Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The summary

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.

Das ende.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The grand finale

I’m writing this from the Berlin airport on Monday morning as we wait for our short flight to Munich, where we connect to Boston.  Yesterday was such a full day, and it was just too late to blog the day by the time I got back to the hotel, so here is the chronicle of Sunday.

On Sunday morning, the Festival offered workshops on a variety of music topics led by the conductors of the various choruses.  Many Zamirniks attended, but I opted out in favor of sleeping a little later.  Once I got moving, I took another walk around the hotel neighborhood, went back to the Christmas market nearby, bought a few trinkets and ate some more native German food.  I have so enjoyed just walking around the various neighborhoods, watching the people, and soaking up the Berlin culture.

At 1:00 p.m. we were on yet another bus being taken to the Rykestrasse Synagogue, where the grand final concert of the Festival would be performed.  Again, this was an unbelievably beautiful building and the moment of walking through the door was breathtaking.  It is a very large, new structure, with amazing details and finishes and lots of light beaming in through beautiful glass and stained glass windows .  I found it just incredible to find such a beautiful Jewish structure in the middle of East Berlin.   Here are some photos:

The program involved short performances (two pieces) by each of the eight choruses, plus two pieces sung by the entire entourage.  The rehearsal might have been complete chaos, but in a nod to the organizers, this particular event (unlike some of the others) was run with efficiency and precision.  There was, however, a good deal of down time which gave us the opportunity to take some walks around the area of the synagogue.  The weather was cold and rainy, so many opted for a hot beverage in one of the small area cafes.  I walked a little, but finally ended up going upstairs to the balcony of the synagogue and taking a little catnap.  That, to me, was a perfect use of the down time.

We were the fourth of eight in the concert’s individual group lineup.  The first three choruses were men only groups (Zurich, Johannesburg and the Jerusalem Cantor’s choir) and in my view less polished and less impressive than the mixed groups.   Our performance was at our usual level of quality, and the audience loved us.  For me, one amazing moment was when we walked up onto the bimah (from where we were performing) and I looked up and out at the audience and the grandeur of the building around us.  It was breathtaking, and emotional, and put me in a very reflective mood for singing.  We finished our second piece to a rousing and lengthy round of applause.  I happened to be at the end of the first row, which means I led the group off the stage and back to our row of seats.  The Strasbourg chorus, which was seated in the row behind us, was applauding and cheering us so enthusiastically as we walked down that aisle that it actually brought me to tears.  All of the choruses were so supportive of one another, and it was incredible to be able to perform for one another at last.  The last three groups, the London, Strasbourg and Berlin choirs, were mixed groups and all made such a beautiful sound.  The Berlin group, the resident group at the Pestalozstrasse Synagogue, in particular was just stellar.  They are an eight-person, paid professional choir who make the most full and gorgeous sound.  Unfortunately (again just my opinion), the cantor of that synagogue with whom they sing does not have a very pleasing voice, and this detracted from the joy of listening to the choir.  Nevertheless, he seems quite beloved by his congregation and the locals.

The concert began and ended with all eight choirs together singing two Lewandowski pieces.  We were seated all around the room, so the sound literally surrounded the audience and filled every corner of the space.  From where I was standing, it was difficult to hear and appreciate the full effect, but I am told by audience members that it was a beautiful and overpowering sound.

Following the concert, the organizers held a reception for us in the lobby of the synagogue.  This was mass chaos—the space was too small for the number of people clamoring for the food and drink, kind of a like a synagogue kiddish run amok.  I commented that people pounced on the food with the same gusto as if they had been wandering the desert for 40 days and nights with nothing more than manna as sustenance.  But then again, I suppose this is not such an uncommon phenomenon when Jews and food are put in the same location!

And thus ended the Berlin Lewandowski Festival.  We returned to the hotel to enjoy our last night in Berlin and prepare for our return trip to Boston.

This entry was begun in Berlin, and is ending as I sit many hours later on the sofa in my home after a very long day of travel.  It’s good to be home, but I am sad that the trip is over.  I have so, so many thoughts about this experience, but will save my “wrap-up” post for tomorrow, after I have had some sleep.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

It just keeps getting better

Another amazing day, from beginning to end.   Today we were not together as a group until the evening, so we were all free to choose how to spend the day.  Several members of the group opted to attend Shabbat services at a local orthodox shul (where, it is reported, services lasted in excess of four hours).   Many others chose to spend the day doing some sightseeing.  Group after group splintered off to one part of the city or another.  I chose to go off on my own, walk as much of the city as I could manage, and get to know Berlin.  It was one of the most amazing days in recent memory.  I left the hotel and headed toward an area that was reported to have a great flea market on weekends.  If you know me, you know about my love for flea markets and junk in general, so this was right up my alley.  This flea market was a long stretch of individual tent-like booths, each with more junk than the last.  This really just showed me how different cultures can be very similar, because clearly Germans like what my family calls OPT (Other People’s Trash) as much as Americans do.  I was delighted to find an interesting penguin on one table for just 5 Euros.  In truth, I don’t actually like the penguin all that much, but I figured I could at least add it to my collection and say it came from my trip to Berlin, so that counts for something.

