Lenka Lichtenberg, Part 2: Czech synagogue recordings perhaps biggest project of my life

Lenka Lichtenberg, photo: Lumír Hladík

Singer Lenka Lichtenberg was born in Prague where she was a child star with the Semafor theatre in the 1960s. Several years after her emigration to Canada, and well into her career as a singer, she began performing songs in Yiddish. When I asked her whether she had known the language in her young days, it sparked a fascinating discussion about the parallel experiences of the singer and her mother, who like Lenka Lichtenberg was unaware of her Jewish background when she was very young.

Lenka Lichtenberg,  photo: Lumír Hladík
“Mum, even though she was I guess could you say 100 percent Jewish by blood, was by no means Jewish by culture or upbringing.

“How history repeats itself. I just read this in her book – she didn’t know she was Jewish until 1939, at which time she was 12, because her parents brought her up as a Catholic…

“She was brought up as a Catholic and in fact was a very devoted Catholic. She loved going to church, had her confirmation, the whole bit.

“She was only told about being Jewish because they’d just passed the Nuremberg Laws and she had to stop going to school and all sorts of things happened. Her parents had to explain why to her. All of a sudden she was an outcast and had no idea why.

“So her relationship to her Jewishness was problematic at best. She also lost everybody after that and on top of that had never really felt Jewish.

Lenka Lichtenberg,  photo: ČT
“In Terezín, in the concentration camp, where she spent two and a half years, she was surrounded by many Jews who actually were Jewish, in terms of having lived it. And she had no idea what that was all about – none.

“When she came back she still didn’t know what it was about and actually had no interest in finding out.

“I have to say, it’s kind of a strange thing but I think she became more aware and more educated and more Jewish because of me.

“Together we had been drifting away from all of that past and doing something completely different.

“Then when I decided to become a Yiddish singer – which I had no knowledge of before… she was visiting me in Toronto and I told her, I’m going to drop all of this popular music and become a Yiddish singer; I don’t know how, but I will…

“She thought that it was actually preposterous. She said, Why on earth would you want to do that? This was something which was left in our family five generations ago and good riddance. We were perfectly assimilated, perfectly civilised Europeans – why would you bother with Yiddish?

Lenka Lichtenberg,  photo: ČT
“I thought that was really ignorant on her part [laughs]. We actually had a major fight over that!

“She had all sorts of reasons, such as, It’s a dead language – learn something else, sing in… French. It really wasn’t understood or welcomed by her.

“It took a long time – at least 10, 15 years – before she saw that I meant it and that I was not some kind of a pretender, that it was deep, and that I wanted to undo some of the damage done during the Holocaust or to what was going on immediately around me, in the family and so on, and that it was my mission, kind of.

“She saw that I was genuine about it and somewhat accepted it. But I don’t think she’s thrilled with it still. She still doesn’t get it, I think. But anyways [laughs].”

Tell us about your project Songs for the Breathing Walls, which you began at the start of this decade.

Lenka Lichtenberg,  photo: ČT
“That’s an amazing project, maybe the biggest one of my life. It started with the Yiddish songs. Also I’m married to a very Jewish man, of Iraqi background.

“He goes to synagogue on high holidays, not otherwise. And his family was observant on high holidays, not otherwise.

“So I was now supposed to know about all of those things. I’m an ADD person so I get very scattered, but if I go into something I go into it very deep.

“So I started finding out about it. I got really caught up in the tradition and the ritual and the liturgy aspect of the religion, especially the music, because to me everything goes through music…”

But how did you hit on the idea of recording in these synagogues here?

Lenka Lichtenberg,  photo: ČT
“I’ll get there in one second but you have to understand why [laughs]. Once I started going with him to synagogue it was a traditional one and I was not allowed to open my mouth.

“So I was looking for somewhere where I could use my voice, which is my greatest gift, and I found a very progressive synagogue congregation which is 100 percent egalitarian – with a woman rabbi and a woman cantor.

“I was eventually leading services with them – so I learned liturgy. I now have a whole new material, which is in Hebrew, these beautiful texts, and melodies which I suddenly felt I should be writing to.

“So I started writing and learning new liturgy. That’s how the music came.

“Then in 2010 I happened to have concerts here in two synagogues which were very, very different in terms of vintage, character and sound. Different everything. One was in Plzeň and one was in Liberec.

“I felt, Wouldn’t it be wonderful to try to capture the difference in a sonic… way. Because I believe that this is something that goes way beyond acoustics. It has something to do with the place and what happened in the place and the people that worshipped there…”

There’s some kind of resonance?

Lenka Lichtenberg,  photo: ČT
“There’s a resonance that’s human – it’s not just the architecture. So I had this idea that I would try to capture it through recording, in each synagogue that I find, a piece of liturgy, which were the texts that somewhere way back recited or chanted or sung in those places...

“I just got completely smitten by that idea and I presented it to my friend at the Jewish federation and he opened the doors for me; he arranged that I could go and record in these synagogues, even though most of them were not renovated.

“So I went to them with different combinations of musicians, one, two or three, or just by myself and did these recordings. And I really believe that each place has something very different about it – not only because of the song [recorded there] but what’s behind it.”

New Synagogue in Libeň
I was reading that you went to one synagogue that was in such a bad state that you couldn’t perform.

“Yes [laughs]. It’s hard to believe. I couldn’t master my voice…”

Where was it?

“Actually it happened to me twice. One time I just couldn’t overcome it at all. That was here in Libeň.”

I know that one – it’s just by the crossroads where the trams go at Palmovka.

“The place was in such a disastrous state. There were beer bottles, there was paint, there was dirt. There was some exhibition that made no sense.

“It was so far gone. The place was so sad. I felt that for me to connect with the walls I’d have to dig 10 metres deep somewhere and I’d probably still not find it.

“I was trying to find it. I was touching the walls and saying, Speak to me! It sounds crazy but I couldn’t touch it – the soul was not there. Or it was too sad. And nothing was recorded there.

“Another one that was extremely depressed, and depressing, was in Brandýs. That turned out amazingly, but at first I couldn’t find it.

Synagogue in Brandýs nad Labem,  photo: Zdeněk Josef,  CC BY-SA 4.0 International
“It’s a building that had three levels. They told me, It’s up there [where the synagogue was] so I went to the top of the building. And I’m singing and again it was like there was nothing there.

“I’m saying, What the heck is this? I feel nothing, though clearly the place has something that I can’t find.

“So I’m walking around and I find this old man who tells me, No, that’s not how it used to be – these three floors were put in by the Communists, who were trying to create more space.

“The congregation and everything was happening in what’s now the basement. That’s where they stood. That’s where the bimah was.

“So I went down there and it was this black hole, literally. Everything black. But I felt it.

“We recorded our saddest song of the whole thing there. And it’s incredible, because you’re really connecting with this.

“Meanwhile, they have renovated Brandýs. It’s now white and beautiful. They took out all the partitions and it’s back to beauty.”