Musical Window into Jewishness

Musikalische Fenster zum Jude-Sein

Cantor Teron Cohen wonderfully demonstrated the beauty of Jewish music. - <em>by SL Wong</em>
Cantor Teron Cohen  wonderfully demonstrated the beauty of Jewish music.

HE STUNNED me with a divine voice and a beautiful melody. And that’s how I came away with the most striking facet of Jewish worship and culture that has remained with me since: the music.

I had never been in a synagogue nor experienced any aspect of Judaism. I therefore leapt at the chance to attend the annual Jüdische Kulturtage Berlin (Berlin Jewish Culture Days), Germany’s largest festival of Jewish arts and culture.

All right, perhaps ‘leapt’ is an exaggeration. The enthusiasm was there but it had only been under a year since we relocated to Berlin, and I was trepidatious on two fronts.

Firstly, armed with only bad German, going to new places and events was still tough, especially ones related to a religion and culture unfamiliar to me.

Secondly, Jewishness in Germany was still loaded for me with Holocaust-imbued meaning, not having read up enough about contemporary Jewish life.

Well, here was the push to start learning about the Jüdische Gemeinde zu Berlin (Jewish Community of Berlin) [see my links at the end of the story].

I carefully selected the festival events to attend.

On Friday, I would observe the Kabbalat Shabbat, the service welcoming the start of the Shabbath, the Jewish day of rest, at the Synagoge am Fränkelufer.

The next day, I would tour the city’s largest synagogue, the Synagoge Oranienburgerstr, then attend its Havdalah ritual, the closing of the Sabbath.

I had walked past both synagogues before. Other than the architecture, what had been noteworthy was the presence of security bollards and police personnel. Indeed these were the features of the city’s other ten synagogues and the rest of its Jewish institutions.

Fritz, our friend, had explained that these were security measures that were strengthened post-9/11.

There are 12 synagogues of different movements that are part of the Jewish Community of Berlin. - <em>by Beek100 (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons and SL Wong</em>
There are 12 synagogues of different movements that are part of the Jewish Community of Berlin.

I SELECTED the Synagoge am Fränkelufer because I thought it would be interesting to observe a conservative ceremony. In terms of links to classical Jewish law, the branch of Conservative Judaism sits between the two main movements of Judaism: Orthodox and Reform.

According to, Conservative Judaism “keeps some requirements of the Jewish law .. but allows for the adaptation of some of the law’s requirements to fit modern circumstances”.

In contrast, I decided on the Synagoge Oranienburgerstr for the Havdalah ceremony because the rites at this synagogue were Reform Judaism, the religion’s most liberal branch. In Reform Judaism, “all of the Jewish law is subject to adaptation to fit modern circumstances”, as defined by

Both branches of Judaism originated in Germany in the 19th century.

I made sure to arrive at the Synagoge am Fränkelufer with time to spare before sunset, the start of the Sabbath ceremony.

Of its original 1916 structure, the synagogue’s only building to survive the Nazi 1938 Novemberpogrome (November pogrom) was the one used for youth services. It now serves as the main synagogue.

As I approached it, I was impressed again by its large neo-classical portico. There were many more police personnel around than the previous times I had passed it.

Two friendly men who were standing outside told me the public event at this synagogue was actually the next day. It was with a heavy heart that I walked away. It was too late to go to another venue.

On Saturday, I was determined not to miss the marking of the end of Shabbat. At German language class, I happened to mention my intention to Annabel, and it was to my delight that she said she would come with me.

And so, we headed to the Synagoge Oranienburgerstr. Probably the city’s best-known Jewish house of assembly, it is also called the Neue Synagoge (New Synagogue) and is distinguished by its Moorish architecture, particularly its 50m tall golden domed tower.

Spared from the Nazi Novemberpogrome destruction, the synagogue was nonetheless badly damaged during WWII. A reconstructed part of the building reopened in 1991. Today, it serves as the Centrum Judaicum, a centre for the preservation and conservation of Jewish culture.

At the synagogue, Annabel and I went through a security screening to get in and did a quick tour of the exhibition. We then headed up to the main hall for the Havdalah. We managed to get seats right in front.

