By Alex Brummer
As one of those present at the European Jewish Choral Festival at the West London Synagogue on Sunday 14 June one could not but be impressed by the bravery and optimism of the Lviv Ensemble ‘Varnitshkes’ from Ukraine. Their presence on the programme owes a great deal of credit to the good work of the Board of Deputies which assisted the group in obtaining visas to the UK. The group braved a 30-hour bus journey from Ukraine in a tribute to their determination to make Jewish music. Amid a sombre programme, with a large helping of sacred music, they provided brightness and uplifting moments with their klezmer/choral performance. The harmonies were beautiful and they sang with enormous spirit exemplifying the courage of Ukraine’s struggling Jewish population.
Their gallantry on a shoestring budget , travelling from a country at war, put into some perspective the fears of our own community in north London about antisemitism. At times we appear to forget the privileges we enjoy as Jews living in an affluent society in some of the more prosperous neighbourhoods in Britain. Our friends from Ukraine came with modest amounts of money in their pocket and would have had barely enough to feed themselves over Shabbat, without the help of benefactors from the Zemel Choir.
The war in Ukraine is barely covered in the British media but latest reports show that the ceasefire agreement in the east of the country is violated on an almost daily basis. Civilians are being killed in shelling in the rebel controlled town of Horlivka and shelling has also been reported from Mariupol and in the Luhansk region in the last week. At Mariupol the Jewish community relies on the ‘hot meals’ provided by the local synagogue that offers free kosher food. This programme and others are provided by America’s Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). Food prices are high in the Mariupol region where areas are occupied by the rebels.
Every part of Ukraine is suffering. My own family comes from the Hungarian speaking Berehova region in Transcarpathia, also the home of the late Rabbi Hugo Grynn (ז״ל). While the war is far away the conflict in Eastern Ukraine is having a serious impact. Many of the doctors from the main hospital in Berehovo have been sent to the East leaving the area bereft of medical care. The small number of Jews (that until a decade ago included an uncle of mine) struggles to survive and make ends meet.
Great work is being done by the British Jewish community in Ukraine. World Jewish Relief is deeply involved and new Senior Vice-President Richard Verber is part of that effort. Alex Faiman, deputy from St Johns Wood, has been an inspiration in Kiev, and beyond. Using funds provided by his B’nai B’rith lodge, Faiman has been instrumental in feeding elderly Jewish people across the region and is one of the Board’s most unsung heroes.
Too often it seems to me Jews in Britain are so concerned with minor inconveniences, perceived threats of antisemitism, minor slights and arguments about the Middle East peace process but fail to see the bigger geo-political picture exemplified by Moscow’s expansionism.
The Lviv Ensemble offered real inspiration, a light unto their own nation in its hours of greatest darkness.
Alex Brummer is a Deputy for the United Synagogue and City Editor of the Daily Mail
Background information on the European Jewish Choral Festival – with thanks to Anthony Cohen, Festival Chair.
The European Jewish Choral Festival began life in London in 2012, and was the brainchild of the Zemel Choir of London’s Musical Director, Benjamin Wolf.
Kick-started during the London Olympics and the Cultural Olympiad, this event has since been held in Vienna (2013) and Rome (2014), returning to London for 2015.
Performances during the festival comprised a concert in Wembley, a Shabbat service at Belsize Square Synagogue, and a final gala concert at West London Synagogue. The Zemel Choir sang alongside five visiting European ensembles and also collaborated with the professional choir of Belsize Square Synagogue. The visiting performers included professionals, amateurs, instrumentalists and soloists. There was liturgical music and folk music, as well as show-tunes and music from beyond the synagogue.
From Germany the hosts welcomed the Synagogal Ensemble Berlin, a professional choir which hosts its own annual choral festival in Berlin. They also welcomed the Leipziger Synagogalchor, a semi-professional group whose membership includes many non-Jewish German singers who are interested in the performance of Jewish music. From Paris – a city much troubled by recent events – we were delighted that the Ensemble Choral Copernic took part, as well as also being reunited with old friends, the Coro Ha-Kol of Rome, hosts of the 2014 festival. The line-up was completed by the Varnitshkes Ensemble, a troupe of enthusiastic players and singers from Ukraine, who took the bus the bus all the way from Lviv to be with us in London.
Thanks for their presence in London must go in part to Natalie Gies who works in the Accounts Department at the Board of Deputies, and is also a third generation and longstanding member of the Zemel Choir. Natalie, a soprano soloist in the choir, was determined to help the members of Varnitshkes make the trip after meeting them in Rome last year and suggested I contact the Board’s senior vice-president Laura Marks to assist with a letter to explain why their participation was so important. They were extremely grateful to the Board and to Natalie, and presented her with a gift!
The Fourth European Jewish Choral Festival marked the culmination of a busy season for the Zemel Choir. In recent months the choir has performed at Westminster Abbey for the Commemoration of the 70th Liberation of Auschwitz, and sung for its annual Celebrate with Song event at London’s JW3.