Articles written for JEWISH WEEK by Leonard J. Lehrman

In Defense Of Israeli Conductor

October 29, 2009

In defense of conductor Dan Ettinger ("The Met's Israeli," Oct. 9), attacked by Avrum Hyman ("Miffed About Maestro," Oct. 16): Many Israelis, some of my relatives included, feel that being Israeli citizens is enough of a Jewish statement, and they don't need to display their religiosity any more than that for the sake of any "public image."

That said, the question of whether or not to work in an opera house on the High Holidays can be a very difficult one professionally, as I can attest to personally.

In 1977, as the newly hired assistant chorus master at the Metropolitan Opera, I was asked to work there on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur and, for fear my contract might not be renewed, I complied. Later, when my contract was not renewed anyway, I wondered whether I had done the right thing.

In Heidelberg in 1979, I requested and was granted leave to take off Rosh HaShanah; but management balked when I asked for Yom Kippur as well. Ultimately they granted me Yom Kippur, but then called me in to tell me my contract would not be renewed.

In Basel in 1980, although the music director's assistant was Jewish, I had to spend hours cajoling and finally convincing the director to let me take off for the Jewish holidays. My contract was not renewed there either.

In Bremerhaven 1981-83, I had no problem: The High Holidays were written into my contract beforehand.
At Theater des Westens (TdW) in Berlin 1983-86, they were too. As the first Jew to conduct "Fiddler on the Roof" in that city, I founded the Jüdischer Musiktheaterverein Berlin and produced 36 events there and abroad. But then the TdW management changed: Götz Friedrich of the Deutsche Oper Berlin took over the theater. By law he was required to have a conference with each employee concerning contract extension or termination. Mine was scheduled on ... Yom Kippur. When I pleaded for a different day, I was told I would get one; but never did, and was forced to sue for back pay, which I won, thanks to the union of German stage employees.

I have worked in several synagogues and churches since then. Scheduling conflicts among them, and with other venues, are often fraught with tension, but are best resolved by understanding and flexibility on the part of all concerned.

Leonard J. Lehrman
Music Director/Composer-in-Residence, United Methodist Church Huntington/Cold Spring Harbor, L.I.
High Holidays Organist, Temple Beth Mordecai, Perth Amboy, N.J.