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More than music – Jewish choirs build bridges

By Stacey Dresner

“Music can be a direct link to memory, and in the case of Jewish music it feels like it is music of the soul.

“The Hebrew and Yiddish, the words of the liturgy, just feel right.  When you connect sound and heart, you make music in a whole different way,” says Irene Goldman-Price, a member of the B’Shalom Chorale of the Berkshires.

B’Shalom, along with Mak’hela, the Jewish Chorus of Western Massachusetts, which is based in Northampton, and Shir Joy, a chorale with members from around Central Massachusetts, each share the rich and diverse sounds of Jewish chorale music with their audiences while celebrating Jewish culture. All three are devoted to building bridges between its members, Jewish congregations and denominations, as well as the general community.

Their predecessor, the Zamir Chorale of Boston, has been around since 1969, performing around the U.S., Israel and Europe, and making 21 recordings of its spectacular Jewish music.

The birth of the three Jewish community choirs in Central and Western Mass. can be attributed to the success of Zamir, says Kayla Werlin, former musical director of Mak’hela.

“There has been such a strong tradition started by Zamir in Boston. We are all sort of Zamir babies,” Werlin said.

 

Cantor’s love of Jewish music inspires B’Shalom Chorale

Cantor Emily Sleeper Mekler has always loved to sing.

Cantor-Emily-Sleeper-Mekler

Cantor Emily Sleeper Mekler

She was a member of the junior choir at Temple Beth El in Springfield and recalls one time when the young singers were invited into the service.

“We sat on the right side near the bimah and I remember watching Cantor Morton Shames up there during the Torah service in his black robe and just singing “Etz Chaim Hi” in front of the ark. I remember as a child of nine or 10 being so moved that the tears were streaming down my face. I was looking around and wondering why nobody else was crying because this was so beautiful.”

Mekler brings that love of Jewish music to her role of coordinator of the B’Shalom Chorale of the Berkshires, which she founded in 2012.

“The B’Shalom Chorale aims to preserve the vast treasures of Jewish music through public performances,” she says. “The Chorale performs classical and contemporary music in the Jewish tradition from a variety of styles, genres, time periods and languages for the enjoyment of its members and audiences and to foster understanding and respect for the music and values within Jewish and interfaith communities.”

When it first began, there were 15 members of B’Shalom. This year there were 22 members. Mekler hopes that by next year there are at least 30 singers. “The Chorale is open to all men and women with a nice singing voice, Jewish or not Jewish.”

Members come from around the Berkshire area, from towns including Becket, Monterey, Pittsfield, Lenox and Stockbridge. The members range in age from around the mid-50s to 85-year-old Arlene Adler of Becket, a former opera singer and the cantorial soloist during the High Holidays at Temple Anshe Amunim in Pittsfield.

But they are not all professionals, Mekler added.

“One person had never sung until she was in her mid-50s. Another fellow had never sung Jewish music and came to me with tears in his eyes after the first concert and said, ‘This was an incredible experience for me,’” Mekler said.

Irene Goldman-Price of Great Barrington has sung with B’Shalom for the past two summers. After retiring she began taking voice lessons and a year later began singing with a community choir.

“Much as I enjoy it, the pieces are for Christmas in the fall season, and usually a major requiem, mass, or some other grand traditional choral piece in the spring.  While the music is gorgeous and a challenge to sing, it’s also a bit troublesome to sing words that praise Jesus and celebrate a tradition that is not part of my own belief,” Goldman-Price said.

Now as a member of B’Shalom, “I am thrilled to be able to sing this music of the heart…and it means so much to me to sing the haunting music of my youth, of my heritage.”

This year, after two seasons of rehearsals and concerts, and with partial funding from the Harold Grinspoon Foundation and some private contributions, the Chorale applied for and was granted non-profit status, which allows the chorale to apply for grants and to give donors a tax break.

2015 B'Shalom PR pic edited

B’Shalom Chorale

“I am very proud and excited that the B’Shalom Chorale can have an added incentive for donors,” Cantor Mekler said. “We can now give donors a form of a ‘gift’ for giving the Chorale a gift. I hope this will encourage people to be even more generous and make it possible for the Chorale to continue making beautiful music together into the future!”

Mekler has sung in choirs her whole life, from the 6th grade chorus at Blueberry Hill School in Springfield to select choruses at Longmeadow High School.

The summer after high school, she was a student at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, now called the Tanglewood Music Institute. After auditioning for the Tanglewood Festival Choir, she became its youngest member at that time and sang in the chorus for three years. At that time she also took voice lessons at the Boston Conservatory of Music while attending college at Emerson College in Boston majoring in elementary education.