The <em>Havdalah</em> ceremony is a simple, meaningful way to bring the Sabbath to a close and welcome in the new week. - <em>by SL Wong</em>
The Havdalah ceremony is a simple, meaningful way to bring the Sabbath to a close and welcome in the new week.

BEFORE US was a stage, on which was a table with implements on it. A read of Judaism 101 beforehand was tremendously helpful in understanding the ceremony.

Shabbat is concluded at nightfall, at the sighting of three stars in the sky, 45–60 minutes after sundown. In the ceremony, blessings are recited over a cup of wine, fragrant spices and a braided candle with two wicks.

Two men went up to the stage, one with a guitar. The other kept looking conspicuously at his watch as people trickled in.

When the hall was full, the rabbi, Gesa Ederberg, came up the stage to do a short introduction. I later found out that she was Berlin’s first female rabbi.

Then, the man on the stage tried to light the candle. But even after a second attempt, the wicks refused to light.

His guitar-carrying companion then gave it a go and succeeded. To chuckles from the crowd, he quipped in American-accented English, “ This is a comedy act.”

The Havdalah ritual is simple: lighting the candle, tasting the wine, admiring the flame reflected on the fingernails, smelling the spices (which are then handed around to worshippers), and then pouring the wine into a small dish and extinguishing the candle in it.

What a wonderful way of separating the time of prayer and leisure from the time of work, the holy from the mundane.

As the ceremony was carried out, the guitarist sang the prayers, which indicated that he was the cantor or chazan, an ordained clergyman trained in music who leads the congregation in prayer.

His name was Teron Cohen, an American who was interim cantor with the Jüdische Gemeinde zu Berlin. I find out later that he has a Masters degree in Sacred Music.

How lucky I was then that it was he with his wonderful singing voice who introduced me to the exquisite music that accompanies Jewish rites.

Jewish liturgical music has its roots in piyyutim, religious poems. During the Sabbath, hymns or zemirot are sung, some at specific times of the day. These can range from traditional folk songs to contemporary melodies.

Unbeknownst to me then, this synagogue was also a historic one to be in for an introduction to this music. One of the great composers of synagogal music, Louis Lewandowski (1821–1894), wrote his best works whilst serving as musical director there.

Rabbi Gesa Ederberg <em>(left)</em> introduced each song presented by the amateur choir, who gave a delightful performance. - <em>by SL Wong</em>
Rabbi Gesa Ederberg (left) introduced each song presented by the amateur choir, who gave a delightful performance.

MORE MUSIC came after the ceremony, when an amateur choir took to the stage. Compared to the sung blessings, this collection of songs was folksy, melodious and lilting, with subtle shifts in key and rhythm.

But the evening’s musical highlight was when Cohen returned to the stage for a performance with a pianist. Both obviously highly trained, the singing and accompaniment were flawless.

I was not sure if the music I was listening to was religious or secular, traditional or new, or a mix of all of the above. I only knew it was extraordinary, nothing I had heard before.

Or so I thought.

For suddenly, during a piano-only medley, I was startled and delighted to identify ‘Fiddler on the Roof’. And in another tune, following from an emotional, solemn mid-section, the music definitely took on a jazzy feel.

The songs were at times moving, at other times foot-tappingly joyous, but it was all thoroughly enjoyable and I had a big smile on my face when the evening ended.

Annabel had a good time too and while some of the sounds performed that night were new to her, she did identify some of it as klezmer, Yiddish folk music, which she had heard before.

When she described klezmer to me, I suddenly realised that it featured in enough movies and even pop songs for it to not be utterly foreign.

Enlightenment came later in two wonderful online introductions to Jewish music: ‘Jewish Musical Heritage’ by Batya Fonda, and ‘Jewish Music: An Overview’ by Moshe Denburg.

Klezmer is part of Ashkenazi or Yiddish-based music, one of three broad categories of Jewish folk songs. That music has its roots in Eastern European folk songs, especially German ones; they come in the form of quatrains and about half are in the minor key.

Another category of Jewish music called Sephardic or Ladino-based music, originated in Spain and spread to the Ottoman empire, absorbing influences from the latter’s maqam system, which includes microtonal subtleties.

