Cantorial ‘ambassadors’ recognizing the new Germany

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Click photo to download. Caption: Cantors Assembly members perform in Warsaw during their 2009 trip to Poland. Credit: Piotr Malecki.

Even as Germany has edged closer to being the icon of high culture it once was, echoes of the Holocaust still affect its foreign and domestic policy.

Now one of Israel’s staunchest supporters, Germany in the 1990s opened its arms to Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union. For Nate Lam, cantor at the Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles, this change has almost religious overtones. “Germany has done teshuva to try to atone for the sins of their society and their government during the Second World War,” he tells JNS.org.

Germany’s efforts to move beyond its past are being recognized by the Cantors Assembly (the world’s largest body of professional cantors) in its second cultural mission, “A Musical Journey of Heritage to Germany,” beginning June 27. “We think we can be ambassadors of goodwill, of acknowledgement and gratitude,” says Lam.

The group’s first mission to Poland in 2009, documented in the film “100 Voices: A Journey Home,” had a similar impetus. “The one in Poland was to thank many of the righteous gentiles not given credit and not acknowledged and to look at the realities of the 20th century and say, ‘We can be messengers of music,’” says Cantor Lam.

That mission was the beginning of a global initiative by the Cantors Assembly, based on a very simple idea—“that through our cultural heritage and our singing and what we bring to these different places, we can affect and be very effective in building bridges between the Jewish community and the non-Jewish communities that support Israel and want to help Jewish life in their countries,” he says. 

This summer’s mission, whose planning has brought together Jewish organizations in Germany and government representatives of the German, American, and Israeli governments, will visit Berlin, Potsdam, Munich, and Dachau, from June 27 to July 5, and afterward in Israel.

Although the many concerts offered by cantors during the mission will draw both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, the venues themselves are fraught with symbolism and emotion for Jews.

The Oranienburgerstrasse New synagogue, for example, was where the famous Jewish composer Louis Lewandowski (responsible for the Kiddush that most of us sing today and other familiar prayers) served as choirmaster and where the first, privately ordained female rabbi, Regina Jonas, attended services with her family.

At the Berliner Cathedral Dome, the largest Protestant church in Europe, the one wall remaining after the war held the organ, and above it the 1905 gift from the Berlin Jewish community when the church was dedicated by Bismarck in honor of Kaiser Wilhelm—a golden statue of King David with his harp. The concert there will feature music by Jewish and non-Jewish composers based on shared religious texts.

At Hercules Hall in Munich, the city of the putsch, Nazism, and Hitler, will be an uncanny Fourth of July mix of the German Jewish musical tradition of Lewandowsky and Solomon Sulzer and of 20th-century American composers. “We will be celebrating the idea that democracy and freedom breeds creativity and creates culture,” says Cantor Lam. “Oppression and suppression create nothing but hate.”

The mission is also creating a program to mark the 40th anniversary of the murders of 11 Israeli team members by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Mark Spitz, a swimmer for the U.S. who won seven gold medals there, will be part of the mission, and his presence will make the program “a living memorial,” says Deidre Berger, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Berlin Ramer Institute for German-Jewish Relations and consultant to the mission.

Another German-Jewish immigrant consulting for the mission, who himself embodies the renewal of Jewish life in Germany, is Jascha Nemtsov—pianist, scholar of Jewish art music, and academic director of the small but growing cantorial school at Abraham Geiger College.

After arriving with his family in 1992 at age 29, Nemtsov started his career as a concert pianist and also became a musicologist whose specialty is Russian Jewish art songs of the early twentieth century. He was part of the influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union after the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. According to Berger, the Jewish community went to the German government to ask for help dealing with the large influx of refugees. She explains, “Helmut Kohl recognized the opportunity for Germany to in some small measure create a new form of Jewish life on German soil, so the gates to immigration opened to some degree.”

The resulting immigration has dramatically changed the Jewish community in Germany that the mission is celebrating. What had been a small community of 25,000, mostly Holocaust survivors, has quadrupled to 100,000, with estimates suggesting the number may be as large as 200,000.

Currently, says Berger, over 100 Jewish communities exist, although she is not certain how long they will endure, because they lack resources for learning about their Judaism. Among the Jewish children born in Germany, many lack any Jewish communal context and hence have no interest in Judaism. Even though their parents, who suffered from Soviet anti-Semitism, have a very strong Jewish identity, says Nemtsov, “many are not able to pass these feelings on to their children.”

Yet at the same time, says Berger, “it feels like a different quality of Jewish life than 20 years ago. It is more pluralistic; children are in synagogues again; and there are a multitude of educational institutions, schools, and community centers that didn’t exist 20 years ago.”   

Sadly there is still anti-Semitism in Germany, as is true throughout Europe, although there has been considerable progress since after World War II. Nemtsov explains, “It does exist but it is not openly expressed. It is expressed in other forms, like hate against Israel; nobody would dare to openly express his hate against the Jews.”

A recent blue ribbon commission shocked Germans with the news that 15 to 20 percent of Germans display latent anti-Semitism, expressed not only through hostility to Israel but also in attempts to negate the Holocaust. “This was quite shocking for a lot of Germans,” says Berger, adding that there is also a problem with the Muslim community and the schools. “But that said, “these numbers are average in Europe, with some countries lower and some higher.”

But the trip emphasizes the positives. For one thing, it explores the history of German Jewish life in terms of the culture of German Jews, says Berger. From her experience reaching out to members of the German Christian community in interfaith efforts, she says, “There is tremendous interest in having a chance to experience a part of history that is also being brought here with the notion of fostering dialogue today.”

Berger believes the mission is very gratifying for the German government because they understand it as recognition of their efforts to reach out to the Jewish world and establish an ongoing dialogue with the Jewish world and Israel as a state.

 “It’s a mission of historic dimensions, and it captures everyone’s imagination. It’s a sign of faith and affirmation in modern Germany today by a large American Jewish delegation.”

Posted on June 19, 2012 and filed under Jewish Life, U.S., World.