Berlin, a journey I will never forget – Steven Fenster

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Berlin, a journey I will never forget.

By Steven Fenster

Observant Jews pray and say the weekday Amidah three times a day, which include the words,  “vekab’tzeinu yachad mei-arba kanfot ha’aretz (and gather us together from the four corners of the Earth”).  The first Louis Lewandowski Festival in Berlin was the actualization of these words becoming a reality.

From Dec. 15th to 18th, eight choirs from four continents assembled in Berlin to honour the music and memory of maestro Louis Lewandowski (1821-1894), probably the most influential composer of modern synagogal music.  Singers from the Toronto Jewish Male Choir, Zamir Choir of Boston, Synagogal Ensemble Berlin, the Jerusalem Cantors’ Choir, the Johannesburg Jewish Male Choir, the London Zemel Choir, Les Polyphonies Hébraïques de Strasbourg, and the Synagogenchor Zürich met in Berlin, Germany to represent their respective countries in the first ever Louis Lewandowski Choral Festival.

This experience brought to mind that in Genesis after what occurred at the Tower of Babel, G-d said “spread people throughout the earth and make them speak different languages”, and although the various choristers speak different languages and observe Judaism differently, we were able to sing the compositions of Ma-Tovu and Adon Olam in glorious unison and embracing harmony.  We were moulded into one voice, one language and one sound!

Besides walking around the neighbourhood 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.  However, the rare opportunity to sing with other choristers for the Berlin community was an once-in-a-lifetime experience for me and I am sure every other person fortunate enough to have been there.

At the entrance to the Weissensee Cemetery stands a haunting memorial to the victims of the Holocaust.  I read the stone monument’s inscription, which I learnt was from Lamentations 5:1.   “zachor Hashem meh hayah lanu” (“Remember, O L-rd, what has befallen us”).  As the 320 choristers gathered around the memorial, Chazzan Isaac Sheffer of the Pestalozzi Straße Synagogue in Berlin, garbed in an old-style cantorial robe and hat, chanted K’el Malei, (the memorial prayer) with incredible emotion for the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.  We all then spontaneously broke out into singing “Ani Ma’amin,” a song associated with the Jews walking to their deaths in the concentration camps.  Kaddish was then said followed by the singing of “Hatikvah”.  Many of us fought very hard to sing through our tears.

At Lewandowski’s grave, members of the various choirs joined in and sang a life-affirming rendition of his “Halleluyah”.  Yes, here we were, Jews, from all over the world, in the oldest Jewish cemetery in Berlin, singing about mortality and life.

For months before this trip, I wondered how and whether Holocaust history and guilt has remained in German consciousness; this was something that stuck with me throughout the trip.

The answer?  One cannot walk through the streets of Berlin without constant reminders of the tragedy that happened there.  As you enter the Tiergarten train station, you see a list of the concentration camp names with a plaque saying, “Remember The Horrors.”  Stolpersteine or “stumbling stones” made out of brass have been installed in the paving.  These have been engraved with names and dates etc. to remind passersby of the Jews who once lived in and owned those properties.  The Pestalozzi Straße Synagogue’s prominently displayed plaque “6 million Tote (6 million lives)” and commemorates its desecration on Kristallnacht (Nov. 9, 1938) and its rededication 11 years later.  To me, this city is not in denial.

I was amazed by Berlin’s pro-Jewish and pro-Israel ambience.  Our festival was coordinated and supported primarily by Nils Busch-Petersen who is a prominent gentile businessman involved in Berlin politics.  It was publicized on beautiful billboards featuring a teddy bear wearing a tallit and kippah throughout the city.  (The bear is the city symbol of Berlin.  Ber = Bear and Lin = Little; Little Bear). Walking to shul on Shabbat, men wearing their kippot in the streets, felt like being on Bathurst Street.  On our city tour, we drove down Ben Gurion Straße and passed Yitzhak Rabin Straße near the city capitol.

The TJMC were privileged to perform in two concerts during our tour.  The first featured us alone at the Centrum Judaicum on Oranienburger Straße.  We were greeted by applause to a full house of Berliners and chorister’s family members.  After intermission, we gambled with our rendition of the Yiddisher song Az Der Rebbe by involving the audience in making the sounds for the Rebbe snoring when he “Shloft”, and Oy-Veying when he “krechts”.  They absolutely LOVED this, and we were given a standing ovation and honoured by the stomping of their feet (which apparently is a huge honour in German culture), along with 3 encores.  Our choir master, Gary Rewald was interviewed at length for German radio and a lot of our concert has subsequently been broadcast.

The second and final concert at the RykeStraße Synagogue included all eight choirs singing together and individually.  The collaborative chorus of 320 voices opened the concert with Lewandowski’s “Ma Tovu” and we all closed with his stunning “Adon Olam.”  In the magnificence of this amazing Synagogue, the forte produced by the 320 singers singing together was enough to happily awaken the soul of the long-deceased composer.  As for me, it was incredibly moving and spiritual as hundreds of us sang so beautifully together.  We were privileged to have performed this German synagogal music in the context for which it was specifically composed.

My experience in Berlin with the TJMC was life-changing.  We met so many new people, saw new sights, experienced so much emotion and heard new sounds.  Standing among 320 singers, filling a holy sanctuary with vibrant, G-dly music, the presence of ruach hakodesh (G-d’s Holy Spirit) was truly felt.  This is a journey I will never forget.