Meanwhile, Mizrahi, or Oriental music is the music of the Jews who lived in the Middle East, and draws from these cultures.

The three categories overlap and Fonda emphasises that they “reflect the hundreds of years of acculturation within a diverse range of geographic, ethnic and cultural contexts”. Music continues to be composed and new and fusion genres created.

However, because Jewish music’s roots are Middle Eastern, the harmonies of Western music are not emphasised, explains Denburg. Rather, “melodic intricacy and ornamentation, including [quarter] tones, and rigorous rhythmic development .. are the salient features”, even as Western harmony is being employed in new compositions.

What I heard that evening at the Synagoge Oranienburgerstr was but a sample of Jewish music, but it was tremendous to have had such a beautiful live introduction to this rich heritage. ω

Background: The Jewish Community of Berlin

Jews first settled in Central and Western Europe, which includes today’s Germany, between the 5th and 10th centuries. They were called Ashkenazis and spoke Yiddish, a language rooted in German, Hebrew and the Slavic languages.

During the periods of the German Empire and Weimar Republic (1871–1933), Jews in Germany acculturated thoroughly into society. Different interpretations of Judaism such as the conservative and reformist movements came about during this time. Berlin Jews largely practised Reform Judaism.

Despite facing anti-semitism, many amongst them achieved great heights, including Nobel Prize-winning author Nelly Sachs, telescope innovator Friedrich Archenhold and the Mendelssohn banking family, descendants of Moses Mendelssohn, the father of Reform Judaism.

When the Nazis came into power in 1933, 160,000 Jews lived in Berlin, a third of the country’s Jewish population. The upward ratchet of institutionalised persecution saw two thirds of Berlin Jews eventually leave Germany.

In 1938, the Novemberpogrome, popularly known as Kristallnacht, became a turning point in Nazi policy against the Jews. Coordinated deadly attacks nationwide and in Austria saw Jews murdered and Jewish institutions, businesses and homes destroyed.

The Nazis also started widespread incarceration of Jews; in Berlin, a total of 55,000 Jews were eventually sent to concentration camps.

When WWII ended, there were about 9,000 Jews in Berlin. These had survived because they were married to non-Jews or had gone underground.

Post war, the city’s Jewish population only started growing after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Today, three-quarters of the community comprises members from the former Soviet states.

Currently numbering over 12,000, Berlin Jews are the largest Jewish community in Germany and the fastest growing too. The community lives in a traditional ‘united’ structure (Einheitsgemeinde) designed to enable Jews of different denominations to live their Judaism as they see fit.

Interestingly, in 2014, around 17,000 Israelis are estimated to live in the city, some on non-Israeli passports, most on a temporary basis.

 – Sources: Jewish Museum Berlin, Wikipedia – Jewish Life in Berlin (German), Wikipedia – History of the Jews in Germany, Bloomberg Business – Israelis in Berlin Signal Middle Class Struggles at Home



The official Jüdische Gemeinde zu Berlin (Jewish community of Berlin) homepage has a chronological history of Jews in Berlin as well as facts and links covering aspects of Judaism and Jewish life, including synagogues.

The group also runs the Jüdische Kulturtage Berlin (Berlin Jewish Culture Days).

Wikipedia’s series on Judaism is comprehensive, including religious movements or branches, observances as Shabbat and religious Jewish music.

For an understanding of the Havdalah ceremony, Tracey R Rich’s Judaism 101 provides clear, detailed information. The site also furnishes basic facts about Judaism.

Jewish music is covered in Wikipedia’s many entries on the topic such as secular Jewish music.

Specialist coverage is provided in Batya Fonda’s Jewish Folk Songs, which has a great introduction to Jewish musical heritage as well as a ton of links to other sites containing history, facts and audio and video clips.

Another good introduction to the topic is Moshe Denburg’s Jewish Music: An Overview in the Jewish Virtual Library, which breaks down the various types and streams of Jewish music as well as has a useful glossary of terms.

{The photo of the Synagoge am Fraenkelufer is by Beek100 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons}

Experienced: 06.09.2009 || Recounted: 26.02.2015

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