‘Jewish Music Days’ celebrates 19th-century composer Louis Lewandowski

The 10th edition of the Jewish Music Days festival will take place at Bar Ilan University from June 7-9.

 ADI CHOIR 2018 in Berlin (photo credit: ADI CHOIR 2018 in Berlin)
ADI CHOIR 2018 in Berlin
(photo credit: ADI CHOIR 2018 in Berlin)

We Jews tend to pull together when threatened by some foreign entity but, left to our own devices, we can find ourselves quibbling over this and that. That goes double for anything even remotely related to religious practice, and the perceived best way to go about that. 

As a kid growing up in an Orthodox home, I was given to understand that anything off the beaten path of observance, such as – God forbid – Reform Judaism, was way beyond the pale. With that in mind, it is quite incredible to learn that composer Louis Lewandowski’s work was happily embraced by practicing Jews of all stripes.

That is just one of the sentiments that should come across in the lecture by Dr. Eliyahu Schleifer, to be delivered on the first evening of this year’s Jewish Music Days festival, the 10th edition to take place at Bar Ilan University, from June 7-9. Schleifer is professor of sacred music and director of the School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College. 

The choice of Lewandowski was prompted by a couple – at least – of factors. First, as indicated above, is his almost universal popularity in synagogues and communities of such varied ilks. And second, had it been possible for the festival to take place last year, the famed composer would have had his salute exactly 200 years after his birth. Still, if you’re going to wait a couple of centuries for a tribute, it probably doesn’t hurt too much to wait a few more months.

As usual, the festival agenda covers broad musical and cultural ground, taking in diwan poetry-based music, which originates in the Islamic cultures of the Middle East, North Africa, Sicily and Southern Asia. 

Bar Ilan University, engineering department (credit: BAR ILAN UNIVERSITY/ WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)Bar Ilan University, engineering department (credit: BAR ILAN UNIVERSITY/ WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)


The music of the Jewish community of Cochin – now called Kochi – in southern India is also on the roster, as are the history of Chabad melodies, Ladino music, the work of iconic Moroccan-born singer Jo Amar, and the development of the quartet format in contemporary western classical music in Israel. 

There will be lectures, workshops and, of course, concerts on each of the three days, with conductor Oded Shomrony and the Adi Choir doing the honors for the Lewandowski slots. The manifold cultural spread is in keeping with this festival edition’s theme of aliyah and absorption.

After expressing my surprise at the breadth of Lewandowski’s popularity, festival artistic director Dr. Yuval Rabin advises me that that is not a unique phenomenon.

“There is quite a lot of music that was written for Reform synagogues, and the same music found its way into Orthodox synagogues too.”

Dr. Yuval Rabin

“There is quite a lot of music that was written for Reform synagogues, and the same music found its way into Orthodox synagogues too,” he notes. The bifurcation process in Judaism into movements, says Rabin, was not yet in full flow in Lewandowski’s day, hence the likelihood of communities sharing similar repertoires. 

“There were literally hundreds of synagogues across Germany that saw themselves as contemporary communities,” Rabin continues. “They saw themselves as communities for all Jews, including haredim, Hassidim and the mitnagdim (who opposed hassidism) and those who didn’t observe Shabbat at all. Everyone.”

Then again, not all composers of cantorial and choral music for synagogues, with some church scores thrown in too, are recognized by the German government with a postage stamp. The state – pardon the pun – stamp of approval happened in 1990, and the Louis Lewandowski Festival for Jewish liturgy and synagogue choral music has been held in Berlin, and participated in by top choirs from around the world, since 2011. 

Lewandowski’s mass appeal is underscored by the festival venues which take in synagogues, churches and industrial halls. The musical itinerary in Berlin is augmented by workshops and lectures on various topics connected to synagogue music.

The man deserves that official and popular nod. Lewandowski brought traditional Jewish prayer services into contemporary musical climes, and his charts contributed to the spread and growing popularity of Jewish liturgical music worldwide.

INTERESTINGLY, Lewandowski was not a cantor himself. He gained some early experience of singing as a kid, in a synagogue choir, but he never made it to cantorial status. But he did get himself a more than decent education in his chosen field. The Polish-born youngster went to Berlin at age 12, to study piano and voice, after which he became a solo soprano in a synagogue. 

He maintained his top-grade educational continuum by becoming the first Jew to be admitted to the school of composition of the Berlin Academy. That happened with a little protekzia (connections), when a cousin of famed composer Felix Mendelssohn put in a good word for the lad. Mind you it was far from being a case of whom he knew, rather than what, and he completed his studies with honors.

“He took part in competitions at the academy, anonymously, and he was later taken on there as a teacher,” says Rabin. “We are talking about someone who was truly gifted.”

In 1840, he also landed a synagogue choirmaster post in Berlin and soon gave the prayer services a musical makeover. By 1866 he had been awarded the title of “royal musical director” and, shortly after that, he was appointed choirmaster in the Neue Synagoge (New Synagogue) in Berlin, for which he composed the entire musical service.

He also spread his wings. “Lewandowski composed some Psalms for churches,” Rabin notes. “They were commissioned pieces.” 

So, did his oeuvre also have an ecclesiastical side to it? Rabin parries that suggestion. “He tried hard not to imitate church music [for synagogues], not to use Psalms and chorales. He tried to do things differently, so it would be Jewish music.”

He was, however, open to “extraneous” new ideas. “He was very much influenced by the world around him, and by the music of Mendelssohn,” says Rabin, explaining that Lewandowski was not a member of the pioneer generation in the cantorial business. 

He was preceded by Austrian cantor Salomon Sultzer, who served at the Seitenstettengasse Synagogue in Vienna for over half a century. Like Lewandowski, Sultzer’s appeal stretched beyond the confines of the Jewish community, and his innovative approach to Jewish liturgical music resonated in modern communities of the mid-19th century. 

Lewandowski, Rabin explains, took a leaf out of his Austrian predecessor’s book and ran with it, embracing outside musical mindsets along the way. “The whole idea of a cantor no longer singing non-rhythmically, singing with defined rhythms and with a four-part choir, comes from outside influences. 

“But Lewandowski did not imitate the music from the outside. His thinking was that he wanted to give the members of the synagogue community an experience of majesty and glory.”

The festival-goers can look forward to eclectic and sumptuous musical and enlightening pickings over at Bar-Ilan University this week.

For tickets and more information: (03) 731- 6561 and https://www.goshow.co.il/