One Book, One Jewish Community Selection Journeys to 19th Century Germany

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Author Lauren Belfer chats with Lynn Rosen, owner of Open Book Bookstore in Elkins Park. | Photos by Marissa Stern

Lauren Belfer quit piano lessons as soon as she could. Classical music played no role in her adult life. She knew next to nothing about Johann Sebastian Bach.

So when an announcement for an adult education class about the esteemed composer arrived at her doorstep 10 years ago, she had no reason to take any interest.

And yet, she had an odd feeling she should sign up for the course, that somehow it would mean a lot to her, she recalled.

“And, in fact, it did, because that’s where I met my husband,” said the author of the acclaimed And After the Fire, this year’s pick for One Book, One Jewish Community (OBOJC), which kicked off Dec. 3 at Adath Israel with a talk from Belfer.

At the time she took the class, articles were appearing about restitutions of artworks that were lost or stolen during World War II.

In the course, she learned about Bach’s sacred music and that many of the librettos — the words accompanying the music — carried messages of prejudice against groups like Catholics, Muslims and Jews.

“A lot of my classmates were able to just say, ‘That was Bach’s era, what do you expect? What’s the difference?’ But I wasn’t able to just toss it off that way,” she said, connecting the root of that feeling to family members lost during the Holocaust.

As she walked to the subway after class one day, she thought about Bach and the articles about the artworks and wondered, “What if I found a work of art that had been lost or stolen in the war?”

Except what if the work of art she found wasn’t a painting but was a masterpiece of music? And what if it had an anti-Semitic libretto like the works she learned about in class?

Guests could buy copies of And After the Fire for Belfer to sign.

These questions led to And After the Fire, which spans two centuries of history, in 1800s Germany through 2010 in New York City — and at the center is a fictional Bach cantata whose libretto is laced with anti-Semitic messages similar to the real ones Belfer learned about.

The stunning novel follows Susanna Kessler, who discovers a musical manuscript that her uncle accidentally stole at the end of the war, and her journey to trace its origins and perhaps return it to its rightful owner.

Kessler’s life eventually collides with the real story of Sara Itzig Levy, a Jewish woman in Berlin in the late 18th and 19th centuries, who became renowned for her music salons that brought together Jews and non-Jews and was once a student of Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach.

“Even in the 1790s, it was said there was a cult of Bach at the home of the Itzig family. Now, these were Jews in Berlin, and I just thought that was incredibly fascinating,” said Belfer, a Buffalo native who studied at Swarthmore College and got her MFA from Columbia University.

Belfer discovered that Levy was the great-aunt of sibling composers Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn, who play a large role in the novel. Felix even inspired the title, as the phrase appeared in many parts of his life, including in an oratorio he wrote called Elijah and on his death portrait.  

She also noted the term “holocaust” also meant “consumed by fire.” The contemporary characters in the book are coming to terms with the world post-Holocaust — or after the fire.

Research for the book took Belfer and her husband — a Bach scholar — to Germany four times, an endeavor she was hesitant about at first.

“Once I got to Berlin, I felt so comfortable,” she said. “I was amazed that here was a place where I felt the people had really made an attempt to confront what happened in the war and to somehow come to terms with it. … It became a very powerful experience.”

(The German cake and pastries didn’t hurt either.)

She pored over diaries and letters the real-life figures kept and sent — notably Fanny and Felix’s letters to one another — and tried to immerse herself in the past to inform the story.

As for what Susanna Kessler did with the manuscript, it was something Belfer struggled with as she attempted to answer what she herself would do in that situation. (She wrote three different endings for the book.)

But she hopes the story inspires readers to continue their own research.

“I also hope people will start thinking about these issues of not just anti-Semitism but other problematic messages in works of art,” she added.

While she still listens to most of Bach’s music, she hopes others take the time to make their own decisions, as many have about other controversial composers, like Richard Wagner.

“There is a difficult message there, and I think you have to recognize it. You can still listen to the music, but, to me, you have to recognize the problem areas,” she said.

Alyse Unterberger grappled with that issue after reading the book.

“To think about this cantata had words that were vile and contrary to the way we like to think of things, that was very shocking,” said Unterberger, director of special initiatives of Jewish Learning Venture, of which OBOJC is a project. “I always really liked Bach and I never really thought of it as being something I’d have to give intellectual thought to. But now I do.”

The committee read nearly 40 books before choosing And After the Fire, which was named the 2016 National Jewish Book Award winner.

She plans to hold subsequent events in conjunction with the book such as a program about vetting music manuscripts and perhaps even a music salon á la Sara Itzig Levy.

Belfer, who laughed that the research was easy in comparison to actually writing the book, is happy to see the story resonate with so many people.

“It’s so exciting for me to think that so many people would come to the story and that it could speak to so many people,” she said, “that wherever we live, as Jews, we have a shared history and we have shared concerns.”

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