The Arty Semite

Bringing Cantorial Music Back to Its Birthplace

By Renee Ghert-Zand

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“For me, this was not about a film. This was about our using our gifts as cantors to create dialogue,” said Cantor Nathan Lam of “100 Voices: A Journey Home,” which will be shown in a one-night event in over 75 theaters nationwide on November 11. The feature-length documentary chronicles the journey in June 2009 of 75 members of the Cantors Assembly and 25 congregational singers to Poland, the birthplace of cantorial music.

Courtesy 100 Voices

Jews lived in Poland for over 1000 years, and over that time Jewish and Polish cultures were intertwined. The cantors decided to return to the land from which their music first sprouted, not only to discover their own roots and witness the places where their family trees were brutally cut off during the Holocaust, but also to reach out to the Polish people by replanting seeds of Jewish culture with the hope that they might grow reconciliation and renewed relationships.

Cantor Lam, who has served at the Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles since 1976 and who organized this huge and complex mission, initially thought about documenting it in a simple travelogue. It was at the urging of his son, Michael Lam, that he began to consider producing a full-length documentary about the experience. The younger Lam brought Danny Gold and Matthew Asner of Mod3 Productions on board, and the result was a film that weaves historical background on cantorial music together with personal reflections and musical performances from some of the world’s most outstanding Jewish voices, including Simon Spiro, Alberto Mizrahi, Joel and Ivor Lichterman, Faith Steinsnyder, and Joseph Gole.

The cantors, who came together from a variety of countries, performed in Warsaw at the National Opera House (the largest opera stage in Europe) with a 100-piece orchestra and full chorus, and at the Warsaw Ghetto during the groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews. They also sang at the Nozyk Synagogue, the only Jewish house of worship in Warsaw to have survived World War II intact. Additional performances in Krakow and at Auschwitz took place, as well. All the pieces sung were composed in Poland prior to World War II.

Along for the experience was composer Charles Fox, best known for his popular songs like “Killing Me Softly” and “I Got a Name.” The film concludes with Fox performing a moving performance of a special work he composed with the words of Pope John Paul II. “Based on that, Charlie was commissioned to write a commemorative orchestral composition in honor of the 200th birthday of Chopin, which was performed in Gdansk for an audience of 22,000 this past September,” Cantor Lam said.

Cantor Lam emphasized that by undertaking this musical mission to Poland, he and the others were “not trying to whitewash anything.” He pointed out that historical Polish anti-Semitism is mentioned up front, but that the project (financially backed by American Jews and carried out with the full cooperation of the Polish government) is about thanking Righteous Gentiles who saved Jews during the Holocaust, acknowledging the Polish government’s support for Israel and the United States, and honoring the cantorial tradition that came out of Poland.

“When American Jews think of Poland they think, ‘Auschwitz’ — that’s it. But not all of Poland is Auschwitz,” Cantor Ivor Lichterman is heard saying in the film. Indeed, “100 Voices” devotes quite a bit of footage to documenting the Jewish cultural revival that has taken place in Poland over the last quarter century.

Janis Rojany of Los Angeles is eagerly looking forward to viewing the film when it runs from November 12 to 18 in her city (it premiered on September 21 and ran immediately after that for a week in Los Angeles and New York in order to qualify for 2011 Academy Award consideration). She expects to be deeply and personally affected by “100 Voices,” because many of those voices were trained by her late father, the renowned Eastern European-born, Cantor Allan Michelson. “This film speaks of the love for Jewish music that my father instilled in these chazzanim,” she said. “The greatest music came from that era. We’re blessed to still have that tradition.”

Watch the trailer for ‘100 Voices: A Journey Home’:


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