all worldly beings. As a performer, the transition into major here is a breath of fresh air, and feels like a heavy burden lifting off of our shoulders. It is a quick change, as if a thick grey fog suddenly dissipates under a ray of bright sunshine. Yes, God, we know that You can give life and You can take it away. Life is fleeting, mortality is undefeatable, infinite; but the Glory of God and His kindness are likewise immeasurable (unermesslichen) and everlasting. What an amazing message, an amazing choice of repertoire. Thanks go specifically to our conductor for that one.

What a beautiful evening it was. We were privileged to perform this German synagogue music in the context for which it was specifically composed! Transported through time and space, we brought this great synagogue to vivacious life with our voices; the organists reinvigorated the hollow pipes of the Rykestrasse organ. Yes, it is used regularly for services; but a full house? Concert synagogue music? Non-Jews and Jews alike in the audience, and on the staff? We are incredibly blessed.

What is a Cantor to Do?

December 18, 2011 3 comments

Sunday morning at the Lewandowski Festival, we were privileged to learn from some world-class scholars of Jewish music.

The first session I attended was “The Status of Jewish Liturgy in the World Today” taught by Cantor Binyamin Glickman, the conductor of the Jerusalem Cantors Choir; the other was “Nusach Lewandowski: The Reshaping of Traditional German Synagogue Chants by Louis Lewandowski” taught by Cantor Eli Schleifer, who used to teach at the Hebrew Union College cantorial program in Jerusalem, and currently works as a nusach historian with the Abraham Geiger College Cantorial School in Germany.

I was very impressed with both lectures, but, especially regarding the first lecture, mixed reviews abounded. Cantor Glickman mostly talked about the failing statement of nusach today, and lamented that congregational melodies were chosen first fort heir catchiness and secondarily or not at all for their association with the text.

A couple of things Glickman said continue to stick with me:

“You wouldn’t sing Kol Nidre to any old folk tune. Why would you do that to any other piece of liturgy?”
Granted: we sing Kol Nidre once a year, three times through. We sing, for example, the Shabbat R’tzei Vim’nuchaténu about 160 times per year, so it begs more variety and a wider range of melodic flexibility. Daveners in the pews have different expectations for the consistency of this text’s recitation than they do for Kol Nidre. Then again, Kol Nidre doesn’t even appear in the historic liturgy of some communities, where as the blessings for Shabbat and festivals are consistently central to liturgies across the global Jewish spectrum.

“The cantor must create an atmosphere that allows Jews to fall in love with coming to shul.”
Although singing and chanting in the synagogue service is a large piece of the cantor’s job, Glickman was talking about a broader perspective on the cantorate when he expressed this beautiful sentiment. He talked of engaging different kinds of people through his choirs, and one can imagine that this extends to keeping this in mind while performing all of the duties required of a cantor in a modern synagogue.

– Glickman talked of Hazzan Leib Glantz, who was “ahead of his time, but always had the tradition in mind. He might take a walk in the park for a bit, but he always came back to the traditional nusach.”
This is an approach that I think it behooves cantors to emulate today. Perhaps our “walks in the park” are different, but innovation rooted in tradition is important for any cantor who wants to engage his or her congregation.

The second session I attended brought even more wonderful insight. One of the most profound statements from this session came toward the end, when Cantor Schleifer explained that there are two levels to nusach: first, the basic melodies, the simple songs in which the congregation can engage with the cantor, and second the hazzanic flourishes, which constitute the nusach’s neshamah y’teirah.

Cantor Schleifer also told us that Lewandowski insisted that cantors must have four qualifications: (1) Jewish; (2) with an artistic soul; (3) knowing the history of synagogue music; and (4) having a mastery of the Hebrew language. I agree wholeheartedly. What Lewandowski indirectly states, then, is that becoming a qualified cantor is a combination of inherent talents and learned subjects. One cannot learn from scratch to be a cantor if one’s being does not drive him or her that way, but one who has the neshama of a chazzan can learn the skills necessary to become one.

Here is my takeaway from the whole morning, perhaps from the whole weekend: I am sure now that being a cantor, serving a Jewish community through music and through worship, is how I want to live the rest of my life. Scary to say something like that aloud (perhaps even moreso to write it down to be read for posterity). The cantor’s task really is to make his or her congregants fall in love with being in shul, and the music a cantor chooses might influence a congregant’s life wholly. I want to be a part of that.

Of course, attached to this particular experience in Berlin this weekend, I recognize also that Jewish life and Jewish music are extraordinarily unifying forces that bring Jews together intellectually and spiritually. If Jewish communities are like bricks, the music we sing is like the mortar holding us permanently together. How wonderful that we are so bonded with this music between us, and what else could we do but keep singing?

Haunting Moment at the Cemetery

December 16, 2011 Leave a comment

A quick post before Shabbat… I will have much more to say about this later, I’m sure.

Today, we visited the grave of Louis Lewandowski at the Jewish cemetery on the outskirts of Berlin… most all of us, from all eight choirs, went. As we arrived, the first thing we saw at the cemetery was a memorial to the perished Jews of the Holocaust, and on the monument read the words זכור מה-היה לנו – “remember what we had”. A cantor, presumably one local, did the El Malei for the six million of which I am familiar from the Yizkor liturgy in the voice of the Gabbai at my childhood synagogue. After the El Malei, those present spontaneously broke out in song, singing Ani Maamin and Ha-Tikva.

At Lewandowski’s grave, the Johannesburg Jewish Men’s Chorus sang an El Malei for the Maestro himself. Folks from the Zamir Chorale of Boston sang Lewandowski’s Halleluyoh, proclaiming our presence there. At the grave of Bar Yochai one might pray for love. At the grave of the maestro, there is nothing to do but sing.