“When I was younger I couldn’t even have dreamt of being a cantor because only men were cantors,” she says.

But soon she became cantorial soloist at Temple Beth Shalom in Needham, singing at Friday night services, conducting the junior choir on Saturday mornings, and singing during High Holiday services and at bar mitzvahs for three years.

“It was a fabulous start to my career,” she says. “It made me realize this is something that is incredible.”

After moving back to her native Springfield area, her mother called to tell her that Sinai Temple was looking for a cantor. She auditioned and was accepted as the cantorial soloist. She studied at the Hebew Union College – Jewish Institute for Religion from which she received her certification and became the first female cantor at the Springfield area synagogue.

“A few years I realized that with all of the choruses that were singing glorious music in the Berkshires – including the Tanglewood Chorus and the Berkshire Lyric Choruses — that there should be one that performs and preserves the music of our Jewish heritage and tradition, and provides the opportunity for singers, Jewish and non-Jewish, to enjoy singing this gorgeous music that, unfortunately, nowadays is pretty much relegated to the concert stage because we don’t hear it as much in synagogue worship.”

She started to hold meetings in the Berkshires to see if people were interested in being a part of such a Jewish chorale. They were and a steering committee was formed. “It has taken off amazingly,” she said.

Mekler works as coordinator of the chorale while Jack Brown, artistic director of the Berkshire Lyric Chorus, is the conductor and Joe Rose, a well-known jazz pianist, serves as accompanist.

“It’s an amazing ride having them at the forefront,” Mekler said.

B’Shalom is not a year-round chorus. It runs from right after Memorial Day and goes to the middle of August. There are 11 rehearsals and then the group performs a concert, last year at Hevreh of the Berkshires in Greater Barrington, where weekly rehearsals are also held.

The timing is influenced not only by the fact that most other choirs in the region are finished for the season when B’Shalom is underway, but also due to the influx of people from New York and other areas to the Berkshires during the summer months. “A lot of Jewish people come who are interested in either singing or being in the audience,” Mekler said.

Mekler was on the original board of Mak’hela over 10 years ago for a short time. She never sang with the group, but she credits Mak’hela with helping her to meet her husband. When attending the North American Jewish Music Festival a few years ago in the Catskills, she met a Mak’hela singer named Marc Cohen.

“I ended up at the last minute turning the pages for the accompanist and we met up later,” she laughed.

Cohen, now her husband, became the president of Mak’hela at one point, and that experience, as well as his participating in a variety of choirs, has helped Mekler in the founding of B’Shalom Chorale.

Mekler said B’Shalom sings a variety of music. She loves the music of Salamone Rossi, the Italian Jewish composer. “I love that kind of Baroque music, but I also love the music of the 19th- and 20th-century composers, like Louis Lewandowsky and some more contemporary pieces because there are some incredible contemporary composers out there who are doing some really beautiful choral music, mentioning Eliot Levine, Natasha Hirschhorn and Meir Finklestein. The group sings in Hebrew, Yiddish, English, and even Ladino.

“We try to do a mixture,” she said.

Goldman-Price says she loves being a part of B’Shalom because of “the music…and the wisdom, enthusiasm, and great heart of Cantor Emily.  And the expertise of our conductor, Jack Brown, and accompanist, Joe Rose—I always learn things about singing and music from them.  And the fellowship of the other singers.  I look forward to our rehearsals eagerly.”

Whatever they are singing, Mekler said, a sense of “neshama” or soul comes through.

“I feel like there is a kindred spirit that I feel from way back,” she said. “I know it is from Temple Beth El — Cantor Shames always sang these incredibly gorgeous pieces…and I think it just has been a part of my soul since hearing those harmonies and those minor keys, and the combination of the words and the prayers and this gorgeous music. It just touches my soul so deeply.”

B’Shalom Chorale is open to all men and women, Jewish or not Jewish. One must have a pleasant singing voice, the ability to stay on pitch and love to sing 4-part music. Choral experience is preferred, but not necessary. The ability to read music is helpful, though not mandatory. Knowledge of various languages is not required as transliteration is provided. For more information and to express interest, singers should either email Cantor Emily Sleeper Mekler at bshalomchorale@gmail.com or call 413-531-8706.

 

Worcester Jewish Choir celebrates the ‘Shir Joy’ of singing

shir joy 2After singing in the High Holiday choir of Westborough-based Congregation B’nai Shalom for several years, Dr. Karen Rothman decided in 2011 to expand the choir’s horizons.

“We have a wonderful High Holiday choir that sings every year and we have rehearsals for a couple of months beforehand. It is a great bonding experience for our congregation and then it ends,” Rothman explained. “Basically for most people, it is the only experience singing that they had, so somebody actually said to me, ‘Why can’t we do this all year round?’”

