A cantor in a Detroit synagogue once admitted that through all the years he’d been chanting Kol Nidre, the most dramatic and moving part of the Yom Kippur liturgy, he’d never felt he was giving it his best. Then he heard that the melody had originated with Jews persecuted in fifteenth-century Spain, who had sung it in the dank cellars where they worshiped in secret. From that year, the cantor said, he was able to chant Kol Nidre with all the emotional and spiritual richness it deserved.
It’s a lovely story, but what inspired the cantor was a myth, according to Eliyahu Schleifer, professor emeritus of sacred music and former director of the School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion, Jerusalem. The myth is widespread, but the truth is that the chant—which originated in Germany at the end of the fifteenth century or the beginning of the sixteenth—incorporates German-Jewish Torah cantillation and medieval German melodies, Schleifer said in a public lecture in Jerusalem titled “A Branch Rescued from the Fire: The Synagogue Chants of the Jews of Germany.”
Jews first arrived with the Roman army in what is today Germany and France, settling on both sides of the Rhine and later moving to the cities: Speyer, Worms, and Mainz, and then Regensburg, Cologne, and Frankfurt. They developed a unique culture and were the first to be known as Ashkenazi Jews.
During the Crusades, many Ashkenazi Jews fled to Poland, Bohemia, and elsewhere, and their musical tradition overtook the local traditions. Now there were two kinds of Ashkenazi Jews, those in Germany and those in Eastern Europe.
German Jews are known, and often laughed at, for being too punctilious, and this trait apparently has a long history. According to Schleifer, they were punctilious in everything, from observance of Jewish law to musical standardization of their local liturgy.
But at the end of the sixteenth century, they started incorporating Italian-influenced Baroque melodies. Later, the Enlightenment brought with it other new melodies, including minuets and other dances.
For the most part, German-Jewish liturgy—though built on ancient scales—tended to be sung in major keys, while in Eastern Europe minor keys prevailed. Schleifer, who has a beautiful voice and an uncanny ability to mimic every tradition of Jewish liturgy, from German to Moroccan, provided musical illustrations of his points.
In the reforms that followed the emancipation of German Jews in the nineteenth century, choirs and organs were introduced in the large, cathedral-like synagogues. At the same time, Jews from Eastern Europe and especially from Poland, were moving to Germany, bringing their melodic traditions with them.
But it was the Holocaust that dealt the severest blow to German Jewry’s musical traditions. On November 9 and 10, 1938, the infamous night and day known as Kristallnacht or Reichspogromnacht, the Nazis carried out a massive, coordinated pogrom in Germany and German-controlled lands that included the destruction of more than 1,000 synagogues and the deportation of more than 200,000 people to concentration camps.
In Israel a few congregations used the German-Jewish liturgy, but most have disappeared or have succumbed to the dominance of Eastern European liturgy. Among the few places it survives are Alsace, Switzerland, and the Great Synagogue of Munich.
Schleifer’s talk on December 25 was this year’s annual lecture on behalf of the Ezri Uval Center for Jewish Music, at Kehillat Mevakshei Derech.
Text copyright 2010 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text may be used without written permission of the author.