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Highland Park musician seeks to revive Jewish culture in Czech Republic
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Highland Park musician seeks to revive Jewish culture in Czech Republic

The historic Rear Synagogue in Trebic is one of the synagogues that would host a performance of music by Czech and Jewish performers. Photo courtesy Czech Tourism
The historic Rear Synagogue in Trebic is one of the synagogues that would host a performance of music by Czech and Jewish performers. Photo courtesy Czech Tourism

When Benjamin T. Berman of Highland Park attended a class in the Czech Republic on Czech language, art, songs, and culture this past summer, the musician had something of an epiphany: After visiting the infrequently used historic Rear Synagogue in Trebic, he realized he needed to return and perform a series of concerts with music by Jewish composers to help revive Jewish life in a region where the population was decimated by communists and the Nazis.

Berman, 28, holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in voice performance from Rutgers University, teaches piano and voice, and is the conductor for several local choirs, including the Highland Park Community Chorus, where he is also the director.

“My hope and long-term goal is to create kind of a circuit to have places where musicians can perform,” Berman told NJJN. “Maybe we can blaze a path for others to perform in these venues to really raise awareness of their existence for American Jews, other Americans, and for people of every religious background. The Nazis and communists tried to erase the Jewish people and culture, but the fact these buildings are still there is a reminder that culture still exists in central Europe.”

A team of musicians and musicologists hatched the Moravian Synagogues Project to draw attention to these seldom-used, restored synagogues. The group launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to raise $5,000 to pay for airfare and room and board for the 10-day tour with concerts in five or six synagogues in southern Moravia, scheduled for March 2018. If the goal isn’t met by April 1, all pledges must be forfeited, but Berman said the project has already raised $4,859.

“Our project is about raising awareness, Jewish culture, and revitalization, as much as it is about performance,” said Berman.

According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, there were 356,830 Jews in Czechoslovakia before the Holocaust, 117,551 in Bohemia and Moravia, where the Jewish population today is approximately 4,000.

While attending that class in the town of Namest’ nad Oslavou in Moravia, he and a fellow attendee Timothy Cheek, an associate professor of music at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor and author of “Singing in Czech: A Guide to Czech Lyric Diction and Vocal Repertoire,” went with the program’s director, Mirka Zemanova, to the synagogue. 

“We visited the Jewish section of Trebic, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site,” said Berman. “It really sparked our interest.”

One of the pluses that attracted the trio to the Rear Synagogue was its acoustics, so “we came up with the project to bring new life to this synagogue. The truth is many of these synagogues are now really not even used for worship,” he said. 

The Baroque-style Rear Synagogue was built in 1669. Its interior is decorated with one-of-a-kind stucco decorations and paintings using ornamental and floral motifs and Hebrew liturgical texts, and has the oldest painted synagogue decorations in Moravia. The synagogue also displays a model of the ghetto as it appeared in the mid-19th century.

Assuming they reach their fund-raising goal, Cheek will accompany Berman as pianist and Zemanova will serve as road manager for next year’s trip. They will be joined by Czech violist Jiri Pospichal. The program will include the music of Gideon Klein, Pavel Haas, Viktor Ullmann, and other composers of Czech-Jewish descent to generate interest in their work. Berman said the trio would also perform the music of other internationally known Jewish artists, such as George Gershwin and Kurt Weill.

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