‘Tears can open gates, but a melody can cause walls to fall’

In 1999, Bert Hof from the Folkertsma Foundation called to ask me if I would write a composition as a 75th birthday gift for Yehuda Aschkenasy.  At that time, I knew Yehuda only from reputation and had never actually met him. Many friends were always telling me about his lectures and others even celebrated Passover with him. It felt like quite an honour to be asked to write a piece for him. I immediately started investigating deeper into his life, asking everybody for personal information about his tastes in art and music, for instance. I finally ended up calling his wife Jacqueline, and had a long talk with her about Yehuda’s taste in poetry. After I hung up, I realized that almost all of the poets she mentioned were women. Some of them were German poets, some wrote in Hebrew, and I started reading through collections of poetry trying to find something useful. I was reading a book of English translations of Hebrew poets and stumbled upon a poem by Leah Goldberg about Jerusalem. I suddenly remembered seeing another poem in one of the German collections, also about Jerusalem. It turned out that it was indeed a poem by Rosa Ausländer.

Yehuda was born in Germany and after internment in Treblincka and Auschwitz, he went to Israel after the war. He had a typewriter repair shop in Jerusalem. In the sixties, he came to Holland at the behest of among others Golda Meir. The form of the composition was becoming clear in my mind. Yehuda’s life centered around Jerusalem and the three languages of the countries he lived in: German, Hebrew and Dutch. I now had a poem in German about Jerusalem, one in Hebrew, and now all I needed was one in Dutch. I called Judith Herzberg, and asked her if she had any poems about Jerusalem. She sent me two!

Last Sunday, October 21st, I gave a talk about this piece at the yearly Limmoed, a Jewish cultural event. I wanted to honour Yehuda who had passed away the year before. Yehuda was not only a well-respected rabbi, one who helped build bridges between the Christian and Jewish communities, but he was also an extremely loving and warm human being. To give an example of how he was interested in people: you could sometimes go on a walk with him, and before you knew it, he disappeared. It would turn out that he was deep in conversation with the man behind the counter at the snackbar. A kind of Dalai Lama.

He was appointed professor at the Catholic Theological College in Amsterdam, and later founded the B. Folkertsma Foundation for Talmudic Studies, whose aims were to acquaint the general public with the values, philosophies and experiences fundamental to Judaism.

One of the things that helped Yehuda survive the concentration camps was a nigun that was attributed to the Domsker rebbe. A nigun is a melody sung without words. By keeping this nigun in his heart, he was able to gather the strenth of generations of Jews, enabling him to survive. Yehuda often quoted rabbi Nachman: “Tears can open gates, but a melody can cause walls to fall”. Another camp survivor, Chajim Storosum, transcribed this nigun and I decided to use it as a form element to tie the composition together.

Listen to ‘Jerusalem’ here:

1 Jerusalem

In the first poem by Rosa Ausländer, the idea of passing traditions on from one generation to another is also used.  She mentions, among other things, the Song of Songs. I decided to use one of the traditional melodies for the Song of Songs as another basis for the piece. The first performance, on November 7th, 1999, was also the first time I met Yehuda. He spoke to the audience afterwards, saying: ‘When I heard this music, I felt that it was an expression of love and solidarity. I was overwhelmed’. He spoke about the millions of souls praying at the Wailing Wall, resolutely clinging to the dream of the Prophets. He then said: ‘After hearing this music, I had the same feeling: these are the invisible bonds, sustained on musical notes, that keep the yearning and the dream alive. The words and the notes embrace all those dreams. How? That is a mystery.`

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