It’s unusual for a mid-career artist to declare a recent project “the most important thing I will ever do.”
But that’s precisely how Czech-born singer Lenka Lichtenberg feels about “Songs for the Breathing Walls,” a collection of mainly Jewish liturgical pieces she recorded in 12 Czech synagogues. The album’s North American release this week coincides with Friday-Saturday’s 74th anniversary of Kristallnacht, during which some of these synagogues were damaged or destroyed.
With two nominations at this month’s Canadian Folk Music Awards, it’s evident that Lichtenberg isn’t alone in thinking the album is remarkable. “Lenka Lichtenberg is a unique artist, and this album is a unique project,” says Grit Laskin, a member of the CFMA board of directors.
The praise she’s receiving is the end result of what Lichtenberg recently called her 2009 “moment of epiphany.”
“I was on a bus on the way back to Prague after giving concerts in synagogues in Plzen [Pilsen] and Liberec,” she said in a recent phone interview with The Times of Israel. “I was half-asleep, but I was musing on the interesting comparison between singing at the Plzen synagogue, which is derelict, and at the Liberec one, which is completely renovated. How could I capture the difference between the two experiences?”
Now based in Toronto, Lichtenberg was born in post-war Prague. Her mother and grandmother, Jews who survived imprisonment at the Terezin concentration camp, were the only members of their family to survive the Holocaust. Lichtenberg became a child star in musical theater at age 9, but left Communist Czechoslovakia for Denmark at 18. There, she worked as a club and lounge singer before moving in 1981 to Canada, where she continued to build a career in pop, rock, jazz and folk music.
In 1987, on her first visit to Israel, Lichtenberg — petite, with curly blonde hair — says she had a revelation: that Jewish and Yiddish music were her true calling. Leaving her prior career behind, she began to learn Yiddish, hoping to build an internationally recognized career while recording and performing in Yiddish.
At one synagogue in Prague, Lichtenberg found she simply could not sing at all
A composer, producer and bandleader with five solo albums to date, Licthenberg has earned a reputation for infusing traditional Yiddish melodies with world-music sounds, and for her unconventional collaborations with other artists. Among these is the award-winning women’s Yiddish swing band Sisters of Sheynville; a Jewish-Arab musical dialogue project called Bridges, on which she partners with Canadian-Palestinian performer Roula Said; and Lullabies From Exile, an ongoing collaboration with Israeli violinist and oud player Yair Dalal that intertwines Yiddish and Iraqi-Jewish music.
Her latest project came together partly as a roots trip: The concept was to gain access to a dozen or so synagogues in the Czech Republic, many in the Moravia region, and record Hebrew prayers in them.
“I wanted to capture the unique ‘personality’ of each place through singing in it,” Lichtenberg says. “It was going to be about the music, but it was going to be more about the places and the communities that were once there. I wanted it to be a musical monument to, or celebration of, Jewish communities that are no longer.”
Before her recording trips, Lichtenberg was familiar with only three Czech synagogues. A chance reunion with a childhood friend, Tomas Kraus, now the executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic, later introduced her to many more. Although the singer credits Kraus with providing her with key information — and sometimes literally the key — to the various synagogues, Kraus gives full credit to Lichtenberg‘s vision and energy.
“She’s the engine behind it,” Kraus said by phone from Prague, where half the Czech Republic’s 3,000 Jews live.
“Lenka’s idea fit in perfectly with what we are doing here,” he continued. “Our task has been to rebuild our community. Culture, including music, has been instrumental to that — both for Jews to connect with our identity, and for non-Jews to appreciate Jewish heritage and culture. Czechs feel that Jewish culture is integral to Czech culture.”
With its 17 songs, “Breathing Walls” not only marked Lichtenberg’s first foray into these historic synagogues, but also into recording Hebrew liturgical music. Although she has long worked as a cantorial soloist and service leader at Toronto’s Congregation Darchei Noam, her Reconstructionist synagogue, and other congregations in her adopted hometown, her recordings had always been in Yiddish.
For her inaugural Hebrew effort, she chose favorite prayers and piyyutim (liturgical poems), some set to her own original compositions, and matched them to the atmospheres and histories of the various synagogues. The hopeful “Shiviti Adonai,” for example, was recorded at the beautifully rebuilt Liberec synagogue in northern Bohemia. “El Maley Rachamim,” the memorial prayer, she sang at Terezin, “where my family was sent to die.” She chose the upbeat “Dodi Li” for Prague’s Jeruzalemska synagogue, which was used as a Nazi warehouse during the German occupation but returned to service as a Jewish house of worship after the war.
At one synagogue in Prague, Lichtenberg found she simply could not sing at all, let alone perform the “Modim” prayer she had planned. “It was dilapidated. There was garbage, junk, dirt everywhere. It was so disrespectful,” Lichtenberg remembered. “This place was so humiliated … I tried to sing, but I couldn’t sing anything. The walls were not breathing.”
Despite the emotional hardships, the sessions proved therapeutic to the singer and her musical accompanists, who included Czech jazz guitarist David Doruzka and Dalal, her partner in Lullabies From Exile.
Doruzka, whose maternal grandmother escaped a death march from Auschwitz, felt a very personal connection to the project. “It was a special privilege for me,” he said. “It went beyond the music to something very spiritual. It was important for us to bring life back to these forgotten places and to the forgotten people that were in them.”
“It was a healing mission, and I wanted to be part of it,” said Dalal, whose contributions included an Iraqi version of “Adon Olam.”
‘It was important for us to bring life back to these forgotten places and to the forgotten people that were in them,’ says jazz guitarist David Doruzka
“Lenka is a second-generation survivor, and it is her healing.”
For Lichtenberg’s father, who died before the recording was complete, the music was also a healing of sorts.
“He was really taken by this project,” Lichtenberg said. “I told him about it when he was sick and I visited him in Prague. He was in tears, and told me this was the highlight of his life, that he could now die happy.”
Lichtenberg used the inheritance he left behind to fund the self-produced album, which includes informative historical liner notes and beautiful packaging, replete with artful photographs of all the synagogues.
“Breathing Walls” celebrated its Czech release earlier this year at Prague’s Jeruzalemska synagogue, and marked its North American launch Saturday in Toronto at a special Holocaust Education Week concert. The album is available for purchase only from Lichtenberg’s website.
In the album’s liner notes, Lichtenberg writes that she hopes the prewar Czech-Jewish community “will live on” through her music.
She admits she’s not sure whether the project can achieve that goal. “But personally,” she said, “it is a hugely important thing.”