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Singing Jewish Music In Berlin

A contradiction in terms?

It was bitingly cold in late December London, but unusually mild and wet in Berlin. Nevertheless, the many christmas markets were in full swing selling an array of teutonic delicacies: gluehwein (sweet heated wine), Lebkuchen (gingerbread) and bratwurst (don’t ask, it’s not kosher). We, however, had not come to partake of these seasonal treats, nor to join the many on the plane travelling home to spend the holiday season with their families. We had come, instead to do something many would find improbable: we had come to sing Jewish music in Berlin. We were invited guests at the International Lewandowski Choral Festival, which takes place annually in Berlin, and which invites a range of Jewish choirs from around the world. Our group, the London Jewish Male Choir, was one of 7, the others coming from Strasbourg, Rome, Berlin, Boston and Israel. These choirs represented the full scope of Jewish diversity: from the highly liberal and egalitarian members of the Boston Zamir Chorale to the highly orthodox voices of Israel Ensemble, comprised of cantors from across Israel.  The choirs were also separated by language barriers (english was the de facto lingua franca), but we were ultimately united in our collective passion for the Jewish choral music and a desire to perform it to the best of our ability.

Our saturday night concert took place in a church in a suburb of Berlin, and we were faced with the unfamiliar, and rather disconcerting scenario of being asked to sing in front of a large cross, next to a nativity scene. We, along with our co-performers, the Ensemble Vocal Hebraica, rose to the challenge, and performed a diverse range of cantorial pieces, Yiddish folk songs and contemporary Jewish music to a highly enthusiastic, and almost entirely non Jewish, Berlin audience. In a neat metaphor for pan-European co-operation, our soloist for the concert was the cantor of the Grande Synagogue de Strasbourg, Jonathan Blum, who we met when the choir performed there in 2013. On the sunday night, all the choirs performed in a gala concert, to an audience of over 1000, broadcast live on German radio. We performed music written by Jewish composers who fled Germany for America in the 1930s, composers such as Max Janowski, Hugo Chaim Adler and Herman Berlinski. For us, it was a massive privilege to perform Herbert Fromm’s Sabbath Madrigal and Siegfried Landau’s Yigdal - it felt like we bringing this powerful German-Jewish music back home, reuniting an immigrant culture with the place that it fled from.

As if to dispel any doubts that Berlin was a welcoming place for Jews, the organisers were truly wonderful hosts, providing copious amounts of wonderful kosher food and wine, seemingly at every opportunity. There were memorial elements - we paid a visit to the grave of Louis Lewandowski, the great German Jewish composer who contributed so much to synagogue music, and while there, a cantor chanted the ‘El Malei Rachamim prayer in memory of the victims of the Shoah. But beyond this, the focus was on today, and in particular on the Jewish life and culture that currently flourishes in Berlin. On our guided tour of the city we saw a great number of Chabad sponsored Channukiahs and and we visited some astoundingly beautiful synagogues (of different denominations), including the recently renovated Rykesntrasse synagogue, where the festival’s final concert took place.

As if to prove how welcome we were, all the choirs were hosted for dinner in Berlin’s regional parliament, in the centre of a city that, having genuinely and thoughtfully dealt with its past can now embrace its future. Some participants found this all rather surprising, having come expecting to visit a memorial to Jewish life before the war and instead finding a thriving modern Jewish community in this most cosmopolitan and tolerant of European cities. "It’s not what I thought it would be" I overheard one American chorister declare. "I’ve really changed my mind about Berlin".

Joseph Finlay

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