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Geraldine Auerbach reports on the tragic death of two giant figures in Britain's Jewish music scene

Ronald and Miriam Senator, died 30/04/15. Photos © and Brickman Family via© Complete Music and the Brickman family via Times Union

Composer Ronald Senator and his wife, pianist Miriam Brickman, tragically died in a fire in their home in Yonkers, New York on Thursday 30 April. Geraldine Auerbach, the founder of the Jewish Music Institute in London, explains how important they were in the world of Jewish music in Britain.

I am not sure how I first met Miriam and Ronnie Senator – but they were pivotal to the first Bnai Brith Jewish Music Festivals. Miriam was a real catalyst, putting (or pulling) ideas, people and programmes together in most creative ways that always led to something special and to lasting and developing relationships. She would always come up with something innovative and spectacular.

To the very first festival on 24 June 1984 she brought a super chamber concert in the Purcell Room with herself on piano and Stanley and Naomi Drucker, clarinettists from the New York Philharmonic, and her friends Sybil Michelow and Malcolm Williamson who had formed a piano and voice duo. For the second festival in 1986 she brought another chamber concert, which included bassoon and viola players from the Nash Ensemble. The programmes were always exciting, introducing new works of Jewish interest by new composers and as always, there were pieces by Ronnie Senator in the concert.

Miriam also brought me something much more remarkable. It was Ronnie Senators' 'Kaddish for Terezin’, a huge oratorio he had written in memory of his first wife who had been incarcerated in Auschwitz. It involved an orchestra, choir and children’s choir, a cantor and a narrator. Something much bigger than I had ever contemplated. But I thought it was important – and, impressed by her enthusiasm, I was inspired to make it happen – in a special setting. The Director of CCJ, the wonderful Rev Marcus Braybrooke suggested it could be ideal for Canterbury Cathedral – and that he would broach the subject with the Dean, with whom he was having lunch next day. It transpired that the Deanery in Canterbury had housed Jewish refugees and that he had wanted a Holocaust memorial (but not a statue) so this fitted the bill.

That set the most amazing activities in motion. Malcolm Singer stepped up to the podium to provide and conduct the orchestra and choirs and had a friend with a superb children’s choir.  I felt Rabbi Hugo Gryn, who himself had been in Terezin, should be the narrator. Louis Berkman cantor of Belsize Square – the synagogue created by Holocaust survivors or escapees – should be the soloist. This amazing premiere was broadcast live on BBC Radio London with interviews with Hugo and other survivors during the interval.

But that wasn't all. When Dr David Bloch, of Tel Aviv University, who was presenting a concert of Israeli contemporary music at the festival, heard about the Terezin Project and suggested we invite two musicians – pianist Edith Kraus from Israel and bassist Karel Berman from the Prague National Opera – who had last performed together in Terezin. He suggested an amazing film of music in Terezín for us to show and also suggested we invite Josa Karas who had just published a book about it. All of which we did.

And so it was that all day while Jewish choirs and a cantor and Rabbi rehearsed in Hebrew and blew a shofar in the Cathedral, the film was showing over and over in the school hall – and recitals (two of them) took place in the recital hall – which just happened to be the old Synagogue in Canterbury. Then after a reception in the Chapter House with the Archbishop of Canterbury the cathedral was filled with Jews and Christians listening to Ronald Senator’s Holocaust Oratorio. A film was made of the day focusing on Edith and Karel and shown on national television on Remembrance Sunday in November 1986, which also happened to be the commemoration of Kristallnacht.

With this auspicious beginning, Miriam went on to have performances of Ronnie’s Kaddish for Terezin mounted in other special places such as St John the Devine in New York, the Vatican in Rome and in Terezin itself.

It was not only the heavy stuff. For the next Festival in 1988 Miriam brought Klezmer to the UK. She introduced me to Giora Feidman the astonishing clarinettist who wowed London at the Logan Hall then and again in 1990, as well as in later festivals. In the ’88  festival Miriam also put together another innovative chamber concert, this time called Echoes of Jewish Poland at St John's, Smith Square with Sybil singing as well as Simon Fisher on Violin, Antonio Lysy on cello and Rivka Golani on viola, who premiered Ronald Senator’s Dance Suite for viola solo.

It was also in 1988 that Miriam introduced me to Isabelle Ganz who delighted everyone with her group Alhambra in a concert of Sephardi Life Cycle songs at the Almeida Theatre and presented the delightful Sacred and Secular music of the Sephardi Jews at the Purcell Room, Supported by Nitza and Robin Spiro.

