Cantorial tour treats Poles to poignant 100 Voices

A melodious, bittersweet record of a once-in-a-lifetime tour, “100 Voices: A Journey Home,” offers poignant evidence that sometimes you can go home again. Just be sure to take a handkerchief.

Matthew Asner (Ed’s son) and Danny Gold’s exemplary documentary nimbly transports us across Poland for a series of concerts by more than 70 cantors from around the world in various settings, backed by local choirs and orchestras.

The 2009 tour was organized by Cantor Nate Lam of Los Angeles as both a pilgrimage to the places where the cantorial tradition originated and a way to expand and deepen the relationship between Poles and American Jews.

One wishes the filmmakers had emphasized the former a little less and the latter a little more, and steered away from yet another iteration of the Holocaust documentary. That said, “100 Voices: A Journey Home” delivers on multiple levels with an abundance of gorgeous singing and moving commemorations.

Cantors join the National Poland Opera Chorus and Orchestra in 2009 photo/adrienne adar

“100 Voices: A Journey Home” screens Sept. 21 at 500 theaters around the country, including many in the Bay Area. The one-time event also features a closed-circuit performance by the cantors of Broadway musical numbers by Jewish composers.

It’s no secret that cantors have healthy egos — they are performers, after all, as well as spiritual emissaries — but the gravitas of the occasion, deepened by the Holocaust’s impact on several of their families, has a humbling effect.

Indeed, a segment that’s arguably the highlight of the film honors well-known Yiddish and American cantors such as Yossele Rosenblatt and Moishe Oysher. It’s great fun hearing the contemporary cantors describe how they discovered their calling, and sharing their admiration for the immortals who preceded them.

A similar commitment to following in blessed footsteps informs the recollections of South Africa–raised cantors Ivor and Joel Lichterman as they sit in the Nozyck Synagogue in Warsaw, where their father chanted and presided from the bimah before the war. History rarely comes alive in such a heart-warming fashion.

The filmmakers skip the behind-the-scenes minutiae of logistics and meetings and rehearsals, allotting a few minutes at the beginning to set the scene and present the Poles as Nazi victims who’ve gradually come to the sad realization that a large chunk of their culture was destroyed along with the Jews. I’m not fully persuaded, I confess, even after watching the cantors perform for 15,000 enthusiastic non-Jews at the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow near the end of the film.

“100 Voices: A Journey Home” artfully interweaves the memories and day trips of the Lichtermans, various other cantors and composer Charles Fox — who crafted an aria from the prayer for forgiveness that Polish-born Pope John Paul II famously placed at the Western Wall in 2000 — with their respective turns in the concert spotlight. Each of these segments is eloquent, moving and impeccably structured, yet it gradually dawns that the filmmakers are focusing almost exclusively on those who lost Polish relatives in the Holocaust.

They spend the days looking for traces of their erased families in a forgotten corner of town, or a killing field, or a concentration camp, or a cemetery. It’s terrifically powerful stuff, but a cantorial tour of Poland, not a roots trip, is what’s unique about this endeavor. In taking the time to traverse familiar terrain, “100 Voices: A Journey Home” sacrifices not just a little specialness, but the opportunity to treat us to even more brilliant vocal performances.

Perhaps I’m being a tad greedy. Musically, historically and culturally, there is an enormous amount to savor here.

“100 Voices: A Journey Home” screens Sept. 21 at theaters around the Bay Area. For locations, tickets and more information, visit www.fathomevents.com.