The film “100 Voices: A Journey Home” chronicles the journey last year of a group of American cantors to Poland, for many the land of their forefathers, to sing in Europe’s largest concert hall in Warsaw, join a Jewish festival in Krakow and pray at Auschwitz.
The 91-minute documentary offers more than a travelogue with musical performances. It has all that but is also a remarkable visual tour of Jewish life in prewar Poland, a history of the cantorial art of chazzanut and a hopeful vision of the resurgence of Jewish life in the blood-soaked land, anchored in the reconciliation of Catholics and Jews.
There are moments of laughter in Warsaw, as when a cantor imitates a Yiddish shtick once performed by his father in the same city. Also moments of awe, when massive choirs and orchestras of Polish gentiles sing and play old Jewish prayers and Israel’s national anthem.
And there are moments of intense sorrow, when a memorial service at the gates of Auschwitz pays tribute to the 1,300 cantors who perished in the Holocaust.
Strictly speaking, the title “100 Voices” is a misnomer. Actually, 72 American cantors joined the trip, and if you add the voices of Polish adult and children’s choirs, the number is closer to 200.
One might expect such a picture to play at a few Jewish film festivals or in select art houses in a few large cities, but the actuality is much more impressive.
On Sept. 21, at 7 p.m., a total of 488 major movie theaters throughout the United States will simultaneously screen “100 Voices.”
The main feature will be preceded by a filmed mini-concert of popular songs by the likes of George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Harold Arlen and Irving Berlin, each of whom had family roots in Poland or Eastern Europe. Cantor Nathan Lam of Stephen S. Wise Temple emcees the program.
In some major cities, the Israeli and Polish consulates will host after-show receptions.
The idea of the cantorial trip originated with Lam and his son Michael, and they contacted three key people.
Two were Matthew Asner and Danny Gold, who head Mod Three Productions, as producers and directors of “100 Voices.” They spent 18 months expanding the scope of the film and then shooting it.
The third contact was Metuka Benjamin — education director at Stephen S. Wise, Gold’s mother and a person with limitless contacts — as executive producer and chief fundraiser for the project.
Asner and Gold, both 46 and close friends since second grade, are veteran producers of documentaries for television and movie studios, but “100 Voices” presented some special challenges.
Working on a budget of less than $1 million, they and the cantorial leaders had to line up the National Opera House in Warsaw, the largest venue of its kind in Europe, for the initial concert, and the city’s Nozyk Synagogue, the only one to survive the war, for the second concert.
For musical accompaniment, the organizers enlisted the prestigious National Opera Orchestra and the Alla Polacca Children’s Choir.
To both Gold and Asner, the emotional climax of the trip and movie was the memorial service at Auschwitz, as some cantors spoke of fathers and mothers killed in the death camp, and ending with an unfurled Torah scroll encircling the mourners.
To Gold, whose grandmother came from Vilna, the impact was overwhelming. “The only sound was that of weeping,” he recalled. “In the middle of the service, there was a powerful thunder clap, as if the past martyrs were speaking to us.”
Matthew Asner, whose grandfather came to America from Poland, hasn’t yet shown the film to his father, actor Ed Asner. “But I want to sit next to him at the premiere and watch his reactions,” he said.
Although the whole enterprise was a group effort, some soloists stood out and proved again that in every cantor there is an opera singer waiting for his cue.
Particularly impressive were cantors Alberto Mizrachi of Chicago, also known as the “Jewish Pavarotti”; Simon Spiro of Toronto; and David Propis of Houston; as well as local talents Lam and Joseph Gole of Sinai Temple.
They could draw inspiration from the artistry of some of their great predecessors, shown in film clips, such as Yossele Rosenblatt and Moishe Oysher.
A major presence in the film is Charles Fox, composer of popular and liturgical music, whose visit to his father’s hometown of Szydlowiec and performance of his composition “Lament and Prayer” in Krakow are particularly memorable.
Also in Krakow, the film introduces Janusz Makuch, a Catholic and self-described “Shabbos goy,” who founded the city’s nine-day Jewish Cultural Festival in 1988, which now attracts some 40,000 predominantly non-Jewish fans.
He speaks sorrowfully of Poland’s Jews as the nation’s “phantom limb,” cut off but still feeling connected.
In Los Angeles, the Sept. 21 screening of “100 Voices” will be at the AMC Century 15 in Century City, as well as in theaters in Burbank, Huntington Beach, Irvine, Long Beach, Orange, Palm Springs, Riverside, Ventura and Woodland Hills. The film will also be shown locally Sept. 22-28 to qualify it for Academy Award consideration.