The Semer Ensemble / Live at Gorki Berlin

boring layout and mundane type cloak some interesting design ideas

The Semer Ensemble Live at Gorki Berlin
Piranha Records, 2016
CD, downloads available from Piranha Records

Now for something completely different. After WWI (paraphrasing from the Semer Ensemble's website), Hirsch Lewin, a laborer who had been conscripted to Germany from his native Vilnius, opened a Jewish bookstore in Berlin. In 1932, he created his own record label, “Semer.” A year later, when the Nazis come to power, they forbid Jewish musicians to perform in non-Jewish settings. Semer functions sort of like Moe Asch's Folkways during the Depression—Lewin records everyone he can for five years. As it happens, it is a time of incredible diversity in Jewish music—not unlike our own (hopefully, that is the only parallel). On November 9, 1938, SA hordes attack the Hebräische Buchhandlung, destroying everything, including 4,500 recordings and 250 metal plates. From 1992-2001, musicologist Dr. Rainer E. Lotz travels the world and is able to recover and restore almost the entire catalogue. The Bear Family label reissues the recordings in a box set of 11 CDs and 1 DVD, titled “Vorbei: Beyond Recall, in 2002.” Then, in 2012, the Berlin Jewish Museum Berlin commissions New Jewish Music luminary Alan Bern (co-founder of Brave Old World, etc.) to create new interpretations of the archival recordings. What we have hear is a slice of the repertoire performed by the world-class ensemble Bern has assembled. Musicians come from America and Berlin, the old generation and the new. For the first time since the Holocaust, Berlin is once again home to musicians with the artistry and knowledge to handle a repertoire of such a breadth and depth. The result is a window into 1920s Berlin and today’s New Jewish Music: Berlin cabaret, Russian folk songs, Yiddish theater hits, operatic arias, and cantorial music, and more.

From the gentle opening ballad, "Ich tanz und mein Herz weint" or the Yiddish lullaby, "Das kind liegt in wigele" on to the theatrical "Scholem Baith" and pure light-hearted cabare in "Im Gasthof zur goldenen Schnecke" to the story-song, "Lebka f@auml;hrt nach Amerika," complete with its cantorial vocal theatrics, to the early Palestinian dances captured on "Simchu bi Jeruschalaim" or Hubay's Hungarian "Czárdas" (originally recorded by prodigy Adreas Weissgerber, who settled in Palestine in 1936) and beyond, what comes through is the diversity and variety of the music of the period. The notes also preserve the stories—the details of the tragic ends of many of the artists, and the amazing mix of sources and cultural borrowings that led to each. The original "Kaddisch," for instance, with Germany lyrics by Kurt Robitschek, is notable for a very Christian image of a wife and son kneeling and praying for the safety of their drafted husband/father. The Yiddish versions—one sung here by Sklamberg—are somewhat more authentic (although the idea of a "kaddish" for someone still living is still jarring). On the other hand, one of the popular Semer catalog items was Cantor Salomon Kupfer's recording of the Josef Rosenblatt "Acheinu kol bet Jissroel." The song is no less electrifying as a demonstration of hazzonos, recorded here, with only the slightest accordion accompaniment, similar to Cantor Kupfer's original. Amen. The performance ends with a quietly sad version of Reisfeld/Marbot's "Vorbei" (It's over).

On top of the miracle of the reconstructed Semer catalog and listening to parts of it made parts of today's performing repertoire, I have to mention the sheer pleasure of listening to this particular assembly of musicians. Many, like Alan Bern (Brave Old World, et al), Daniel Kahn (Painted Bird) or Loren Sklamberg (Klezmatics and more) will be familiar to US fans of Klezmer and Yiddish son, but the opportunity to hear musicians primarily from Europe: Mark Kovnatskiy on violin, Paul Brody (trumpet), Martin Lillich (bass), plus the dynamic Sasha Lurie (Forshpil, and the only woman in the ensemble), and Fabian Schnedler (Fayvish, et al) on vocals, is special "just because."

The recording memorializes a time and place not dissimilar to our own: Jewish music reflected an unprecedented diversity, and was recorded during a time when populist politicians threatened to overthrow democracy by pandering to the worst fears and nationalist jingoism. It's not a danger that will pass with one election cycle, regardless of the results. While working to prevent evil in our time, you can treat your ears to the world on the precipice less than 100 years ago, and get your copy of this remarkable ensemble via Piranha Records. For those who want the entire treasure of original recordings, see Bear Family Records,

Reviewed by Ari Davidow, 14 Sep 2016.

Personnel this recording:
Alan Bern: director, pianist, accordionist
Paul Brody: trumpet
Daniel Kahn: voice, accordion, mandolin
Mark "Stempenyuk" Kovnatskiy: violin
Martin Lillich: bass
Sasha Lurje: voice
Fabian Schnedler: voice
Lorin Sklamberg: voice, accordion


  1. Ich tanz' und mein Herz weint (trad) 3:34
  2. Scholem Baith (trad) 3:47
  3. Simchu bi Jeruschalajm / E'ise pepe (trad / N. Alterman) 4:49
  4. Die Welt ist klein geworden (C. Bry/F. Endrikat) 3:59
  5. Kaddisch (Der Jüdische Soldat) (O. Stransky) 6:55
  6. Das Kind liegt in Wigele (trad) 6:52
  7. Czárdas (J. Hubay) 4:33
  8. Achenu kol bes Isroel (J. Rosenblatt) 5:26
  9. Jad Anuga (Trad/S. Schneur/M. Gnessin) 7:23
  10. Lebka Fährt nach Amerika (Trad) 5:49
  11. Im Gasthof zur goldenen Schneck (W. Rosen/M. Lion) 4:08
  12. Vorbei (R. Marbot/B. Reisfeld) 3:41

All songs arranged by Alan Bern / Semer Ensemble

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