VERY FEW RECORDINGS of London’s Jews at worship survive from the first half of the 20th century. One example: the BBC’s chronological index lists a pre-war recording of a shofar or ram’s horn being sounded as part of Yom Kippur, but this has proved impossible to track down.
Fortunately, two recordings of the Willesden Synagogue Choir from 1942 (BBC catalogue 873499) have been preserved and are reproduced here. Both appear on a single 12” transcription disc. One side features ‘Shovu (Return O Lord)’ sung by Revd. A. Behrmann, for which the catalogue entry notes:
Sung when replacing the Scroll of the Law in the Ark after the appointed passage has been read. An appreciation of the contents of the Torah which is “a tree of life to them that grasp it”.
On the other side of the disc the choir sings ‘Mah Tovu (How Goodly are Thy Tents)’, used when entering the house of prayer. Both pieces were the work of Louis Lewandowski, the Prussian-born composer of synagogal music.
Willesden Synagogue was first established in Brondesbury Park in 1934 and joined London’s United Synagogue in 1939. A detailed history of it can be found online in the Susser Archive.
1942 marked an intensification of the Holocaust in Europe, from the Wannsee Conference in January to the mass deportations of Jews later that year from the Warsaw Ghetto to the extermination camps. These recordings have a fragile beauty when set against the knowledge of such terrible events. But they have endured.
Recording © copyright BBC. Audio digitisation and restoration by the London Sound Survey. Many thanks to BBC Worldwide for granting permission to reproduce this recording here.