It was always exciting to be in the presence of Miriam and Ronnie. Especially Miriam, who was so enthusiastic and brimming over with ideas and suggestions that were helpful to all.

Miriam Brickman and Ronnie Senator brought true riches in Jewish music and musicians to greatly enhance the Bnai Brith Jewish Music Festivals and thus Jewish music in the UK. The last time that Miriam and Ronnie were with us I think was at the Bloch Conference in Cambridge in 2007 where she performed in the concert.

They were always together – flitting between homes in London and New York – often catching a lift on the QE2 where Miriam would entertain on the piano and Ronnie would give lectures that enthralled the passengers. He was 89 and Miriam 81. Their health was failing. Despite this shocking news of the fire at their home, there may be something comforting or poignant that in their last moments they were also as one, and like Elijah were taken together up to heaven in a fiery embrace. Always innovative and spectacular.

 Man of the Moment: JR reader Paul B Cohen writes about receiving the prestigious Moment Magazine short story award

Paul B Cohen, Moment Mag short story award winner It is Erev Rosh Hashana, and within an hour we will have 15 people at dinner. My wife, Deborah, is assured and organised, so there’s no frenzy in our household. Until, that is, just before logging off for the evening I received an email any writer would love.

It had been nine months of gestation for the results of Moment Magazine’s Jewish short story competition to emerge, and I’d been impatient to hear how I’d done. I didn't think my tale, Lecha Dodi, was going to win the competition. Though my great friend Rabbi Lewis Warshauer, who lives in New York, said that my story was “perfect” for Moment, which is a long-established journal of Jewish culture, politics and lifestyle.

Lewis had been right: my story had fitted and I was the first place winner of the 2014 Short Story Contest.

One of the books I cherish is James A Michener’s The Source, with a favourite chapter being 'The Saintly Men of Safed'. Michener brilliantly evokes the Kabbalists in that northern, hilltop city who went out in the fields to greet the Sabbath Queen. One of their number was Alkabetz, who penned the transcendent Lecha Dodi Friday night song. I had always wanted to do something with the notion of worshippers walking into the fields, and began writing my contest entry in the middle of December 2013 with this in mind. The deadline was the last day of the year.

I had been to Safed as a teenager. I remember its ancient streets; I can still picture the duck egg blue of synagogue walls – that colour being one to ward off evil.

As I wrote, I also researched the city online, looking at mikvahs (ritual baths), and came up with a central character, Rabbi Mordechai David, who used one particular mikvah before Shabbat, as some pious men do.

Unbidden, the image of a young woman, running across the male worshippers’ line of vision, inserted itself into my creative consciousness. My story coalesced: it would be about the vision of Miriam Levi, running heedlessly, ecstatically, in the fields. The men would wonder: "is that truly Miriam, and if so, why is she disturbing men at prayer?" Rabbi Davide tries to find out.

I arrived to a snowy New York and headed out with Lewis. New York’s 5th Avenue was ablaze with festive lights, throngs of shoppers, and ice skaters at the Rockefeller Center.

I was invigorated by the prospect of meeting the novelists scheduled for the awards ceremony the following evening. Sadly, Alice Hoffman, author of Practical Magic and The Museum of Extraordinary Things, who had been the contest judge and had written thrilling words of praise for my story, was forced to cancel her appearance. Anita Diamant, of The Red Tent fame, would be appearing alongside novelist and academic Dara Horn.

At a dinner before the ceremony I was pleased to meet Danielle Leshaw, a rabbi and writer who had been placed second in the contest, and Courtney Sender, the third place winner. The conversation was all books and being Jewish.

At the ceremony, held at the Jewish Museum on the Upper East Side I read an extract from Lecha Dodi. The stage was then given over to a conversation between Anita and Dara. Their discourse was engaging and humorous.

I left New York on Saturday night, following a Shabbat morning at Habonim, a welcoming Conservative synagogue on the Upper West Side. During my final New York hours, we enjoyed a bracing stroll in Central Park.

Back in England, my life has resumed, but I continue to write and submit short stories. I hope that in a future issue of Jewish Renaissance, you’ll be able to read about Tales of Freedom, my novel of storytelling and resistance, set in Prague and Poland in World War II, and ending up in the land of Israel.

By Paul B Cohen

Paul’s story Lecha Dodi can be read online at Moment Magazine