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  • Writer's pictureJosh Jacobson

Zamir in Berlin — December, 2014

We came to Berlin not to mourn the Holocaust but to celebrate the rich Jewish culture of pre-War Germany.

This was our second time participating in the annual Louis Lewandowski Festival. The festival is now in its fourth year, celebrating the beautiful music of the great nineteenth century composer and music director of the majestic Oranienburgerstrasse synagogue in Berlin. This year’s festival, subtitled, “Stars and Stripes” focused on German composers who emigrated to the United States during the twentieth century.

After the Nazi party came to power in 1933 and instituted their policies, many Jewish composers became increasingly aware of their religious and cultural heritage, and expressed it musically. Arnold Schoenberg, Stefan Wolpe and Kurt Weill were among the greatest composers of their time. After leaving Germany, all three devoted much of their energies, emotions and creative output to Jewish subjects. Other prominent refugees, including Herbert Fromm, Heinrich Schalit and Max Janowski, on arriving in America dedicated themselves to the music of the synagogue.

These were the composers we highlighted in our performances. The audiences’ reactions could not have been more enthusiastic. We had three formal concerts. We were privileged to open the festival with a performance at St. Lukas Kirche. Saturday night we shared a concert with the Amakim Choir from Israel at Pankow’s Evangelische Hoffnungskirche. And Sunday’s concert at the Rykestrasse Synagogue featured all seven choirs: Zamir, Amakim, Ensemble Vocal Hébraïca from Strasbourg, the London Jewish Male Choir, Coro Ha-Kol from Rome, the Voices of Israel Ensemble from Netanya, and Berlin’s Synagogue Ensemble.

Some random thoughts:

It was amazing!

This wasn’t just a concert tour; it was a mission. The Jewish community in Berlin today is growing. But most are recent Israeli or Russian immigrants who know nothing of the great pre-war German-Jewish traditions. And many (perhaps most) of the people in our audiences were non-Jews. So we had great sense of accomplishment in reviving German Jewish culture!

At the end of our concerts we sing Rutter’s “The Lord Bless You” while the singers fan out into the audience and get as close as they can to the people in the seats. When the music finishes we make physical contact and shake hands with the members of our audience. It creates such a beautiful connection.

Perhaps our first highlight was singing as we lit (electric) Chanukah candles at Logan airport just before boarding our plane.

One of the highlights was hearing Prof. Sam Adler talk about the people whose music we were singing. He is the only living remnant of the German Jewish refugee composers—he escaped with his family when he was ten. He’s now 87 years old and extremely vital! He conducted the massed-choir performances at the final concert of the festival.

Another highlight was to meet fellow choral singers and conductors from Italy, England, France and Israel—men and women who share our peculiar enthusiasm for singing choral music from Jewish traditions. And it’s interesting to hear how the same piece of music can be interpreted so differently by various ensembles.

The sun sets very early in Berlin in December. Friday afternoon we gathered at the Pestalozzistrasse Synagogue for its official reopening and rededication after more than a year of restoration construction. In this moving ceremony the torahs were carried down the aisle and brought back to the ark. Most of the speeches were in German, but it was still impressive to watch, to listen to the musical performances by the choir and cantor, and to be in this beautiful building. After a brief ceremony opening the Festival, the Kabbalat Shabbat services began. This is a “liberal” synagogue: the traditional service is nearly all in Hebrew, the men and women sit separately, there is an organ and an excellent professional choir. The music is (nearly) all compositions by Louis Lewandowski, and we were invited to join the choir in several selections. This seems to be the only synagogue in Berlin that is perpetuating the unique musical traditions of that city.

The Zamir Chorale of Boston is the only ensemble to have been invited back for a second appearance at the Festival. We were at the first Festival in 2011 and then returned in 2014. We are also the only ensemble to have represented the United States, and the only ensemble to perform the “pre-opening” festival inauguration concert.

This festival is supported by a consortium of non-Jewish businessmen in Berlin. The founder and driving force is Nils Busch-Petersen, a lawyer and politician and chief executive of The Retail Associates of Berlin. Years ago he fell in love with the music of Lewandowski as it is sung each Shabbat at the Pestalozzistrasse Synagogue in Berlin, and was one of the founders of the "Friends and Supporters of the Berlin Synagogue Ensemble." In 2011 he founded the Lewandowski Festival, which is now in its fourth successful year. While Busch-Petersen is the overall director if the Festival, the musical direction is led by Regina Yantian, with the help of an advisory board that includes Sam Adler, Tina Freuhauf, Avner Itai, Josh Jacobson and Eli Schleifer.

The Festival organizers generously provide all accommodations on the ground, including lodging at a hotel in downtown Berlin, lavish kosher catered meals (with plenty of wine and beer), all ground transportation by bus, and all concert arrangements.

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