Max Helfman was a composer and music educator born in Radzyn, Poland in 1901. He came to America at age eight and sang regularly in New York Orthodox synagogue choirs. Not much is known about his childhood or teenage years, except that he had somewhat of a traditional Jewish education, and eventually went on to study at the Mannes College of Music. In 1928, he became organist and choir master at Temple Israel in Manhattan, and began to experiment with choral compositions.
In 1945, the Histadrut Ivrit of America and the American Zionist Youth Commission established a Jewish Arts Committee in New York. This committee was set up to promote Hebrew culture and Zionist ideals in the United States. This brought Helfman into contact with Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, who had recently established a camp to inspire Jewish youth to be interested in Judaism and Israel. Helfman was named music director of the Brandeis Camp, a job he held for seventeen years. In 1958, he was invited to serve as the dean of the department of fine arts at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles, a department which he was asked to create. Helfman died in 1963 at the age of 62.
Helfman’s Di Naye Hagode (The New Haggada), composed in 1948, is a choral interpretation of an epic poem by Yiddish poet Itsik Fefer about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, Di shotns fun varshever geto (The Shadows of the Warsaw Ghetto). The Haggada is the biblical story of the Exodus from Egypt which Jews are required to retell every year. So too, did Fefer want Jews to retell the tragic tale of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising to honor the victims of Nazi persecution. The poem was published in the United States by the IKUF, the Yiddish Cultural Organization, and was brought to Helfman’s attention later that year. Di Naye Hagode focuses not on divine miracles that saved the Jews from Pharoah and slavery, but on the physical act of Jewish armed heroism against evil. This work celebrates the fact that, under certain death, the Jewish ghetto fighters took their fates into their own hands.
Di Naye Hagode is interwoven with narrated text of Fefer’s poem translated into English, which recounts the horrors of the ghetto. The text is narrated by Theodore Bikel, the famed Jewish actor and folksinger, most known for his work in The Sound of Music and Fiddler on the Roof. The narration begins with an image of the night the Jews were forced into the Warsaw Ghetto. Bikel asks the question that echos from the Passover seder: why is this night different from all other nights of the year? As the piece continues, the text becomes increasingly desperate. God is asked when He will send His prophet Elijah to save and console the Jewish prisoners in the ghetto. The narration describes The Boy (Dos Yingl), who used to ride on wooden horses and fight with wooden swords, who has now lost his childhood and has become a ghetto fighter. Finally, in the last narration, Bikel says, “Why is this night different from all other nights? Because on this seder night, we remember them all, those nameless shadows who died so that we may live...In us and our children, their blessed memories shall live on and on.”
The beautiful and powerful choral arrangements, sung by the Los Angeles Zimriyah Chorale and the Choral Society of Southern California, as well as the music by the YMF Debut Orchestra, only intensify the somber text of Bikel’s narration, and succeed in bringing Helfman’s work to life.
The liner notes state that on several occassions, Helfman expressed regret that he had never written a complete opus, but “Di Naye Hagode, with its overall musicial-structural arch, its sense of inspired artistic unity, and its judicious balance, probably comes closest to that wish.”
This album also contains two other works by Helfman which have not yet been reviewed: Hag Habikkurim, a collection of Hebrew songs sung in Palestine by Zionist pioneers before Israel’s independence, and The Holy Ark, a liturgical work based on the melodies of the Torah service on Shabbat. The Milken Archive is producing an astounding collection of American Jewish music – sacred and secular – with the collaboration of distinguished artists, ensembles and recording producers. We will be reviewing more of the collection in coming weeks.