Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Song of Names

Several years ago, which it must have been, since the book was copyrighted in 2002, I read a first novel by the English music critic Norman Lebrecht, called The Song of Names. It had been brought to my attention by my cousin "Doctor Bill" Hoffman (called that to distinguish him from his and my Uncle Bill, as families often behave with nicknames). I knew Doctor Bill was an opera aficionado but we had had few conversations during all the years and now that he's gone, I do regret not making more of an effort to engage him.

All this came back to me because Lebrecht's book was eventually developed into a motion picture, which opened within the last month. It is the story of a Polish Jewish violin virtuoso who is first saved from the Holocaust by being brought when nine years old to London by his father to live with the family of a Jewish impresario. When he returns to Poland and disappears, the host's son sets out to track him down. It got good reviews everywhere but in the local rag, the Washington Post. Most of the critics, however, thought that the movie, while good in total, had some dry spots; the critic for the Los Angeles Times gave it a strongly positive review and Variety noted its quality but thought it might have a limited audience, a way of saying that it might come off as too Jewish.. 

Doctor Bill had suggested the book to me because there is a reference to my granduncle Joe, who was formally known as Chief Rabbi of the British Empire Joseph H. Hertz . That was enough for me to go out and get it, which I did, and read it, which I don't always do.  The book was a lot of fun to read, mainly because Lebrecht, who writes a weekly music column in the London Evening Standard and occasionally appears in other British journals, such as The Spectator  sprinkles the text with appearances of British personalities, from Sir Henry Wood, the conductor who initiated the summertime Proms, George Orwell (Eric Blair), and Sir Neville Cardus, also a music critic and the most highly-regarded cricket writer as well. He also has a new book out on Jewish geniuses between 1847 and 1947. 

The movie,  also entitled The Song of Names, obviously lacks just about all these historical and personality references, which add a great deal to the charm of the book, since Lebrecht imparts his wide knowledge of English cultural and political life, and clearly has a built-in liking for British eccentricity. But there are two references to Chief Rabbi Hertz. The first:

There was only one impediment [to having a combined bar mitzvah for the two boys], raised by the unordained Goldfarb. Was it permissible in Jewish law, he wondered, to delay my confirmation in order to spare another boy's feelings? Father brooked no cavils from so lowly a functionary. He took me round to the Chief Rabbi's house on Hamilton Terrace, where the learned Dr. J.H. Hertz, a world-renowned scholar of notoriously short temper, caressed his well-trimmed beard and pronounced a psak, or precedential ruling, allowing the postponement of a bar mitzvah for the sake of emotional stability in times of war.

The mention of the house in Hamilton Terrace took me back a good many years to when we lived in London for most of a year. It had been broken up into apartments, but my cousin Jo, a daughter of the Chief Rabbi, resided in one of the flats, where we visited her often. The second reference occurs a few pages later:

Father went to see the Chief Rabbi, mainly to meet his red-bearded son-in-law, Rabbi Dr Solomon Schonfeld, who was running in and out of Poland in search of Jewish orphans. Dr Schonfeld took the particulars, made no promises. We met him weeks later at Victoria Station, heading a convoy of bewildered Jewish children. When immigration officials blocked entry, he blazed through the barriers with eyes of blue fire. Catching my father's eye, he shook his head slowly with a look of sorrowing exhaustion.

These incidents do not show up in the movie, nor do most of Lebrecht's Joycean recall of many notable persons, places, and happenings that he featured in the novel. But the film does a good job of telling the story, has wonderful music, especially the violin pieces played by the Taiwanese-Australian Ray Chen, and the exteriors take you back to prewar and wartime London. Tim Roth plays the son who shares his room with the violin prodigy David from Poland, and Clive Owen comes on masterfully later in the picture as the grown-up Dovidl.

My granduncle passed away in 1946, having served as Chief Rabbi since 1913, so I never met him, since I was was one year old then. I did encounter Solomon Schonfeld, called Oliver by his family, much later. I had read about his wartime exploits in enabling Jewish children to escape Nazi Europe, so it was compelling to meet someone who had been engaged in that heroic work.

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