As a member of the music committee at Congregation B’nai Shalom, Rothman told the person that it was a matter of money.

“I said, ‘we don’t have the money to pay someone all the time to do this. We left it at that. A week or two later I was thinking about it…Several temples in the area have High Holiday choirs… and I thought, ‘If we tried to pool resources with the community we would potentially get a larger core of people who would be interested in a longer commitment.”

Making music wasn’t her only goal.

Rothman said she thought “it would do a lot to build bridges between different congregations in the area.”

Another goal was to help make the members of interfaith families more comfortable.

“In our congregation there are a lot of interfaith marriages,” Rothman said. “People who enter interfaith marriages have different roles in that relationship, but presumably have some interest in learning more about Judaism, so for people who sing and might not know much about Judaism, music may be an entree into feeling much more comfortable with Hebrew, perhaps, and feeling comfortable in something besides regular services.”

So, Rothman began contacting people throughout the Central Massachusetts Jewish community about starting a community-wide Jewish chorale.

“For this to work I had to have buy-in from at least most of the existing Jewish organizations and specifically the people who are most involved in music in congregations, which is sometimes the cantor, sometimes a cantorial soloist, and sometimes a lay leader depending on the size of the congregation,” she said. “I called every one of them in Worcester County and then said I had this idea, what do you think of it?”

As it turned out, everyone loved the idea.

She began ‘picking the brains” of people from local cantors and music directors to the founder of Zamir, the renowned Jewish chorale in Boston.

The core group of people involved in forming Shir Joy besides Rothman were Wendy Damoulakis, a professional musician who teaches music and has been involved in musical life at CBS for decades, and Jonathan Rapaport, a member of Beth Tikvah in Westborough, who was Shir Joy’s first director.

Rothman said they were interested in getting people who were, as well as those who were not, affiliated with a synagogue.

“We were interested in it being “trans-denominational” — not limited to Reform Jews or even to just Jews,” she said.

Rothman came up with the name.

“Since ‘shir’ in Hebrew means song and it is also a homonym for “sheer” it seemed an ideal name for a Jewish community chorus that focused on having fun while singing together!”

They planned to begin in the fall of 2011 and scheduled an introductory meeting.

“We had no idea who was going to come. We bought music and put it in folders and everything was stamped and ready but we didn’t actually know if anyone was going to show up for the party. It was a little tense,” Rothman laughed.

But she needn’t have worried. At that first meeting, 22 people showed up. “We just went on from there,” she said.

Right at the beginning it was decided that the only way for the group to be a success was to get some funding. They applied for a grant from the Jewish Federation of Central Massachusetts and received $5,000.

“The idea of it was to hopefully take decreasing amounts from the Federation, recognizing that there many worthy organizations needing funding in the community, and that we would hopefully become financially independent over the course of a few years,” Rothman said. “We are moving toward that goal.”

They have received funding through a grant from the Westborough Cultural Council, and as an independent non-profit, people can make tax-deductible donations.

They also do several concerts a year, some free and others that they charge admission for. A sponsor book for businesses and individuals also raises money.

“But it is always a challenge,” Rothman said.

The 28 current members of Shir Joy have a wide variety of musical experience. Some of the people have been singing in choruses for decades and for some this is their first time singing with a group – or singing at all for that matter.

Lois Wollin of Westborough and her husband, Michael, joined Shir Joy last year.

“This is my second ‘semester’ singing with the group,” Wollin said. “I wanted to join Shir Joy because I love to sing and though I had never sung in a choir, I thought this would be an enjoyable challenge for me. In the past I played the violin so I had a bit of a musical background though not with ‘voice.’ My husband and I decided to try this together and it is something special that we share.  We also have enjoyed working on the pieces together and practicing together.”

Shir Joy sings a variety of Jewish music in all different languages — English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino. Last year they sang a piece in Czech.

Wendy Damoulakis is the current director, a co-founder, and what she calls “second in command.” She is a choral director, singer, music educator and piano teacher, who taught elementary music in Grafton, Littleton and Medway for many years.

Rothman praised Damoulakis’ skill at conducting the group.

“The ability to direct especially with such a diverse group of singers is really a challenge,” Rothman said. “It is really exciting to watch how it is that Wendy can teach different levels at one time.”

“Our director, Wendy, is wonderful and I find that I learn something new each week.  She has picked such interesting and beautiful music for us to sing,” said Lois Wollin.

Karen Goldenberg of Worcester has been a member of Shir Joy since its inception. She says she joined because she wanted to be a part of a Jewish group.

