Singer Lenka Lichtenberg used to be known almost exclusively for her original Yiddish compositions and her delightful arrangements of traditional Yiddish music, but in recent years she has emerged as a world-music artist and a singer of cantorial liturgy.
A child star of music theatre in her native Prague, she was once a folksinger in Denmark and later became a lounge singer in Vancouver.
“I hadn’t really found myself,” she said. It was on Masada, during a visit to Israel, that she resolved to become a Yiddish singer. “I needed to make my life more meaningful,” she explained, adding that since Yiddish is a dying language, she wanted to do her part to keep it alive.
Lichtenberg grew up without a connection to Judaism or Jewish culture. In fact, until she was eight years old, she had no idea that she’s Jewish. She was on her way to perform at a Jewish community centre in Prague, when her mother, a teenage survivor of Theresiendstadt, told her about her true identity. Both of Lichtenberg’s parents were raised in assimilated families, and her mother, Renee, a philosophy professor, was baptized Roman Catholic.
“She was always concerned that I would be too loud about being Jewish,” Lichtenberg said, adding that “she blamed her Jewishness on all the horrible things that had happened to her and she didn’t want to put me in danger.”
To become a Yiddish singer, Lichtenberg listened to the music on record and took Yiddish language lessons. But she had the nagging feeling that she was an outsider, a “pretender,” because of her background.
“Most Yiddish singers have parents who speak Yiddish,” she said. To help overcome her unease, she focused on pronouncing the Yiddish words she sang correctly.
“It’s not authentic to me, not having grown up in it, but I had to make as authentic to me I could,” she said.
Lichtenberg went on to record three solo Yiddish albums. A member of the popular Sisters of Sheynville, she provided the arrangements of Yiddish swing and klezmer for the group’s award-winning CD, Sheynville Express.
But Lichtenberg found herself becoming creatively restless and wanted to explore other musical avenues, so she began experimenting with Middle Eastern rhythms in her songs. On her spellbinding 2010 recording, Fray (also the name of her band), you can hear the rhythms of the Middle East, as well Indian and Brazilian styles. Fray includes Yiddish poetry, which was set to music by Lichtenberg.
“The melodies and words are always in some way or other coming from the Jewish treasury, “ she said, adding that she writes melodies based on the the typical Jewish scale, but they don’t sound Yiddish because of the instrumentation. She followed up Fray with another world-fusion release in 2013, Embrace, for which she won a Canadian Folk Music Award.
Lichtenberg also immersed herself in cantorial study and now co-leads Shabbat and High Holy Day services at the Reconstructionist synagogue, Congregation Darchei Noam.
“I found a congregation where I’m at home,” she said, adding that they’ve allowed her to learn on the job. “At first, I couldn’t read Hebrew, but they let me participate. Every year I know a little more of liturgy and I set goals for myself.”
Her sublime 2012 release, the award-winning Songs for the Breathing Walls, is made up of Jewish liturgical poems and prayers set to music written by Lichtenberg and other composers. Recorded in 12 synagogues in the Czech Republic, the 17 tracks are blended with Arabic, Jewish and Celtic arrangements.
“Each synagogue had its own history. Somehow I felt I was connecting with the long-gone community,” she said. Lichtenberg is planning to record the second volume of Songs for the Breathing Walls next year in different synagogues in the Czech Republic. Lichtenberg, who has a master’s degree in ethnomusicology, took another musical detour recently, which led to the release of Lullabies from Exile last year at Ashkenaz. Lullabies, which has been nominated for an Independent Music Award, includes Yiddish and Iraqi Jewish music, as well as traditional Czech lullabies.
She’s holding a European launch of Lullabies on June 28 in the Jerusalem Synagogue in Prague, one of the few synagogues that’s still used as a place of worship in the Czech Republic.
Lichtenberg, the mother of three grown children, has always been a prolific artist with many projects on the go and the upcoming months are no exception. This summer, she planning to publish a songbook of 16 of her original Yiddish songs. “If someone likes a song, then they can easily access it,” she said.
U.S. Yiddish singer Heather Klein recorded one of Lichtenberg’s song, Tsum Kval, a Yiddish poem that was translated into English by the poet Simcha Simchovitch, which Lichtenberg set to music. “It’s a real honour,” Lichtenberg said.
This fall, Lichtenberg and her band Fray will play a few Ontario dates before they tour the United States. An EP of remixes she’s working on is set to be released this September. She’s also collaborating with Czech composer Tomas Reindl, on a record of Czech songs, to be released in January 2016. And the British label, Arc, is going to release a recording of tracks from Lichtenberg’s next year. catalogue.
For more information about Lichtenberg, visit www.lenkalichtenberg.com.
See her new video Aleynu on youtube