After my browse at the flea market, I continued down the main thoroughfare past the Victory Monument to the Brandenburg Gate.    This was probably a good 30 to 45 minute walk along the edge of the Tiergarten and was absolutely beautiful.  The Brandenburg Gate is an imposing structure, and the view as I approached it was very powerful.   (For those of you not up on your German history, or maybe not even born at the time the wall came down, the Brandenburg Gate is the only survivor of the 18 gateways in the Berlin Wall and now symbolizes its reunification.)  The gate leads through to the Pariser Platz, which begins what was the east side of Berlin.  Now it is the edge of the Unter Der Linden, a main and modern thoroughfare containing shopping, cafes and restaurants.  Crowds of tourists and locals milled about the area, and there was even someone dressed up as Darth Vader on the plaza posing for pictures with the tourists (for a price, of course).  I hung around for a while and then continued my walk until I came to the nearby Holocaust Memorial.  Inaugurated in May 2005, this is an outdoor installation consisting of 2711 concrete slabs varying sizes, through and between which you can walk and observe.  It was very a interesting and moving exhibit.  Thereafter, I continued my walk to Potzdamer Platz.  Formerly another access point between east and west, it is now a bustling commercial area.  Currently there is also a Christmas market installed with many more of those adorable little booths selling everything from woolens to candy.  I browsed there for a while before deciding to return to the hotel to rest up for tonight’s concert.   My day outdoors in Berlin by foot gave me such a great flavor of the city, and I can say that I really find Berlin charming and beautiful.

This evening we performed our second concert at the Jewish Museum.  Although our audience was smaller than the one on Thursday evening, I think we performed just as beautifully, and the audience was very appreciative.  Once again, I was reminded of how the power of music brings people together in ways that no other medium can achieve.

After the concert, the Festival organizers had told us only that they had a “surprise” planned.  Nobody, including Josh and Barbara Gaffin (our manager) had any idea what the surprise would be.  Amazingly, the bus took us not back to the hotel, but instead to the 1198 foot tall TV Tower on the east side of the city.  Built in 1969, the top of the tower is a round, slowly revolving restaurant (think Spinnaker at the Hyatt in Cambridge circa 1980s) with the most amazing view of the city.  There a lovely buffet and flowing beverages were waiting for all of the performers.  It was really amazing, and a festive and wonderful way to cap off the evening.

This trip has been an endless array of ongoing cultural, musical and emotional experiences, so many that I am hard pressed to find the words to describe them all.   But it has also been fun, and funny, and full of goofy, silly bonding moments among the group.  We have had bus rides on which we sang all of the irreverent songs from “Avenue Q”, evenings crowded into someone’s room passing around libations, telling silly stories and discussing all of the usages of certain four letter words, opportunities to watch weird skanky men stalking and trying to pick up half of the women in the chorus, and generally laughing about a variety of things, not all of which were actually funny.  Members who have never interacted with certain other members of the chorus can now call those people friends, and we have all gotten to know one another and grow closer in ways that can only happen on these sorts of trips.  The members of Zamir range in age from 19 to 70, but I have often said I feel as though “there is no age in Zamir”.   We are all friends regardless of age, or what we do outside of the group, and it is a remarkable group of people.  How lucky am I to be included in this family.

Tomorrow is our last day, and the final concert and culmination of the Festival, where all eight groups will perform, each separately and then finally all together as one.  If the music Zamir makes can be as powerful as it is on our own, then just imagine what over 200 singers will be able to do when we all come together.

More photos uploaded onto my Facebook page...

Friday, December 16, 2011


Rather than posting photos here, you can see all of my photos from the trip on my Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10151445325754041.368194.503624040&type=3, and all of Hinda's photos on the Zamir Chorale of Boston Facebook page  http://www.facebook.com/pages/Zamir-Chorale-of-Boston/19718515512.  Check them out!

