December 3, 2021

The legacy of Holland's Jewish cantorial music

By Barbara Sofer

Among the public gatherings in Holland regretfully canceled this week because of coronavirus is a Hanukkah concert. It was to have been performed in the storied Main Hall of the Royal Concertgebouw, one of the world’s most glorious emporiums of music. The concert was scheduled to celebrate the Holiday of Light and to mark the 100th anniversary of a concert performed in this same venue with its famous organ that featured the music of a cantor named Victor Schlesinger.

The date of the concert was December 14, 1921, a year-and-a-half after the end of the last global health pandemic. It was also 22 years before a Dutch Nazi Party official would stand on the same stage and declare in triumph that Holland was judenrein – free of Jews.
The year 1921 was in the Golden Age of cantorial music, a period of time at the beginning of the 20th century when synagogues around the world competed for the great cantors, the most famous of whom were Moshe Koussevitzky and Yossele Rosenblatt, for whom Victor Schlesinger arranged music. Services were infused with great mastery of voice and song, a genre for which synagogue-goers had both passion and patience. So popular was this music, that the Schlesinger concert a hundred years ago took place not in a synagogue, but in that esteemed public venue.

Modern-day cantorial aficionados may be unfamiliar with the lasting impact of Victor Schlesinger, whom Amsterdam-based musicologist and concert cantor Barry Mehler calls “one of the greatest composers of yekkish hazanut,” the Western European artistic style of synagogue compositions based on synagogue liturgy that continues today. Mehler lauds Schlesinger’s “close harmony mixed with the sounds of Berlin cabaret” which he brought into the Orthodox synagogue.
Schlesinger came from the Western European tradition. He was born in Topolcany in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (today part of Slovakia), the youngest of eight children in 1883. In addition to de rigueur yeshiva studies, Schlesinger studied music in Vienna. He came to Amsterdam, a hub of Jewish musical performance, employed as the cantor for Amsterdam Rapenburger synagogue.
The reemergence of Jewish music in Amsterdam, which before the Holocaust was one of the elite centers of hazanut, is a sort of miracle. Some 90% of the Jews in Holland were murdered in the Holocaust. Mehler is a Julliard-trained Jewish musician. In 1989 when he was 23, Mehler came to Holland “to experience Europe,” fell in love with the liturgical music, and wound up staying in Amsterdam, leading synagogue choirs and contributing to the revival of Jewish musical traditions throughout Europe.
Mehler was moved by Schlesinger’s melody for the Friday eve Kabbalat Shabbat’s “Lecha Dodi” sung in local synagogues. So, in addition to his work as choirmaster, Mehler set off on a treasure hunt to find Schlesinger’s unpublished and unordered manuscripts.
A trove of manuscripts turned up in the underground vault of the huge Portuguese Synagogue. Other handwritten Schlesinger works were in the private collections of family members, among them granddaughter Anna and his namesake and grandson Victor Schlesinger, a retired Israeli bank officer who lives in Efrat. I was alerted to the memorial concert by Victor’s wife Rivka Berkovits Schlesinger, the daughter of a cantor. Rivka and grandson Victor met in Manchester when Victor, 25, was asked to accompany three high school girls recruited to perform Hanukkah songs by their Bnei Akiva youth movement. Rivka was one of the three. The singers evolved into a popular singing troupe and, harmoniously, Victor and Rivka fell in love.
“The family story is that because my grandfather was a baritone and not the much desired tenor, he couldn’t move up in Amsterdam,“ said grandson Schlesinger, the banker. “He received offers for posts in Berlin and Manchester. Fortunately, he chose Manchester. You might say he was saved by the range of his voice.”
So in 1923, Victor the Elder, his wife Rosa and their children Elsa, Stella and Bernhard (younger Victor’s father) sailed for England. Victor, a fast learner, taught himself English on-board. In Manchester, he was based in the Higher Broughton Synagogue on Duncan Street, in the suburb of Salford, and continued his work as a prolific composer of melodies melding contrasting rhythms and modern harmonies into synagogue music. His plans to organize and publish his work were put on hold as Hitler took over Europe, and Schlesinger filled out affidavits in a desperate attempt to get relatives to England. While involved in one such effort, the bus in which he was riding lurched to a stop and hurled him forward with such force that he died that night. He was 56.
Like the Jews of Holland, the Jews from his hometown of Topolcany were deported to death camps. Topolcany was also the scene of a pogrom after the war. Angry at having to return stolen property to returning survivors, in 1945 a rumor was passed through town that a Jewish doctor was inoculating local children with poison. Town folks attacked their Jewish neighbors.
The Schlesinger family line with its musical inclinations continues in Israel. Grandson Victor and Rivka made aliyah a week after they were married in Manchester, on Hanukkah, 48 years ago. They sing, alone and together, in Israeli choirs which perform internationally. They have four children, all involved in music in some way, and 13 grandchildren. Victor retired 12 years ago from the bank and has gone from ledgers to writing music, composing vocal arrangements based on biblical texts. He and Rivka were, of course, planning to attend the now-canceled concert.
Schlesinger’s musical legacy might have been forgotten if Barry Mehler hadn’t stopped in Amsterdam and, through a friend of a friend, was offered a job to turn around a squeaky choir. The cancellation of the recent sold-out concert – his opportunity to “bring the phenomenal compositions of Victor Schlesinger to the fore” was a huge disappointment of course, and he is scrambling to record it and have it available by streaming. When I spoke to him in Amsterdam he was indefatigably trying to make the switch. If he succeeds, chief cantor of Frankfurt Yoni Rose, accompanied by the Jewish Amsterdam Chamber Ensemble, can be watched from your home.
“What we will be missing, of course,” says Mehler with a sigh, “is the concert hall reverberating with the audience singing the miracles of Hanukkah and even better standing to celebrate the Jewish State with “Hatikva.” It’s otherworldly.”
The concert will be broadcast free. For details see: