Haifa Festival Unearths Forgotten Jewish Musical Treasures

Synagogal Ensemble Berlin performing liturgical marvels, story of Jewish composer who wrote score of Umm Kulthum’s first film, and old Yiddish pop.

Haggai Hitron
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Haggai Hitron

Jewish liturgical music may have traditionally neglected in Israel but it are featured front and center all week at the second Jewish Music Days Festival in Haifa.

The six concerts and one symposium in the festival’s program seek to connect audiences to an entire world of buried musical treasures. A plethora of liturgical works performed by a full line up including cantors, choirs and organ will be followed by presentations by musicologists and scholars. The University of Haifa music department, headed by Yuval Shaked, is hosting the event.

The man behind the concert section who is leading the push to change preconceptions about liturgical music in Israel is Yuval Rabin. The Haifa native today lives and works in Switzerland and is a member of the Basel community called the Einheitsgemeinde, the “united community,” or as he puts it “a community of all its Jews.” Rabin, 40, was a secular Jew most of his life and has recently become religious.

The composer, musicologist and professional musician did his dissertation on the works of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. But he won’t be watching from the sidelines during the festival - he’ll be playing the organ.

Challenging ‘provincial’ attitudes

“Of all the abundance available at the event, it’s natural for me to point out the works of Louis Lewandowski, a Jewish composer who lived in Germany in the 19th century,” Rabin said.

In the foreword he wrote for the festival program Rabin noted that Jewish liturgical music was marginalized in Israel. “When did you ever hear a concert of Lewandowski’s works here? In Berlin there was an entire festival of his works.” Upper Galilee Choir conducted by Ron Zarchi participated in the Berlin rendition. “ According to Rabin, Lewandowski is included as “a clear part of the classical repertory” in many vocal concerts in Germany.

Rabin says that “Vayehi binsoa ha’aron,” a melody heard every Shabbat morning in synagogues, was composed by Lewandowski. “At the festival it will be performed by a choir in four parts, with a cantor and an organ, as originally intended. As far as the organ is concerned, the crowning glory of Lewandowski’s works for the solo organ is a prelude to ‘Kol Nidrei’ (opus 37, no. 2), which is based on the traditional melody of the prayer. In some synagogues in Germany, before the Holocaust, and in other European countries, they would perform this prelude on evening of Yom Kippur. I’ll be playing it at the festival.”

Another of Lewandowski’s works will be played by Synagogal Ensemble Berlin conducted by Regina Yantian. The members of the ensemble are professional singers from various countries who live in Berlin, who sing every weekend in the synagogue on Pastalucci Street in the city. The group will perform at the festival with eight singers, include Israeli cantor Yosef Shamir.

“They will perform a wonderful program, which demonstrates the transition in Jewish liturgical music from the 19th to the 20th century, and the transition from Europe to the United States, which was reflected in the introduction of American elements,” Rabin says. “The ensemble exemplifies a different level, professional rather than community, of the sounds of Jewish liturgical music.”

Rabin was quick to fend off the common argument that Jewish liturgical music is not performed in Israel because it’s not as good.

“It may be that in Israel you will hear opinions, which I think are provincial, to the effect that Lewandowski is ‘a pale imitation of Mendelssohn,’” he said. “There are also people here who don’t get excited about the performance of Romantic works that don’t belong to the mainstream of the canon. I, on the other hand, think that it’s very good music, and some of it can even be called ‘amazing.’ A clear example is Lewandowski’s ‘Uvnuho Yomar’ – which was meant to accompany the return of the Torah scroll to the Holy Ark at the end of the Shabbat morning service.”

For Rabin, it is likewise a hasty generalization to say the proportion of uninspiring music in cantorial works is high - “No more than the proportion of uninspiring works in classical music in general.”

The relevant question for Rabin is “whether the proportion of uninspiring works played at concerts is higher.” And he has a twofold answer: “First, in our festival there’s no room for uninspiring music. Second, It’s true that in performances by cantors, almost every cantor feels an obligation to include his own arrangements, and there’s naturally a lot of uninspiring and superfluous material. I also think that in many cantorial concerts, the weak point is the quality of the rendition.”

Finally, Rabin likes to remind that Jewish liturgical music is in Hebrew, making it more accessible to Israeli audiences.

“After all, you don’t have to be religious to relate to lyrics such as ‘Al tashlikhenu le’et zikna’ [Do not cast us out in our old age] or ‘Enosh kehatzir yamav’ [Man’s days are like those of grass].”

Lodz Ghetto music

During the symposium part of the festival at the University of Haifa, which takes place on Wednesday from 10 A.M. to 6 P.M., there are lectures by 10 musicologists about various aspects of Jewish music. Michael Lukin will talk about a unique genre of Yiddish popular songs, about 100 songs which are paraphrases of liturgical and para-liturgical texts in Hebrew. Gila Flamm will tell about her 30-year study of Yiddish songs sung in the Lodz Ghetto during the Holocaust years, a study that also produced a book and a film, and Abigail Wood will present about the flourishing of current performances of Yiddish song in the United States and Canada. Also speaking at the conference will be scholars Edwin Seroussi, Assaf Talmudi, Alona Sagui, Mark Kroll, Naomi Cohen-Zentner and Amalia Kedem.

“In addition, there will be a lecture by Irit Youngerman entitled “Primavera Variations,” the story of the forgotten German Jewish composer Benno Bardi, who composed a work by that name. Bardi lived in Palestine in the 1940s and apparently suffered here from “exclusion due stylistic differences,” as Youngerman puts it. Bardi, born Pozwiansky in 1890 in Koenigsberg, gained a reputation in Berlin on the popular music scene as a conductor and arranger all while studying musicology and earning a doctorate on the history of comic opera.

Picking up an oriental flare in Egypt

After leaving Germany in 1933 Bardi moved to Cairo, worked in the first movie studio opened in Egypt and five years later left for Palestine, where he had often visited previously, and settled in Jerusalem. In the early 1950s, when he was 60 years old, Bardi left Israel and settled in England. He was able to find work in the municipal institute for literature in London and remained there until he reached retirement age. Afterwards he lived in poverty and waited in frustration for reparations from Germany, which arrived very late. He died in 1973. Beyond that we have very little information about his life and most of his legacy consists of sheet music.

From the sheet music that survived, Youngerman learned that he was an exceptionally varied musician. He wrote in many styles, including bel canto, popular music, music bordering on atonality and music with an oriental flare written while he lived in Egypt. The latter work became the sound track for the great Arabic singer Umm Kulthum’s first film.

“Due to his past as a man of the popular theater in Berlin, his music was seen as bourgeois culture,” says Youngerman. “New works were assessed at the time according to their compatibility with an vaguely defined ideal of Jewish or Hebrew music.”

But “Primavera Variations” actually demonstrates an attempt to connect to Jewish Hebrew roots and to compose music with a clear Jewish identity, in a unique way. The variations are verses from a poem by Yehuda Halevi set to music – the words of the poet of the golden age of Spanish Jewry are sung there in a bel canto style, with coloraturas. There is no hint of Orientalism, although Bardi knew how to be “oriental,” as he proved the work he produced in Egypt.

Synagogal Ensemble Berlin. Leave Jewish liturgical music to the professionals. Credit: Sabine Hauff
Yuval Rabin wants Israeli audiences to give liturgical music a chance.Credit: Eyal Warshavsky

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