Mimi Sheffer A Life Dedicated to Jewish Music

Mimi Sheffer
Mimi Sheffer | Photo (detail): © Mimi Sheffer

She planned a career in opera, but her calling turned out to be Jewish music. Mimi Sheffer, raised in Israel, cantor in New York, has breathed new life into a great tradition of religious music – and this in, of all places, Germany and Poland.

Actually Mimi Sheffer wanted to become an opera singer. In Israel, where she was born and raised, she studied flute and singing and won the Kol Israel (Voice of Israel) competition. She went to New York to continue her voice training. That she sang in a synagogue came about rather accidentally. But then she was offered a position as cantor in the large Emanuel Synagogue in West Hartford (Connecticut) – a “dream job”, as she still says today. The daughter of Orthodox parents became the singer of liturgy in a liberal congregation. Women cantors have been nothing unusual in the United States since the 1970s. “My roots never lost their grip on me”, she says in retrospect, “although I didn’t want to admit it to myself back then”.

In 1994 Sheffer went to Berlin, again for the sake of her opera career. But here too she was engaged by a Jewish congregation: as cantor of the synagogue in the Oranienburger Straße. The job turned into her calling. In 2007 Sheffer founded the Jewish Institute of Cantorial Arts at the Abraham Geiger College, a liberal rabbinical seminary in Berlin. There until 2010 she trained cantors for Jewish congregations.

“Simply Jewish music”

Since then Mimi Sheffer has always been both a singer and a cantor – and a multiplier for a modern culture of Jewish liturgical music. She has given concerts with opera and synagogue music at church conferences, held seminars for lay prayer leaders, sang with the Berlin Symphony Orchestra and the Essen Opera Choir. The music to which Sheffer (she is married to the cantor Isaak Sheffer) has now dedicated her life for many years is based on centuries-old songs of worship, on the modulation of liturgical prayer.

Compositions for worship services have a long tradition in Judaism. About 200 years ago composers such as Louis Lewandowski began to combine this music with the European musical styles of the time. There arose choral works and pieces with instrumental accompaniment. Although organ accompaniment is, for example, associated with Reform Judaism, this music was never confined to a single direction in Judaism. “It’s simply Jewish music”, say Sheffer.

“Ode to David Eisenstadt”

Now Sheffer has released a CD that documents the transformation of this music in modernity. Ode to David Eisenstadt is dedicated to the composer of the Warsaw synagogue who was trapped in the ghetto during the Holocaust and finally murdered in Treblinka. Only seven pieces of his music have been preserved. “Surviving music”, Sheffer calls it.

David Eisenstadt, Mimi Sheffer and The Warsaw Singers: “L'cha Dodi”

Sheffer joins Eisenstadt’s music with the works of artists who escaped into exile and there combined European Jewish music with new elements: for example, Paul Ben-Haim, who emigrated from Augsburg to Tel Aviv and in Israel integrated Mediterranean oriental motifs into his music, or Kurt Weil, whose father was a cantor, and for whom he couched the kiddish (a prayer of blessing) in the style of a Broadway musical.

New Jewish life in Poland and Germany

Beyond Eisenstadt’s music, Sheffer has now discovered Poland as a new focus of her work. There a small renaissance of Jewish life is developing. “It’s often a matter of the commitment of individuals”, she says. There are people that are re-discovering their Jewish roots. Some have converted to Judaism or are discovering their Jewish backgrounds that were kept secret from them as children. In this way small new cells of Jewish life have arisen, for which Sheffer has been training lay prayer leaders since 2010.

Sheffer hopes for a re-birth of the former rich Jewish life in Germany. That after the Shoah the small community of survivors could not tie into the large pluralistic tradition that produced, for example, the first women rabbis is, she says, understandable. “The developments in Germany in recent years are like a miracle”, remarks Sheffer with a view to Jewish immigration from the former Soviet Union and the founding of new congregations, including more liberal ones. “I hope this will bring about a greater openness to new ideas, especially about the role of women in worship.” Among those who attend Sheffer’s courses are women from Israel that want to play a more active role in Orthodox congregations. Mimi Sheffer remains committed to supporting this.