For more than 1,000 years, Jewish and Polish cultures were intimately linked until World War II severed that connection, wiping out not just a generation of Polish Jews but a whole way of life and a rich cultural tapestry. Many American Jews link the Nazis to the Polish, unaware that Poland had over 6,500 righteous gentiles, recognized by Yad Vashem, more than any other country. Yet, most of us don’t know or, in some cases choose to ignore the powerful link between the cultures because of all the pain connected to that time in our history.
The powerful documentary 100 Voices: A Voyage Home, which explores that link, was the focus at one of the thirteen “Dinner with a Scholar” events in January. The scholar was Cantor Susan Deutsch, who spoke about the film and the experience of returning to Poland with members of the Cantors’ Assembly.
“Dinner with a Scholar” is the signature fundraising event of the Orange County Bureau of Jewish Education. Twelve dinners took place on Saturday evening, January 22, and a brunch was held on Sunday, January 23. The venues were 12 beautiful homes and the lovely Chemers Gallery. At each event, guests had the opportunity to interact with a dynamic scholar and meet new people in the community. There were a variety of topics ranging from Jewish movies, music and art, to the plight and experience of Kurdish Jews and the Jews of Tunisia, from politics and pundits to the changing face of Jewish leadership. I had the pleasure of attending the dinner at the home of Steven Fainbarg, where Cantor Deutsch spoke about the film and the resurgence of and interest in Jewish culture in Poland.
However, before Cantor Deutsch spoke, Jan Benkle of OCBJE thanked everyone for attending and supporting the programs of the Bureau. She pointed out that “this fundraiser has become the Bureau’s “premier annual gathering (that) provides us the opportunity to get together in a warm and friendly atmosphere, share a tasty meal and learn something.” Benkle also stressed how important the Bureau’s programs were, fostering strong Jewish identities and encouraging the development of leadership skills — skills students take on to college and hold onto for the rest of their lives.
Cantor Deutsch grew up in Hertfordshire, England, in an Orthodox family. While studying psychology in London, Hazzan Deutsch interned at Friern Barnet psychiatric hospital to qualify as a psychiatric social worker. She went to the United States, married Michael, and stayed home to raise their three children, Edward, William and Alexandra. She learned her cantorial art as a child from her Uncle, Hazzan David Gordon of the Holy Law Synagogue, Manchester, England, and started formal training with Hazzan Nathan Lam of the Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles, in 1996. At the same time, she studied music at Saddleback College, as well as taking ongoing adult education programs through the University of Judaism and the University of Pennsylvania Learning Network.
She began serving as Cantor of Heritage Pointe in Mission Viejo in 1999, and has been the sole spiritual leader there since 2003. Cantor Deutsch was accepted as a member of the Cantors Assembly (United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism) in June 2003, thereby earning the title of hazzan.
It was her former teacher, Nathan Lam, in connection with the Cantors Assembly, who helped put together this trip of music and healing that toured Poland and then went on to Israel. Cantor Deutsch was delighted to be part of that journey. She spoke to us about the film that follows the group of cantors during their emotional journey to the birthplace of cantorial music.
Many of these cantors were returning to the land of their forefathers. Cantor Deutsch pointed out that while many of us refer to the camps as Polish concentration camps, they weren’t. “They were Nazi concentration camps in Poland because that is where most of the Jews and other ‘undesirables’ were,” she said. “This powerful musical documentary 100 Voices: A Journey Home tells the unique history of Jewish culture in Poland.”
Cantor Deutsch also spoke of the warm welcome and the sold out performances that greeted them, of the moments of laughter in Warsaw, when a cantor imitated a Yiddish shtick once performed by his father in the same city, and, also moments of awe, when massive choirs and orchestras of Polish gentiles sang and played old Jewish prayers and Israel’s national anthem.
She also spoke about the moments of intense sorrow, when a memorial service at the gates of Auschwitz paid tribute to the 1,300 cantors who perished in the Holocaust. The service was held only steps from the frequently filmed entrance to the camp. At that service, all the survivors, children and grandchildren of survivors were encircled by a Torah scroll that had been rescued from the ashes of the Holocaust.
The film also introduces Janusz Makuch, a Catholic and self-described “Shabbos goy,” who founded the city’s nine-day Jewish Cultural Festival in 1988, that now attracts some 40,000 predominantly non-Jewish fans. He speaks sorrowfully of Poland’s Jews as the nation’s “phantom limb,” cut off but still feeling connected.
While the documentary also highlights the current resurgence of Jewish culture, it celebrates the resilience and the power of Jewish life, while telling the story of two peoples who shared an intertwined culture.
Cantor Deutsch shared how much notoriety the documentary has received and how it is being welcomed in so many communities. In Poland, the film will be shown to all high school students, and the German government has invited the Cantors Assembly to bring the tour to Berlin. A trip to Germany has been planned for June 25 to July 2, 2012, and is open to anyone who wishes to attend. For those interested in purchasing the DVD, Cantor Deutsch said that it will be available soon for purchase and on Netflix for rental.
“The 2009 trip attracted over 300 tourists,” said Cantor Deutsch. With the exposure of this film, many more might want to be part of the 2012 tour.