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Loud and Clear

Aharon Granevich-Granot

A European music professor has drafted his research staff to help him delve into his lifetime passion — unearthing the lost music of prewar synagogues, discovering the buried scores of old-time chazzanim, and reinstating the glory of authentic Jewish cantorial music

Monday, September 06, 2010


The desk of Professor Andor Izsák, the director of the European Center for Jewish Music (EZJM) in Hanover, Germany, is cluttered with sheet music, old phonographic records, and screechy tape recordings. His studio contains mysterious devices whose exact function only a professional musical restorer would understand — state-of-the-art equipment for removing scratchy noise from old phonographic records, cleaning up old tapes, and resurrecting the analog and digital dead. Between heavy bindings are phonographic records that Professor Izsák has traveled the world to collect.

But who lacks Jewish music in our times? And why has Andor Izsák, whose research staff isn’t even Jewish, dedicated his life to restoring the authentic cantorial music — chazzanus — of Europe before World War II?

The sheet music on his desk, like the giant library that surrounds us, contains music nearly lost forever in the Holocaust. If not for Professor Izsák’s dedication in collecting it and printing it, it’s doubtful whether this music ever would have been published.

“People completely forget,” says Professor Izsák, an expert in cantorial music, “that the historic role of the synagogue in Europe, besides serving as a house of prayer to the Creator, was also to host glorious and honored musical institutions.”

According to him, every self-respecting synagogue, even the smallest and most Orthodox, had an honored choir and a cantor who was sometimes, as Professor Izsák puts it, “a superb musician who wrote the most brilliant compositions in Jewish music.

“Prayer in those days wasn’t a quick snack as it is today. It was an elevating experience. That’s how it was in the Beis HaMikdash, and that’s how it was in the ‘miniature Beis HaMikdash’ — the synagogue.

“To elevate this experience, it was necessary to have sheet music, choirs, and musical direction. Every synagogue served as an unending source of music, and all of that was lost in the Holocaust, completely forgotten. The Nazis burned the sheet music and murdered the cantors and choir members. Most of the material was already burned in the pogroms of Kristallnacht.”

Professor Izsák is trying to resurrect that music, which has been virtually unknown, except for a small amount of sheet music that was preserved and brought to Eretz Yisrael.

Professor Izsák views every synagogue from the musical perspective, as a conservatory, and every cantor’s prayer stand a musical stage. Although he is not Torah-observant, something about cantorial music obviously touches the deepest part in him, the “pintele Yid,” that spark which remains in every Jew, no matter how far removed from Torah and mitzvos.

“The rabbanim and talmidei chachamim serve Hashem through the Torah that they learn and teach. But I, a Levi and an accompanist — I serve Hashem through music. That’s how the Leviim served in the Beis HaMikdash; and when Mashiach comes, I’ll also serve in that way. Everything I’m doing now is a preparation for the coming of Mashiach. Meanwhile, I’m trying to collect all the melodies that were lost in the Holocaust, to put them together again so that we’ll be able to play them in the Beis HaMikdash.”


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