Sharing the gift of music
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Sharing the gift of music

Englewood resident and concert pianist Carolyn Enger was looking for a way to contribute something to Israel when it occurred to her that the Partnership 2000 program of UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey might be just the vehicle she needed.

“I was spotty in my [monetary] donations,” she said, “so I thought I would ‘donate’ myself.”

With the help of Partnership coordinator Machla Shaffer, Enger put together an April visit to Nahariya – the community’s sister city in Israel – allowing her to bring her musical talents to the Jewish state.

“I approached [Machla] because of the Israel Connections program,” she said. “It seemed to be about Israelis coming here, but I asked if it went both ways.”

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Enger performed on Yom HaZikaron at Yad Labanim in Nahariya, which contains both a library and a hall for programs. After speeches were delivered, pictures of fallen soldiers were projected onto a large screen.

Enger pointed out that community shaliach Stuart Levy, speaking to The Jewish Standard in May, said he was looking to “offer ways to engage with Israel.”

“This is what I was hoping to create by example,” she said, adding that she hopes “people will use this as a precedent, thinking of how to take their talents to Israel and donate them.”

In Nahariya, Enger performed on both Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron.

“It still gives me chills,” she said. “It was so moving – the amount of participation there and throughout the country and how meaningful these days are there. It doesn’t quite feel the same here.There, the siren shakes the soul.” (On Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s memorial day for its fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism, a siren sounds for one full minute while virtually the entire nation stands at attention.)

She was also impressed by how many young people were involved in the commemorations.

Enger said that while she had prepared an entire program highlighting works by American and Israeli Jewish composers, the Yom HaShoah event included candle-lighting by survivors as well as readings. Her music provided a backdrop for these events.

“An entire program of music has a different feel than when a survivor lights a candle and then you play something,” she said. “The emotional power was very strong.”

While she was scheduled to perform at the Ghetto Fighters Museum the following day, ongoing renovations there put the piano out of service. She hopes, however, that she will get to play there next year.

Enger said her concerts included a piece by contemporary Israeli composer Avner Dorman that had premiered at the New York Philharmonic.

“That made it local as well as Israeli,” she joked.

The pianist also performed music by the German composer Felix Mendelssohn, who was born Jewish.

“I’m a child of survivors,” she said, pointing out that “German survivors don’t lose their ‘German pride.’ It was a nod to where I’m coming from and how I connect. It’s just beautiful music.”

As part of her visit, Enger met with members of Amcha, which provides psychosocial help for Holocaust survivors and their families.

“There are 13 Amcha centers throughout Israel,” she said. “I plan to go to them all and will play wherever there is a piano.”

She said she wants to interview as many survivors as possible and use some of the material in a multi-media project focusing on the mischlinges, “a particular group of German Jews and half-Jews.”

“My father is a half-Jew,” she said, explaining that at the end of the 19th century, “there was a great deal of intermarriage and conversion [in Germany] for greater opportunities.” Her grandmother converted to Christianity, “but Jews don’t recognize those conversions. The mischlinges were sort of German, sort of Jewish.”

“It has informed my own spiritual journey,” she said, noting that she is now “going through an Orthodox conversion to avoid the question over my head: Is she or isn’t she?

“One characteristic [I have] in common with other mishchlinges is always kind of staying under the wire, never really opening up about identity.”

Her project, she said, will use art, music, literature, and film to tell the story of this group.

“I’m doing research, digging a bit,” she said, adding that many well-known people, such as the poet Heinrich Heine, were mischlinges.

She pointed out that she chose to play the piece by Mendelssohn “because of his German/Jewish heritage. His grandfather was the great rabbi and philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. His father, Abraham Mendelssohn, assimilated and had Felix and his siblings baptized. Felix was brought up initially without religious identity and then as a Lutheran.”

Enger said she would like to focus on this group and their experiences before, after, and during the war. Mischlinges did not escape Hitler’s attention, she said, noting, however, that it took him longer to target them.

“I want to explore their contributions and bring up the issue of identity,” she said, “maybe bringing the subject in a performance setting to schools.”

Enger said she absolutely plans to return to Israel next year to offer her gift of music.

“They want me to come back and I want to go,” she said.

“The people in Nahariya were thrilled and very excited for Carolyn to join in on the events for Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron,” said Shaffer. “We will definitely do it again next year without a doubt. It is yet again another way for the Jewish community of northern New Jersey to connect with the people of Nahariya. There is not a Jewish family in any community that has not been touched in one way or another by the Holocaust, and Carolyn has found a way to unify us all with her music.”

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