And yet, 100 cantors recently went there to challenge that perception, traveling to Poland to pay homage to what one of them described as the one-time “Vatican” of cantorial music.
The journey of these cantors, and its impact on them was recorded and appears in a new documentary, “100 Voices: A Journey Home.”
The film will be screened tonight only – Tuesday, Sept. 21 -- at 7 p.m. at Cinemark 17, Pittsburgh Mills, Tarentum.
Shot on location in Poland in 2009, “100 Voices” followed an emotional visit by a delegation from cantors from all walks of life, many of whose parents came from Poland and survived the Holocaust.
The visit included performances in Warsaw at the National Opera House and at the site of the Warsaw Ghetto, a ceremony to kick off construction of a new Museum of the History of Polish Jews.
Sponsored by the Cantors Assembly, an international organization, the trip paid tribute to 1,300 professional cantors who perished in the Holocaust.
Some participants on the journey lamented the loss of the operatic cantorial tradition, largely because of the Shoa. Young cantors today aren’t exposed to that tradition, according to one, so how can it be passed on?
“Hitler succeeded, he did,” Cantor Alberto Mizrahi said, in perhaps the most disturbing line of the film. “He killed the culture.”
Laced with scratching recording s of cantors, film clips of hazans performing, and archival footage from Poland before and during the Holocaust, the cantors discus their own family histories the history of the Polish Jewry in general, in sad, but not so passionate terms. There was acceptance in their voices of what was there and is now gone, but also remembrance.
And always, when breaking from one story to the next, the film shows the actual cantors performing in the concert halls, studios and schools they visited along their way, interpreting Jewish liturgy in sounds rarely heard today. They performed L’Dor Vador, Ani Ma’Amin, Chad Gadya and V’al Y’Del Avodecho.
In a uniquely moving scene, the cantors held a prayer service on the grounds of Auschwitz, including the reading of a 19th century Torah smuggled out of the country, which was unfurled around the survivors at the service. Cantor Norman Lamm of the Steven S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles, said nothing like that had ever happen at the death camp.
“100 Voices” is a stirring film, so stirring that it’s a shame the film is only showing for one night only here, and such a drive from where the majority of Jews in this area live.
A spokeswoman for the distributors said they are trying to garner an Academy Award nomination for the film. Let’s hope they do. Perhaps then, “100 Voices” will return to Pittsburgh for an encore screening, this time in a theater closer to home.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)