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Sinai Leichter

I sang tenor in Wolpe's chorus at the Jerusalem Conservatoire; also he taught me solfége. I didn't play an instrument, but I could read music. That was from my childhood in Poland, because my father was a Hazan, and he read music. So I was in the choir, and there was a very happy mood in the choir. This was the cream of Jewish youth, the cream of young musicians, because every one of them played instruments or sang. We still had that cohesion based on music and the sensation of having escaped from Germany. We were very sure of ourselves that this was going to be our country, that we are back home. We were all poor, but very happy with a feeling of still retaining something of our togetherness from Germany and yet being in a free country. We sang Wolpe's songs and Bach. He loved Bach very much, and although his analysis centered mostly on Beethoven, he spoke a lot about Bach. An offshoot of this choir was Dr. Felix Sulman's choir, which kept us together for 40 years. Zvi Kaplan and Heinz Alexander were in that choir.

Wolpe asked me to give him Hebrew lessons, and I would go to his studio. For one winter it was three times a week, very early in the morning. The Hebrew lessons were on two levels, one was instruction of the Hebrew language, and the other level was supplying lyrics and telling him more about the cultural life in Israel, very new, very young, and the tremendous vigor of starting something new. It's the accumulated energy of 2,000 years. This is how we all felt. And that imparted itself even to the so-called non-Zionists. But the spirit was tremendous, and this caught on Wolpe. It was a revelation, and it was an opportunity for him to be innovative, different from his strictly Germanic music of the Weberns and the Schoenbergs.

The impact on Wolpe of living in Jerusalem and in Israel has two meanings. It was the loss of the milieu of a highly musically cultured people in Berlin, where he was before. But this loss was highly compensated by the gain of discovering the Jewish aspect of his life and the culture of which he had hardly any notion at all. As I glanced through these scores [Wolpe's Hebrew art songs and choral settings] I noticed the great Biblical poems which he set to music, the Lament of David for Jonathan and the highly ethical pronouncements of Micah. I remember we discussed the ethics of the Fathers, as he had no notion at all of the Biblical sources. Of course, he must have read the Bible in German translation before, and he was only familiar with the major stories of the Bible. But now he was looking out for texts for compositions.

Wolpe was one of those who really proved my concept that you had to approach the German Jews intellectually by explaining the structure of the grammar and the beauty of that structure rather than teaching them the individual words and mimicking sentences. I think it was Wolpe who said, "You know, this structure is almost like the chord in music." Hebrew grammar has a structure based on the concept of the roots which have three letters. And on the basis of a very few rules and a creative, imaginative approach, you can build your own words, your own sentences, your own terms. There are seven building [blocks] of Hebrew grammar--three are active verbs, three passive verbs, and one reflexive. The most difficult one is the causative form, called a Hif'il structure. Once Wolpe grasped this, he was enamored with it, and he started creating his own Hebrew language, new words. And then the joke went around--look how Wolpe all of a sudden became so interested in Hebrew. He's one of the few Yekkes who can speak Hif'il. There is an old saying in English that you can only speak in the passive. He had a wonderful sense of humor and tried to make Hebrew jokes. He was very creative in making up his own words once he learned the rules.

His understanding of the structure of the language was a new departure for his understanding and love of the Bible. It was around the same year as Martin Buber came to Jerusalem. [Buber's] approach to understanding the Bible was also based on this deep understanding of the structure of Hebrew language with its three-letter roots. Wolpe was interested in Buber, although Buber was not a leftist socialist, but a great intellectual with a profound understanding of Judaism. The word for "sacrifice," coming from Greek or Latin to English, usually means sacrificing an animal to a god or to an idol. I remember I discussed this with Wolpe following a lecture on the radio by Buber. Buber said that sacrifice in Hebrew has nothing to do with appeasing a god, or praying for rain. In Hebrew the word is Korban, derived from the root Karev, which means "near." It was an act of bringing the human spirit nearer to godliness, an act of nearness. Buber translated it in German not as Opfer, for sacrifice, but as Darnüng, bringing something near, from the word nahe, "near." He meant to imply nearness between men and God. I can recall how Wolpe was fascinated, hypnotized by it. This kind of approach and understanding of the Bible gave him the intellectual urge and motive to study Hebrew.

He was very much in love with the poems that I revealed to him by a woman poet whose name was Rachel. Her full name was Rachel Blustein. She was a young woman from Russia, and she had been assimilated. She never knew any Hebrew before she came. She was fascinated by the idea of the kibbutz and was a member of the first kibbutz of the Degania, near Tiberias. Rachel became the poet of the first settlers and the first concept of kibbutz. Her poems are extremely beautiful. I got a book of Rachel and read and translated some into German. Wolpe was highly enamored of the poetry of Rachel. He insisted on having very literal translations.

He had leanings to extreme socialism, but he was not considered Communist, neither did he consider himself Communist. I would define his communism as Biblical fervor for social justice. He burnt up for that. He was a great admirer of kibbutzim, that was the implementation of socialism not on the scale of a government or a state. It was a small, nuclear, very genuine, idealistic socialism, and people really gave up any claim or intention for making private money and goods, and worked all for the good of community and for culture and science. The main reasons of the kibbutz was to have peasants living a kind of cultured life like the great German intellectuals. Back to the land with a high cultural, idealistic, and moral life. Now where in the world do you have that? That was most appealing to Wolpe. He adored kibbutz life. I think he would have lived on a kibbutz were it not for Irma, because on weekends he would run away to his kibbutz. There were weekends where Friday night meetings for musical analysis were canceled. Many of the students of the Conservatoire joined him in kibbutzim, and they are still to this day. [...]

He was greatly in love with one very primitive little Yemenite song, "Ali b'eir" by Sara Levi[-Tanai]. She was a Yemenite girl who couldn't write music. Somebody wrote it out for her, and Wolpe arranged it for piano. It was a simple Yemenite traditional tune from the desert of Yemen, but he loved it so much. I remember how when he put it into four parts we sang it in the choir. [...] When I brought him the text "Tsedaktem Habonim" [by Saul Tchernichovsky] the content was fantastic and the rhythm of the words was great. He wanted to know the accents, and I said it is read: "Tsedakt'm Ham Habon'm Hatseir'm." And the music was born in his mind the very moment that we read the Hebrew words together. When I said the words, he sang them back exactly with the rhythm of the Hebrew text. It was his capacity to absorb deeply the meaning and the rhythm and the flavor of his new culture and turn it into music.

Born in 1915 in Kielce, Poland, Sinai Leichter moved to Jerusalem in 1935 to attend Hebrew University and the Palestine Conservatory of Music. In the late 1960s he moved to the United States to pursue graduate studies and later returned to Israel where he was appointed Assistant Professor of Jewish History at the American College of Jerusalem. He has served as co-ordinator for the editorial board of Encyclopedia Judaica. Interview: AC, Jerusalem, 19 April 1985.


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