Another amazing day

I am writing this at about 11pm on Friday night after another truly amazing day.  We all got a good night's sleep, and started the day with a lovely buffet breakfast in the hotel.  This morning, the Festival organizers offered all participants a three hour guided bus tour of Berlin, and many of us took advantage of that.  The tour truly gave us a real flavor of the city, its history, and its many parts.  We began on the former west side, through the east side, with the Jewish cemetery as our ultimate destination.  This is a fascinating city with a vast array of architectural styles, old and new, and the modern and the historical standing side by side throughout.  As we crossed from east to west, the change in architecture and general development was quite apparent.  The west is modern and what we would consider "western" as New York, Paris or London.  Immediately upon crossing over to the former east side, the architecture became far more industrial and utilitarian.  There has been much development in the former east side so that part of the city is still changing, but much of what was there before the wall came down still remains.  Berlin is also a huge city, and it can take quite a while to pass from one end to the other.  There is no shortage of traffic, either.  The tour was a wonderful opportunity to see all parts of the city and get a good overview and understanding.

Our final destination was the Jewish cemetery to visit the grave of Louis Lewandowski.  This is a truly beautiful, and very old, place.  As we entered, there was a beautiful memorial to the victims of the Holocaust, and we all gathered around a cantor as he recited kaddish for the victims of the Holocaust.  As he completed his prayers, the Jerusalem Jewish Mens Chorus broke into a spontaneous rendition of "Ani Ma'amin", followed by everyone joining together to sing Hatikvah.  To say it was emotional is not to begin to do it justice.  Then we proceeded to Lewandowski's grave.  Each choral group then (also spontaneously) sang a Lewandowski piece in front of the grave marker, which was also a powerful experience for all.

We had a bit of down time after the tour, and in the afternoon we were all taken to the Pestalozstrasse Synagogue for the opening ceremonies of the Festival.  The synagogue choir performed several Lewandowski pieces and were a joy to hear.  There were speeches, some but not all of which were in English, by the various organizers and some local dignitaries.  This was followed by Kabbalat Shabbat services.  It was truly a mind boggling event to look around and see hundreds of people from four continents all coming together for this experience.  For me, the "aha" moment was when the cantor began to chant the V'Ahavta prayer.  As we all joined him, I was suddenly struck by the power of the idea that these words, and this tune, are recited just the same by all Jews all over the globe, and that Jews from four continents could come together and all have those same words and melody engrained in their DNA.  Other tunes may vary from shul to shul, and country to country, but that prayer is a constant for all of us, and has been since the very beginning.  Talk about power.

Services were followed by a return to the hotel and a lovely shabbat dinner.  There are certainly moments where confusion reigns, and one of them this evening turned out to be that they didn't have nearly enough tables and chairs in the dining room to accommodate all the attendees.  Most of Zamir ended up eating our meal standing up at a long, tall serving table that had been intended for beverage service, but we took it in stride, and with laughter, and had a wonderful meal together.  Naturally, the meal ended with a good deal of spontaneous singing, and Josh even got us all up and dancing around the room while singing a niggun.  It was a time of great unity, and it was very special.

A bunch of us took a walk around the neighborhood after dinner, but the weather has turned colder and it was raining, so that put a bit of a damper on that.  I broke off from the group for a while, and as I was walking, the rain turned to snow, and it was absolutely beautiful.  This is a beautiful city, and at this time of year the holiday (Christmas) decorations are everywhere, which makes the city look festive and beautiful.

So as I say, it was quite a day.  Besides all that, here are some random observations about Berlin:
1.  Despite the "Hogan's Heroes" era stereotype of Germans being precise and prompt at all times, we are finding that they are actually not so precise or organized, and often not on time.  Just like the rest of the world.
2.  The traffic here is insane.  At least on our buses, it seems to take forever to drive even a reasonably short distance.
3.  Germans must always be cold, because the temperature of every interior location I have been to (starting with the Lufthansa flights and consistently since) feels like it's about 85 degrees.  I am constantly roasting indoors.

Tonight I am blogging from a public computer, so I am unable to upload any photos, but will do so when I can.  Tomorrow evening we do our second concert, at the Jewish Museum, and I am very excited about that. 

So for now, good night, sleep tight, and pleasant dreams to all.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Oh, what a night!!

Second post today, and so much to tell.  Unfortunately I am operating on relatively little sleep, so it is likely to be a bit short.

After our arrival at the hotel, I took off for a brief walk around the neighborhood.  I found one the beautiful "christmas marts" that I have heard about, areas where stands resembling bavarian chalets are set up that sell everything from sweets to souvenirs and everything in between.  It was festive and beautiful.  Here is a picture to give you an idea:

After that brief jaunt, a group of us wandered over to the food court at the KaWaDe, purported to be the largest department store in all of Europe.  The food court is world famous and there is good reason.  It spreads for what seems like miles, and there you can buy, or consume, literally every food you could ever imagine.  Naturally, when in Germany. . . so I tried a native dish that was quite deelish.  Hinda stuck to sushi.