But the most potent moment at the cemetery was in the stone chapel, where seven of us sang a greatly moving rendition of Enosh, which bounced off the walls like a rubber ball in a raquetball court. Most of us were choked up halfway through.
Life is fleeting, we know. But we are still here, still making music.

More about this later.
Shabbat Shalom!

The Chemistry of Kindred Spirits

December 15, 2011 Leave a comment

As Zamir boarded the second leg of our flight toward Berlin, aware of each other’s seats on the plane, we spread out to our assigned seats.

We were suddenly aware of another group boarding the plane. They were obviously a group, wearing matching red polo shirts and black baseball caps, reading “JJMC-Berlin-2011”. It took us only a few moments to discern that “JJMC” stands for “Johannesburg Jewish Men’s Chorus”. They are headed to Berlin, like us, for a common purpose: a love for Jewish Music.

וקבצנו יחד מארבע כנפות הארץ
Gather us together, God, from the four corners of the Earth.

Aside from my continued connection to this phrase, the automatic chemistry we felt when we discovered each other on the plane was palpable. Journeying toward a common goal, a common purpose; but also traveling from a common history, a common heritage, and a common love.

הנה מה-טוב ומה-נעים, שבט אחים גם יחד
How good, how beautiful it is, for spiritual siblings to rendezvous, to sit, to learn, to sing together. To make ethereal music together.

We haven’t even set foot on the pavement in Berlin and my heart is racing from excitement (or is that caffeine again?). We soar high above German land and the clouds look so peaceful, but the landscape from this angle is grey. Let us bring color — and coloratura! — to this place. Let it influence our music, and our emotions.

We look forward, together with the many choristers, conductors, instrumentalists, staff, and audience members, to producing chords worthy of our great teacher’s own choir over 150 years ago. We hope to truly declare מה טובו אהליך יעקב, and fill the sleeping halls with virile energy. We hope to inspire Jews and non-Jews alike, singers and non-singers, to carry with them the legacy of the great Louis Lewandowski.

Walking the Fine Line

December 12, 2011 1 comment

Apropos of my most recent post, Josh reflected a bit tonight on what it means to walk the fine line between knowing that there is Holocaust history, and calling attention to it through our presence in Berlin this week. He told us that the song “Ba Mir Bistu Sheyn,” made popular by the Andrews Sisters, was a chart-topper in Germany in the 1930s until the Nazis realized it was based on a Yiddish song rather than a German one and banned it. He noted that we are going to sing pieces on our programs that were composed by German Jewish composers who much pre-dated World Wars I and II, and others who left in the 1930s — but, Josh notes, no reason to directly articulate why. People will just know.

I sense that this is how much of our experience will be in Berlin. We will know the history, but we will not have to speak it out loud. Some things are just part of the common culture, and don’t need to be articulated.

As I might have said previously, I think our attendance at this festival, more than anything, is an expression of our support for the modern German community. In particular, our attendance shows our support of the German Jewish community, which is currently seeing a renaissance among Orthodox and Liberal Jews alike. Yes, friends, there is a thriving Jewish community in Germany; and not just American ex-pats at that. I’m sure that’s something I’ll be happy to write about when we meet it.

Stoked for traveling! Three days until take-off!

The Music of Pluralism

December 11, 2011 Leave a comment

This Friday night, as I davened Kabbalat Shabbat from the Amud at Temple Emanu-El in Providence, I chose to use Louis Lewandowski’s melody for Tzaddik Ka-tamar, the coda to his setting of Psalm 92. And I was transported.

From the first moment the minyan joined me in song, I immediately found myself engulfed in the excitement of where we’ll be next week: singing this music in the place it was written will be an extraordinary experience. I can only imagine. Next week at this time, I won’t have to imagine; I will know.

In addition, this Shabbat gave me an opportunity to reflect on the effect Lewandowski’s music has had on modern Judaism. His music has transcended time and conflict; it betrays denominational boundaries in a way that most advocates of pluralism couldn’t even expect in a utopian future. Some of his melodies, particularly this tune for Tsaddik Ka-tamar and many of his settings composed for the High Holy Day liturgy (for example, Zokharti Lokh), can be sung to any Jew who regularly attends services and they will immediately recognize the “Jewish sounds” of Lewandowski’s compositions. Walking through Boston University Hillel on a Friday night, for example, one might hear Lewandowski’s melody drifting out of all three mainstream minyanim — Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform.

How is it that Lewandowski’s fingerprints are left stamped on all walks of contemporary Judaism? The fact that he composed for choir and organ doesn’t even seem to have hampered any contemporary community’s acceptance of his melodies into their musical canon. Perhaps they simply don’t know, or don’t remember. Some of Lewandowski’s melodies are today considered “Traditional,” as if they’ve been around for as long as there have been Jews (Lewandowski lived April 23, 1821 – February 4, 1894, so even his earliest works are no more than 150 years old).

As our ever-articulate artistic director Dr. Joshua Jacobson taught us last year when Zamir performed our Middle East Harmonies program, music is at the most basic level of human expression, and is therefore a common language in which disparate peoples can positively communicate: whether we disagree about our politics, our religious practices, or anything else. The members of Zamir itself are not a homogenous group, and this music that we sing together unites us and forges a much stronger bond between individuals than we find in the communities in which we exist daily.

This week, four days from now, we embark on a journey. We will travel to Berlin, to the source of our beautiful musical inheritance; we wait with bated breath to share this music with people joining together from four continents, corners of the world. Could Louis Lewandowski have imagined, 150 years ago, that his music would cause the fulfillment of the phrase “v’kabb’tzénu yachad mei-‘arba kanfot ha’aretz” — “gather us together from the four corners of the earth” — so that we could share our love of Judaism, love of our People, and love of liturgy, through his music?