Though the trip is over, and I have had a good night’s sleep in my own bed, I wanted to write one more post to summarize and wrap up all of the thoughts that continue to swim around in my head. This might be a long one, so hunker down!
I. Berlin is an amazing city, a thriving metropolis with a fascinating mixture of old and new. It is clean and well kept, and there is so much to see. Different neighborhoods and pockets of the city each have their own character and personality, and there is so much to do no matter what your interests. As my spouse was driving me to Logan last week for my departure (which seems like about three lifetimes ago right now), we were discussing that if we were to make a list of the top ten places we’d like to go and have not been to before, Berlin definitely would not have made the list. Having spent time there, I would now tell anyone considering a European vacation to make Berlin their destination. It’s just incredible.
II. Being Jewish in Berlin was fascinating and felt great. At no time did I feel any negative vibe from anyone about my Judaism. Further, seeing Jewish life thrive in Berlin was extremely moving. The population is small, just about 12,000, and consisting mostly of relocated Russian Jews, but Jewish life is present in all of its glory. There are beautiful synagogues, museums, memorials, kosher restaurants and other evidence of Jewish life, all prominent in their neighborhoods. Most interesting and perhaps most important is that it was very clear to me that the Berlin of the 21st century is trying very, very hard to atone for the atrocities of the past. They are open and honest in their recounting of history, and clearly working very hard to shed the city of the stigma and reputation that has long been associated with it. I found that very moving and something to appreciate greatly. I hope the Jewish community in Berlin continues to grow and thrive.
III. The sponsors of the Festival were amazing, appreciative, and indescribably generous. Yes, there were organizational glitches along the way, but I think those are inevitable when mounting an undertaking as large as this. Festival director Nils Busch-Petersen was a lovely, gentle and delightful man who truly wanted this to be something very special. Along the way he was so generous in his appreciation of the groups who travelled to participate, and went so far out of his way to ensure that we all had a memorable experience. We were very fortunate to be the recipients of this generosity and to have an opportunity to help implement his vision and dream.
IV. Of course, first and foremost we were there to make music, and to do so in a way that only Zamir does. After hearing the other choirs perform at the final concert, I was overcome with thoughts swimming around my head about what makes Zamir so special, and here’s what I think: Many choirs make a beautiful sound, but not many choirs come together to make a sound that is so unified, so one, as Zamir does. I think the reason for this is that while other conductors may work on polishing pieces, Josh starts by first and foremost working on voices in loving and painstaking detail. He cares so much about the sound of each individual voice in the group, and in doing so he makes each and every one of us better singers. This, in turn, makes the sound of those voices joined together of the highest quality and unity. Many of the other choirs who performed were very polished, but often one could hear individual voices, of varying quality and sometimes pushing against the sound of the group, rather than an ensemble. I have sung in many choruses under many conductors in my life, but never before have I had the experience of working with the precision that Josh both teaches and requires of us. The important piece of that last sentence is that while Josh demands that we perform at the highest level of quality of which we are capable, he teaches and guides us to that place with his extraordinary skill and experience. He is indeed a teacher in the truest sense of the word, and I have learned so very much from him. I have also never as a singer enjoyed watching a conductor more than I enjoy watching Josh. He has a vast repertoire of motions, signals, facial expressions and shorthand cues that guide us and let us know within each and every measure what he expects. Josh surely demands a great deal from us, but he leads us to that place as only the very best teachers can do. I have never been a better singer, or a more prepared singer, than I have been since joining Zamir.
V. For the last year and a half, and at assorted other times, I have come together with a group of people from many different walks of life to make music. In the course, I have gotten to know some well, some less well, and some not at all. Everything has changed now. There is nothing like this sort of trip to bring former strangers together and to create a bond that will last far beyond the touchdown of jet wheels on our home tarmac. On this trip, I feel I truly became a member of the Zamir family. I feel connected now to these people in a way that only an experience such as this can create. Yes, we will all go back to the rest of our lives, but the things we shared together will never be undone or erased. (We’ll always have Berlin. . .?)
VI. And finally, the things I will never forget about this trip (with apologies to the non-participants for the “inside references”):
1. Bonding with my roommate H. until 3:30 in the morning.
2. Hearing the stories of non-english-native G.S. mispronouncing many very innocent English words as profanities.
3. The incredible way that Barbara Gaffin, a/k/a Mrs. Mallard, took care of her little “ducklings”.
4. Eating Shabbat dinner standing up, squished in elbow-to-elbow and laughing through most of it.
5. Having the same only semi-edible box lunch every day.
6. The amazing party at the top of the TV Tower after the Saturday night concerts.
7. Crowding into someone’s room late one night to share libation and laughter.
8. The beautiful Christmas markets all over the city.
9. Josh delivering all of his usual audience introductions completely in German, and the audience’s appreciation of that effort.
10. The magic of walking in the snow at night and seeing it reflect against all the beautiful lights.
11. That “oh my goodness” moment of stepping onto the bimah at the Rykestrasse Synagogue and looking out at the audience sitting in that beautiful space.
12. The spontaneous outbreak of song at both the Holocaust Memorial and at Lewandowski’s grave marker at the Jewish Cemetery.
13. The reaction of the Strasbourg chorus as we took our seats after singing at the closing concert.
14. Meeting the amazing Cantor Joel Caplan, and the incredible talk we had late one night in the hotel lobby.
15. My long, solitary walk around Berlin on Saturday, during which time I felt more “like myself” than I have in a very long while.
16. Hearing the city’s bell tower playing a chorus from Judas Maccabeus as I walked along the Tiergarten during that walk, which just felt like some kind of a sign.
And finally, of course, the music and the friends, and how amazing it is to be part of the Zamir family. Because I know you, I have been changed for good.