Review: Finding the Beautiful Roots Among the Thorns

[by Cantor Sharon Hordes]

It was a genuine treat to spend an evening watching and listening to some of the great chazzanim past and present in a true celebration of this beautiful sacred art. On September 21, the Louisville Jewish community was fortunate to be one of the many communities around the world that had the opportunity to share in this experience as we watched the local screening of “100 Voices: A Journey Home”, the documentary that follows the unique 2009 mission of cantors to Poland.
There was a sense of pride and anticipation in the theater that night. Not everyone knew exactly what to expect, but they did know that their own Cantor David Lipp was involved. In fact, whenever he appeared on screen, many broke out in applause!

One of the remarkable features of the movie was that the performances of this rich, moving cantorial singing were employed in the service of showcasing the beauty in our 1,000 year old Polish Jewish roots … this beauty that has sadly been overshadowed by destruction of the events of the Shoah a mere half century ago.

One of the ways this was demonstrated was in the decision to hold one of the performances at the stately Nozyk Synagogue, the only Warsaw shul to have survived World War II. As Cantor Ivor Lichterman, himself the son of a Holocaust survivor states in the movie, “People think ‘Poland … Auschwitz,’ but not all of Poland was Auschwitz.”

To highlight this point of Polish celebration of Jewish culture, the documentary included footage of some of the cantors performing at the annual Krakow Jewish Cultural Festival which was organized by Janusz Makuch, a man who identifies as Catholic but who explains, “I was born in Poland where Polish culture and Jewish culture have intertwined for centuries.”

The film also served as a kaddish of sorts to the 1,300 cantors who perished in the Shoah and the musical heritage that was inevitably lost.

The film featured testimonials about the power and importance cantorial singing held before the Holocaust. One story that stood out to me was about the mother of one of the cantors who would come to shul with four or five handkerchiefs in preparation for all the tears she would shed at hearing the moving rendition of the liturgy.

This type of cantorial singing was so central to the lives of the Polish Jews. It lifted up their spirits while also functioning as an emotional outlet for the pain and suffering they experienced.

Today, that kind of ornamented davenning is out of fashion in most synagogues. It may be due to our shorter attention spans or our access to the myriad of other entertainment that was not afforded to our Polish ancestors.

At the end of the film, I found myself wondering what the cantor’s role in today’s synagogue service would be like had the Shoah never happened. Jewish history has shown that at times of peril, Jews found comfort in preserving the existing traditions while at times of more assimilation and less outside threat, there was more tolerance for creativity and experimentation.

In today’s America, would those kinds of grand cantorial displays be replaced by shorter, more culturally relevant renditions? We will never know for sure but we can certainly do what we can to understand and preserve this rich part of our musical heritage.

I believe that the creators and participants of “100 Voices: A Journey Home” did a great deal to remind us of the grand musical tradition of chazzanut and our responsibility to preserve it.

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