“I’ve always sung.   Music has always been part of my life – singing with my father, singing in glee clubs, singing at camp, singing with synagogue choirs, singing in the shower,” she said. “Being a member of Shir Joy means that once a week I sing with others as opposed to the six days a week I practice on my own. When we come together, we study music, we sing music, we learn about the music. Our director shares information about the music and composer. We stretch our bodies. We stretch our voices. We are encouraged to grow musically in any way possible.”

“I love to sing any kind of music but I am learning that much of the Jewish music that we have been singing has a rich and beautiful background, be it from the past or more contemporary,” Wollin added. “I have found the group to be so welcoming and have met wonderful people who are also helpful and encouraging — especially as I haven’t sung before in a group. The connections with others is a lovely part of this experience.”

To join Shir Joy, you must be able to sing on pitch, but all are welcome to join regardless of musical background. No audition is required. All members must have a vocal placement test, which takes less than two minutes, in order for the music director to ascertain which section of the choir chorus is most appropriate based on vocal range and sound. For more information, email ShirJoyMA@gmail.com.

 

Mak’hela builds ‘sacred bridges’ using music

makhela 2Mak’hela means “chorus” in Hebrew. In Western Mass., it also means beautiful Jewish choral music.

Mak’hela: The Jewish Chorus of Western Massachusetts was formed in 2003 by co-founders Allen Davis and Susan Rosenberg.

The son of a cantor, Davis, who plays both bass and piano, says he has had a lifelong interest and involvement with Jewish music. He has accompanied Yiddish and cantorial singers since he was a mere 13-year-old. And it was Rosenberg’s husband Arny who came up with the name “Mak’hela.”

Both were members of the Jewish Community of Amherst when the idea for Mak’hela came to them.

“At the JCA we saw an opportunity to use music as a way to connect people of all ages in the celebration of Jewish music as a window into Jewish history, languages, and values,” said Davis. “Toward that end we created two 2-day Jewish music festivals in the mid-’90s. These were festivals that had as performers primarily members of the community – we put together a string orchestra, billed as ‘the first ever inter-generational congregational all-string orchestra playing all Jewish music.’ There were 20 members, ages 8 through 80. We taught members of the congregation and their children songs in Yiddish and Hebrew, had a children’s chorus, and formed a chorus – mixed voices with about 12 singers, singing Jewish music in Yiddish, Hebrew, Ladino, and English. This became the nucleus to what was to become Mak’hela.”

According to its mission statement, Mak’hela’s “mandate is to break down the artificial barriers among the Jewish and secular communities, and differences within Jewish communities. The chorus plays an educational role in promoting Jewish music of all types and eras, as well as Jewish values, building sacred bridges to understanding and respect, using the most universal of languages: music.”

“Our idea was that in an age of shrinking  ‘belief’ and traditional practice, how to connect and attract people to Judaism, culturally and communally, and what better than music to provide the setting and content?” explained Davis, the son of a cantor, and Davis explained. “Music speaks at another level, and provides pathways not otherwise available. A chorus [like Mak’hela] is in many ways a Jewish community — a model for a larger community, a Jewish community without the divisions of sect, denomination, movement, language – all breathing together, all voices singing the same song.”

Back in 2003, music teacher Kayla Werlin, another JCA member, had been directing JCA’s small choir.

“There was a small and loyal number of singers, but there was never really the critical mass to do some of the really fun and really interesting Jewish chorale repertoire. Allen and Susan wondered what might happen if the circle was expanded.”

After the success of the Amherst-based Jewish music festivals, Davis and Rosenberg reached out to the surrounding towns.

“The concert was a local phenomenon,” Davis said. “We  were so encouraged that we set out to ‘regionalize the local’ —  and created over the course of an intense year of organizing the basis for a regional Jewish chorus. We announced our first open rehearsal, and on a cold evening in January 2003, 50 people showed up at the JCA, from all over – from Springfield to Brattleboro!”

First based at JCA, Mak’hela moved its base to Northampton to accommodate the choir’s members from the Greater Springfield area. Today, the 40-member chorus rehearses at the Lander-Grinspoon Academy.

Werlin, who has been on the music faculty of the Longmeadow Public School since 1995 and has served as president of the Massachusetts chapter of the American Choral Directors’ Association, chose the choir’s music, in collaboration with the board. Her strong suit, she says was not particularly in Jewish chorale repertoire, but in “helping people to sing together.”

And sing they did, all around the Pioneer Valley and beyond.

