When I was 7 or 8 years old, I didn’t yet know the word “charisma” but I had experienced it. My first encounter with that kind of magnetism, one who had that glowing force-field that suggested limitless possibility, came when I first watched a Young People’s Concert on television. Leonard Bernstein seemed to stride — not onto a podium in a concert hall — no, into our Long Island living room, speaking to me about the wonders of music in tones alternately soothing and exhilarating.
New Jersey is known for many things: the Shore, succulent tomatoes, rough politics. But who knew the Garden State is also “Jewish choir heaven”?
In fact, over the next several months, from Mercer to Morris counties, audiences will have myriad opportunities to hear the sweet — and eclectic — sounds of Jewish choral music.
There will be concerts at synagogues, senior centers, and colleges, at music festivals and commemorations celebratory and solemn. The programs may include songs sung in English, Yiddish, Hebrew, Ladino, and even Russian. Some performances will be a cappella; others will feature instrumental accompaniment. Offerings will include contemporary Israeli songs, liturgical music, traditional Jewish melodies, songs written in Renaissance Italy, Broadway hits by Jewish composers, new original compositions, pop songs with Jewish themes — even pieces that were popular with Jews in colonial America. And if you’ve never heard “God Bless America” sung in Yiddish, your opportunity will soon be at hand.
It was Dr. Elayne Robinson Grossman, conductor and music director of the Mercer County-based ensemble Sharim v’Sharot: People of Song, who described New Jersey as “Jewish choir heaven,” prompted by the sheer number of Jewish choral groups in the state and the wide ranges of styles, ages of participants, and variety of music performed.
“It’s so wonderful to sing with other people and such a positive sign for Jewish culture and community,” she said.
Grossman established Sharim v’Sharot in 2000 after serving as conductor of New York City’s Nashir! The Rottenberg Chorale for 22 years. She chose the name Sharim v’Sharot from the line in Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) that extols “singers, both men and women.”
The Jewish people have “such a rich tradition” of music, said Grossman. “I like that our tradition of song goes back so many years.”
The nonprofit 30-member chorus draws members from the local area and from as far away as Philadelphia. “We sing music from different eras, locations, and languages from throughout the centuries,” said Grossman. “We usually sing a cappella, but in our upcoming concert honoring Leonard Bernstein’s centennial, we’re going to feature organ and harp accompanying our choir as well as cantorial soloists.”
The Sharim v’Sharot Foundation sponsors the Mercer County Jewish Choral Festival, which will be held in November.
Kol Dodi, which bills itself as a “Community in Harmony,” is based in West Orange and draws participants from throughout Essex and Morris counties and beyond, representing a variety of denominations and some who are unaffiliated, said its administrator, Marcia Solkoff Eskin.
The 50-voice community chorale was begun in 1991 by Cantor Erica Lippitz of Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange and Cantor Joel Caplan of Congregation Agudath Israel in Caldwell as its founding codirectors. Lippitz is now conductor and codirects with Valeriya Tuz. Kol Dodi is supported by the Jewish Community Foundation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
No audition is required but participants must demonstrate they can maintain pitch with other singers, said Eskin.
Kol Dodi is often accompanied by pianist Dave Schlossberg and at times by one of its members, clarinetist Jordan Aaronson, said Eskin.
“I love music and it does help me connect to my Judaism,” Eskin said. “One reason is that Cantor Lippitz has enhanced our knowledge of Jewish music to an extraordinary point. Valeriya, who is a Russian immigrant, has brought us all kinds of riches. We are now learning a psalm, which she has adapted, to be sung part in English, part in Hebrew, and part in Russian.”
Schlossberg does double duty as accompanist, also playing for Makhelat Hamercaz Jewish Choir of Central NJ, most of whose 45 singers come from throughout Middlesex County — about half from Highland Park — and northern Monmouth County. They represent about 15 different synagogues.
“We do all kinds of Jewish music, from Italy in the 1500s, to a brand-new Israeli piece, to American-Jewish music, Broadway Jewish music, to classic Jewish music,” said Hazzan Sheldon Levin of Neve Shalom in Metuchen, who codirects the choir with Cantor Anna West Ott of Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick.
Makhelat Hamercaz, which has performed jointly with Kol Dodi, is gearing all its material this year to celebrate Israel’s 70th anniversary. Its themes other years have included the psalms and Jewish music from around the world, said Levin.
Through grants received from private foundations, the Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholders and Office of Culture & Heritage, and the NJ State Council on the Arts, the 14-year-old choir has been able to commission original pieces. It has also premiered some of Schlossberg’s award-winning compositions, said Levin.
One of Makhelat Hamercaz’s members, Dr. Robert Knee, is “a talented composer who has composed several pieces for us that I arranged for choir,” said Levin. One of those pieces, “Ashrei,” was debuted Feb. 18 at Congregation Sons of Israel in Manalapan.
The group has on its schedule a concert in concert with an unlikely partner. On Sunday, April 15, it will perform with the Chinese Choir of Edison. Each choral group will perform its own half of the program, but will join at the end to sing “God Bless America” in English. Makhelat Mercaz will follow with a rendition of the song in Yiddish, and a Chinese version will serve as the finale.
For the 13 Rutgers University (RU) students who belong to Kol Halayla, the university’s a cappella Jewish choir, singing together is “super fun,” said its president, Max DuBoff. The group’s name is a clever wordplay that translates to “Voice of the Night,” or, homophonically, “Voice of the Knight,” as in RU’s sports teams, the Scarlet Knights.
DuBoff, a junior who sang with HaZamir, the international network of teen choirs, said Jewish communal singing is “a cool thing, and I hope to keep doing it when I get out of college. It’s always a joy and a lot of fun, and it’s been a highlight of my college experience.”
Begun 23 years ago and funded by the university, Kol Halayla “is one of the oldest collegiate Jewish a cappella groups in the country,” said DuBoff. It performs a diverse repertoire, a mix of traditional Israeli and Jewish numbers and contemporary Israeli music in Hebrew and English. The group gives performances throughout the East Coast and at a general concert each semester at Rutgers.
“We are a microcosm of the Jewish community,” DuBoff said. “We have some people who are observant and some who are not. We have a lot of diversity, but that’s what gives the group character and enhances its vision of reaching beyond denominations and all lines within Judaism.”