The absolute highlight of the day, of course, was our evening concert at the Krankenhauskirche im Wirgarten.  Whether due to rush hour traffic or a poorly informed bus driver, it took us far longer to get to our destination than we had allowed for, so we had less time to warm up and rehearse before the concert than planned, which made for a bit of tension.  Nevertheless, after a series of lengthy speeches (in German, so I have no idea what they were about), when those first notes of the beautiful digital organ wafted into the air, we came together in that magical way that we so often do, and presented our audience with a program of polished, highly spiritual and memorable Jewish music.  Josh did yeoman's work describing and introducing our program in German, and I think we were really on our best game.  There were many of those moments when a piece ended, and the room was so still you could hear a pin drop before the audience reacted with rousing applause.  The amazing Cantor Joel Caplan, our ringer from New Jersey, received a standing ovation for his most moving rendition of Max Janowski's "Sim Shalom" in addition to running back and forth between the chorus and his assortment of wind instruments that accompanied other pieces so beautifully.  How lucky we are to have Joel with us.  Ed Swanborn, our most incredible accompanist, also did his share of laps back and forth between piano and organ with great aplomb.  Ed is a truly gifted musician and accompanist as well as being just a truly nice guy.    The audience was clearly moved and mesmerized by our music, and I believe we left them with a meaningful memory.  At the end of the concert, the organizers presented each member of  the chorale with a rose, which was a lovely gesture, and our time at the concert venue ended with a lovely spread of food and drink for a hungry and thirsty chorus who had worked very hard on little sleep.

We returned to the hotel and joined a large reception, already in progress, hosted by the Festival's organizers for all of the performers.  There we had an opportunity not only to eat and drink again,  but to meet and shmooze with musicians from some of the other groups participating.  That reception ended with a gift to each performer of a "survival kit", which included a variety of items both useful and informative. 

So that brings us up to date.  Hinda has posted many photos on the Zamir Chorale of Boston facebook page, and as soon as I figure out how to do that I will do the same.  But for now, it is time, after many, many hours, for sleep.  Tomorrow is an early morning, as a bus tour of Berlin has been organized for the musicians.  I am quite looking forward to that as well.

Gute Nacht to all until tomorrow.

Make Way For Zamir!

Greetings from Berlin!  We have at last arrived after a long night of travel.  The group flight on Lufthansa was actually more or less stress-free, though the nice customer service lady I spoke to on the phone last week told me an untruth by saying that we would all have our own personal entertainment screens.  The 747 on which we flew to Frankfurt appeared to be a fairly old plane, and only those in first and business class were personally entertained.  I will say, however, that it sure seems like the international carriers still know how to treat their passengers in a way U.S. passengers have long forgotten.  Complementary wine, hot towels before dinner, a full meal with a choice of two entrees, ongoing beverage service and an appealing breakfast were all part of the amenities offered.  Sure beats the bag of peanuts and one soft drink I have become accustomed to on our domestic carriers.

The title of this entry is a nod to our intrepid Zamir manager, Barbara Gaffin, who shepherded us around the airport like a mother duck looks after her flock.  I have nicknamed her "Mrs. Mallard" after the memorable character in the classic book "Make Way For Ducklings".  Besides our general care,  Barb was seen wandering around handing out cookies and bags of Ghirardelli chocolate and other delectibles, to be sure we were all well-fed and well-sugared.

We arrived in Frankfurt more or less on time and after a bit of confusion made our way to the gate for our connecting flight to Berlin with enough, but not too much, time to spare.  That flight was a quick "hopping flight", under an hour in the air.  On this plane, we noticed a group of people all wearing the same polo shirts and hats.  They turned out to be the members and travelling companions of the Johannesburg Jewish Mens Choir, one of the other groups performing at the festival.  Suddenly this whole event became even more real to us, as we enjoyed chatting with members of that group, comparing travel notes and sharing our excitement of the upcoming events.

Upon arrival in Berlin, we were delighted to find that the baggage claim area was only a stone's throw from the gate rather than a distant hike, and in even  better news, nobody's luggage was lost!  After many hours of travel and bodies who believed it was still 3 AM instead of the beginning of the day, that was a welcome cap on our journey.

It did take us a while, and a good bit of wandering around the Berlin airport, to locate the bus that the Festival had arranged to pick us up.  That done, we had a bit of difficulty getting all of the luggage and the bodies aboard, but some creative thinking and good collaboration made it all work out.  As I write this, we and the JJMC are on the bus heading to the hotel.  I think we all just want some caffeine and a hot shower before we prepare for our first concert this evening.

As  I look out the bus window, so far I see a city that looks more or less like any other major metropolis.  The architecture of the buildings is varied, and there is a noticeable mix of old and new.  There is commerce, and retail, and business as in any other city.  The weather is overcast but not raining, and around 40 degrees.  Not so different from home.

And here we are arriving at the Berlin Crowne Plaza.  More to come on the latter part of the day...