“We made it our mission to do performances for a lot of different reasons,” Werlin said. “We performed at synagogue services. We did programs that were celebratory, like the 100th anniversary of Sons of Zion in Holyoke. We did programs that were benefits for important Jewish causes like JCA’s Project Rehovot, supporting a community of Ethiopian Jews in Israel. We also really like to go out to the wider community joining with other choirs that were not Jewish.”

One of their most memorable performances was at Zimiyra: The World Assembly of Choirs in Jerusalem in 2011.

“There were many choirs from Israel and many choirs from other countries as well. I think, there was only one other choir from the U.S. and that was a gospel choir from Chicago. It was very exciting.”

Two years ago, Werlin left Mak’hela when she took over as the chair of the music department at Longmeadow High School. Dr. Elaine “Lainee” Broad Ginsberg of Keene, N.H. became music director.

“Kayla and I have known each other for years and I think it was a smooth transition,” Dr. Ginsberg said. “We have very different directing styles, but we both have shared a love of the Jewish choral repertoire with the group.”

Broad teaches music theory, composition, and music history at Keene State College in New Hampshire. She also teaches a course she designed called “History of Jewish Music” and conducts the chorus at Hampshire College in Amherst.

“I’ve been singing in and directing choirs for a long time.  I got my start as both under the leadership of Peter Thomsen when I went to Longmeadow High School in the 1970s. Also, I grew up in a household of choral singers.  My mom, Laura Broad of Longmeadow sings in Mak’hela now which is fun!” Dr. Ginsberg said, adding, “It is the perfect combination for me!  Choral music and Jewish music!”

Dr. Ginsberg is a published composer of choral music. She has been the recipient of numerous awards for her compositions, including the Guild of Synagogue Musicians and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. She has also been commissioned to write many pieces for synagogue and community choirs.

“The group has been singing my arrangement of Nurit Hirsh’s famous ‘Oseh Shalom’ melody since its inception, and we continue to sing it at most concerts under my direction now,” Ginsberg said. “Last year we performed a movement of Ernest Bloch’s Sacred Service, and the year before we performed the Leonard Bernstein ‘Chichester Psalms’ — these were two of my favorites!  I also love to present Yiddish music. The group has been singing a fabulous rendition of ‘Ale Brider’ for years.  I arranged ‘Chiri Bim’ and “Shnirele Perele” for the chorus as well.”

Barbara Pistrang of Amherst began singing with Mak’hela in 2003 when the chorus was first founded.

“I got involved because a friend went to the first gathering of the group and called me and said, ‘You would really like this.’”

She went to the second rehearsal and was hooked.

“The singers in the group really vary a lot in what kind of musical background they have had and how much singing they have done, and whether they have received training or can read music. So there is a wide range,” Pistrang said. “For me, and a lot of other members in my age group, we had sung when we were in high school and hadn’t had many opportunities to sing again. So this was a way to come back to music.”

Ginsberg praised Mak’hela’s singers for the dedication.

“I make practice recordings for them so they can practice their parts all week long between rehearsals, and they do!” she said. “There is a mixture of folks of all levels of musicianship — some have professional training, and others are amateur music readers — but they all love to sing, and they love Jewish music!”

But Davis stresses that over the past 12 years, Mak’hela has been about more than beautiful music.

“We tried to balance musical excellence with inclusiveness and the ‘community’ mandate,” Davis said. “For many people, it is the closest they get to organized religion, the only ‘Jewish’ thing people do. That is very heart-warming to me. I consider the chorus to have been an unqualified success – may it continue to prosper!”

Mak’hela welcomes new members each fall. Membership involves a commitment for a year (September until mid-June). Membership dues are $180 per year with a sliding scale available to those who request it. Dues may be paid in two installments (fall and spring). For more information, call (413) 203-1720, email info@makhela.org or visit www.makhela.org.

 

UPCOMING EVENTS

B’Shalom Chorale
First 2016 Rehearsal
Wednesday evening, June 1, 2016

Closing Concert
Wednesday evening, Aug.10, 2016

 

Shir Joy
Winter Concert
Sunday, Jan. 10, 2016, 7 p.m.
Congregation B’nai Shalom,Westborough

Yom HaShoah Community-wide commemoration
Wednesday, May 4, 2016, 7 p.m.,
Congregation B’nai Shalom, Westborough

Spring Concert
Sunday, June 5, 2016, 7 p.m.
Congregation B’nai Shalom, Westborough

 

Mak’hela
Chanukah Concert
Sunday, Dec. 13.
Jewish Nursing Home, Longmeadow

Shabbat Shirah
Friday, Jan. 22, 2016
Congregation B’nai Israel, Northampton

Mak’hela’s Bar Mitzvah and Purim
Sunday, March 20, 2016
Sons of Zion, Holyoke

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