The Arty Semite

Perfectly Pitched Music From a Hungarian Fable

By Benjamin Ivry

  • Print
  • Share Share
Courtesy of MarkusChor Hannover

On September 21 at a church in Hannover, the Hungarian Jewish conductor and organist Andor Izsák will lead a concert of liturgical music under the auspices of The European Centre for Jewish Music (EZJM) which he founded in 1988 and still directs. A special zest should infuse the event, as a new biography, “Andor the Itinerant Musician: a Jewish Musical Life” appeared in June from Georg Olms Verlag.

Author Arno Beyer’s limpidly written account reads like a fable, and indeed at times, Izsák’s life does seem at least in part fable. Born in the Budapest ghetto in 1944, Izsák and his family were among the minority of Hungarian Jews who survived the war, and despite a near-escape from an exploding roadside bomb, the infant Andor’s ears were gifted with absolute pitch.

At six, Andor was further inspired by an at-home concert by teenaged Hungarian Jewish musicians, including the future great violinist György Pauk and pianist Peter Frankl. By his bar mitzvah, Izsák was in love with organ music, which since 1810 had been a feature of the Neolog tradition of Hungarian Judaism, a movement akin to Conservative Judaism.

Izsák’s parents supported his choice to play organ music, despite their own Orthodox beliefs, aware that in postwar socialist Hungary, Jews were seen as enemies of the people because they supposedly received support from America. At Budapest soccer games, Izsák recalls, crowds routinely taunted as “Jews” wholly goyish visiting teams with tenuously Jewish links.

During Israel’s 1967 Six Day War, Izsák, by then an organist at Budapest’s Dohány Street Synagogue was warned by two undercover policemen that if he persisted in performing music in synagogues, he would be jailed as a Zionist enemy of the people. Fortunately, his wife, the pianist Erika Lux, was offered a teaching job in Germany where the couple moved, first to Bavaria and later to Hannover.

Contacting survivors in Israel, America, South America, Australia and South Africa for scraps of what was once a thriving musical tradition, Izsák has painstakingly reassembled a corpus of Jewish liturgical music. The local Hannover government first offered Izsák headquarters for the EZJM at a former funeral parlor in its municipal Jewish cemetery, an idea he politely declined. Then the EZJM purchased the Seligmann Villa, former home of a financier once painted by Max Liebermann, which should open soon as a center for the music which, as Izsák states, was “silenced twice: by Nazis and then by Soviets.”

Listen to Andor Izsák speak in 2010 about the importance of tolerance.

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: György Pauk, European Centre for Jewish Music, Arno Beyer, Andor Izsák, Peter Frankl

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.