Love Makes the Melody Immortal!

Love makes the melody immortal!
Louis Lewandowski, 1821-1894

by Inbal Freund-Novick

Hans Bloemendal is going to be 90 in a month. He has been a famous cantor in Amsterdam for over 40 years. His wife is holding his hand telling his story of survival through the Holocaust, his eyes tell us the rest of it – how he knew Anne Frank, how he watched another young girl who perished, his sister, make the wrong decision to not join him in the children’s hiding place. That decision cost her her life, and added a layer of loneliness to his orphancy and grief.

He is in the hall of the Rykestrasse Synagogue tonight with members of seven choirs: The Lewandowski Chorale from Johannesburg, The Warsaw Singers, L’ensemble Choral Copernic from Paris, Le Chanat Sacré from Strasbourg, The Synagogal Ensemble Berlin, the Ramatayim Men’s Choir  and The Yakar Choir from Jerusalem. Like Cantor Bloemendal, this magnificent synagogue survived Kristallnacht only thanks to it being hidden behind the entrance of another building (the Nazis didn’t want to set it on fire so as not to hurt neighboring houses.)

Retired now, Cantor Bloemendal’s children sent him to the Louis Lewadowski Festival in Berlin as a birthday gift. He is listening to the various interpretations of the classical liturgical Jewish music, music which has spread through Jewish communities around the world. Lewandowski in Berlin, Naumbourg in Paris and Sulzer in Vienna, lived and created with Franz Schubert and other world-renowned classical composers. Their work was tailored for the synagogues and the great cantors.

Today, this music is transformed from the synagogue Bimah to the concert halls. Something is lost and something else, great, is gained. I perform with the Yakar choir – an Orthodox choir of both men and women, led by conductor Nurith Cohn. Although untraditional, it is a strong component of communal life in the Yakar community.

We stand on the big Bimah at the Rykestrasse Synagogue, before a crowd of twelve hundred people. It’s not taken for granted to stand here, on this Bimah in Berlin, to sing the classic prayers of our tradition. The music is elevating and I feel a part of this one body, 33 creators, singing a love song to Shabbat. When I get down, in the crowd a woman turns to me with a smile. With broken Hebrew she explains that her mother is Israeli but that she has no connection to anything Jewish in her life. She saw the publicity posted around the city and came. She is ecstatic about the music.

When the concert is finished, after 160 members of all choirs sang the last song together, we are ready to leave. As I step out, I see Cantor Bloemendal inside the big hall, slowly climbing the Bimah. Supported by his wife, tears coming down from his eyes, he sings one last Shabbat song to himself, in the Rykestrasse Synagogue, to drive evil away, as his wife explains. A strong, deep voice resounds in the vast expanse: “(the Torah) is a tree of life to those who take hold of it , and those who support it are fortunate.”

Now, a few days after this experience, I’m thinking about my grandfather, Benjamin Zvieli z”l, who was known as the Rabbi of Israeli Radio for over a decade and a half and who was among the founders of Israeli Television. After the Holocaust, when he realized he was almost the only one left from his family, my grandfather used to record and broadcast cantors from around the world, giving a stage to voices of our heritage from our past and present. I’m still waiting to discover how and when his path crossed Hans Bloemendal’s.

Inbal Freund-Novick is an organizational consultant, Co-Founder of “The Unmasked Comics Project,” and currently working at The Jewish Agency for Israel. With the help of an ROI Community Micro Grant, Inbal was given the opportunity to perform with the Yakar choir at the Louis Lewadowski Festival in Berlin.

cross-posted at ROI Community blog