One of the most profound Jewish cultural events I’ve witnessed since moving to Ottawa a decade ago took place in a Christian church.
It was a concert on November 9, the 79th anniversary of Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass – when Nazi brownshirts conducted murderous and devastatingly destructive anti-Semitic pogroms throughout Germany and Austria.
Hundreds of synagogues and thousands of Jewish homes and businesses were destroyed on Kristallnacht, among them the Hebräaische Buchhandlung (Hebrew Bookstore) which was also the headquarters of Hirsch Lewin’s Semer record label.
From 1933 until 1938, Lewin had prolifically recorded German Jewish singers and musicians with repertoires ranging from Yiddish folk and theatre songs to classical music, popular and art songs, opera, and much more. Ironically, he also recorded musicians and singers from pre-state Israel who travelled to Berlin because there were not yet any professional recording studios in the Holy Land – so some of the earliest Israeli folksongs were recorded in Nazi Germany.
All of the masters that Lewin had produced as well as his stock of records were destroyed on Kristallnacht and presumed to be lost forever.
In 1992, German musicologist Rainer E. Lotz began what turned out to be a decade-long, worldwide quest to find copies of the entire Semer catalogue. Eventually he was able to assemble “Beyond Recall,” an 11-CD boxed set that includes more than 14 hours of Jewish music recorded in Berlin in the 1930s on the Semer label, as well as a 516-page hardcover book.
In 2012, the Berlin Jewish Museum commissioned Alan Bern, a renowned American Jewish musician living in the German capital, to put together a contemporary band to perform modern adaptations of music from the Semer recordings. Bern recruited other Jewish musicians living in Germany, as well as from the U.S., for what became known as the Semer Ensemble.
This month, the Semer Ensemble performed concerts in three U.S. and three Canadian cities. The Ottawa concert took place at Southminster United Church in Old Ottawa South.
The concert – fittingly titled “Rescued Treasure” – was spectacular. Virtually every piece in the long program was a highpoint. Bern and the other virtuoso musicians and singers – including Lorin Sklamberg of the Klezmatics – performed brilliantly. There were moments of great sadness in the music as well as moments of great humour, and great spirituality in what was, in essence, a celebration and remembrance of the vibrant Jewish culture that existed in Germany before the Holocaust – and which is enjoying a substantial and meaningful revival today.
I’ve attended concerts in churches on many occasions – including several at Southminster United. But it was odd to hear this distinctly Jewish music – some of it religious – in a sanctuary filled with Christian iconography.
And of all the concerts I’ve ever attended in churches, this one surely had the most Jewish of audiences. I recognized what must have been several hundred members of the Jewish community among the hundreds more in the sold-out church.
However, many Orthodox Jews would not, or would be reluctant to, attend an event taking place in a church. So, although the Southminster United Church folks were completely welcoming, the very nature of the venue itself was unwelcoming for some Jewish people. For that reason, I wish the Ottawa concert – like the Semer Ensemble’s other North American concerts – had taken place at either a Jewish or nonreligious venue. The Montreal concert, for example, was at Shaar Hashomayim, an Orthodox synagogue, while the Toronto concert was at the Toronto Centre for the Arts.
The Semer Ensemble has a CD, also called “Rescued Treasure,” that includes many of the pieces they performed in Ottawa. It is well worth seeking out.