Singing across continents and generations

Singing across continents and generations

Ilan Penkower takes a selfie with some of his many HaZamir friends  (All photos courtesy Joseph Kaplan)
Ilan Penkower takes a selfie with some of his many HaZamir friends (All photos courtesy Joseph Kaplan)

My last column was a heavily political, serious one about the Israel-America relationship (“An Unnecessary Error”). I thought it might be somewhat controversial, and in fact the number of thoughtful comments I received was greater than usual. Surprisingly, there were more complimentary ones than I had expected, but plenty in strong disagreement as well. While this one will also, in some ways, be about Israel-America relationships, it’s much lighter, and I hope without any controversy.

The story of this column began in 1960 when — wait, that’s too late. Let’s go back to 1941, when the HaNoar Ha’Ivri movement, dedicated to building a Jewish life in the United States that promoted Zionism and the revival of the Hebrew language, opened a Hebrew-speaking day camp in Far Rockaway, under the direction of Shlomo Shulsinger, called Massad. The name comes from a line in a poem by Chaim Nachman Bialik, Israel’s national poet — “if you had not built the rafters but only the massad [foundation], be content my brothers, your toil is not in vain.” The poem was put to music and became the Labor Zionist anthem under the name Techezakna, and was sung often and enthusiastically at Massad.

Massad soon became a sleepaway camp, relocated to Pennsylvania, and eventually grew to three separate camps. While very successful in the 1950s and ’60s, when it was the pre-eminent American Hebrew-speaking camp (if you wanted salt at dinner and you didn’t ask for melach, your food went unseasoned), it began to decline in the 1970s and closed in 1981.

In the late 1950s, Yonatan Zak, Massad’s music counselor, formed the Massad counselors choir. In the fall of 1960 (where I initially thought I’d start this story), Stanley Sperber, a Massadnik who later went on to music-conducting fame in Israel and now is conductor laureate of the Haifa Symphony Orchestra, transformed that choir into the Massad Choral Group, which met during the year at JTS. Massad encouraged this endeavor as part of its effort to reach out to camp alumni during the winter season.

It didn’t take too long for a chamber choir of 16 voices to develop into an ensemble of over 90. Soon it began performing around the country and producing records under its new name, the Zamir Chorale (zamir is singer or nightingale in Hebrew). In July 1967 it made a jubilant two-week visit to Israel following the Six Day War. (The visit had been scheduled the previous year.) They sang at Israel’s Zimriya, Hebrew University’s liberated Mount Scopus campus, and the Western Wall. Its Hebrew repertoire, which included Handel’s Saul oratorio, which they sang with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, expanded to include the newly written Yerushalyim Shel Zahav.

Ilan Penkower and Maayan Roth stand outside Carnegie Hall

The Zamir Chorale is not the first Jewish choral group to use zamir; an earlier group called Ha-zamir was founded at the turn of the 20th century in Lodz, Poland, and flourished for four decades in Eastern Europe. Indeed, as a tribute to its predecessor, Zamir begins and ends each of its concerts with a rendition of “ha-Zamir,” composed in 1903 by Leo Low, Ha-zamir’s conductor. According to Joshua Jacobson, founder and artistic director of the (unaffiliated) Zamir Chorale of Boston, Low wrote that song — “Sing brethren, sing!/Then with song we will rouse the people” — “in the bright key of A major, in a joyous tempo, with sharply chiseled rhythms and rising melodic lines.”

In 1972, after Sperber went on aliyah, Maestro Mati Lazar took over the conducting reins of Zamir. For the next decades, Zamir continued to sing in concert and on records in the United States and in Israel. In 1990, Mati expanded Zamir’s scope by founding the Zamir Choral Foundation, which “promotes choral music as a vehicle to inspire Jewish life, literacy, community, and connection to Israel, . . . guided by an expansive vision of vibrant Jewish identity across the generational, denominational and political continuums through the study and performance of Jewish music at the highest level of excellence.”

In 1993 Mati formed HaZamir: The National Jewish High School Choir. In 2005, Mati’s wife, Vivian, became its director, rebranded it as HaZamir: The International Jewish Teen Choir, and revised its program to offer “high schoolers in 35 chapters across the United States and Israel the opportunity to learn and sing Jewish choral music at the highest musical standard and on the world’s greatest stages.”  (Disclosure: Vivian and I have been friends forever; we grew up literally — and I’m using that word literally — across the street from each other and were elementary school classmates at HILI.)(See “The Memories are Still Green.”)

Just to recap, because it can get confusing. Zamir, previously the Massad Choral Group, is the adult Jewish-American choral group. The Zamir Foundation is the parent body of both Zamir and HaZamir: The International Jewish Teen Choir. Ha-zamir is the earlier Polish choral group, and ha-Zamir is the anthem of all  the various Zamir choirs. Got it? If not, don’t worry; it won’t be on the test.

(Hat tip to my good friend Lawrence Kobrin, a proud alumnus and former officer of Massad; Stanley Sperber’s article, “Reminiscences of the Origins of Zamir Chorale in America”; Vivian, and Google for help in filling in many blanks about the history of Massad and Zamir.)

Three generations of HaZamir Penkower singers are in Carnegie Hall — Ilan is flanked by his grandfather, Monty, and his father, Ariel.

But HaZamir is much more than singing. In addition to having a chamber choir for more advanced singers, there are teen leadership and conductors training programs, HaZaPrep for younger singers, and a serious educational aspect in which the singers study a new theme each year around which HaZamir’s musical repertoire — learned by all chapters in weekly rehearsals — is chosen.

Another critical aspect of HaZamir is the creation of relationships. This process begins inwardly, as the members of chapters first bond with each other, and then expands as they bond first with the members of other chapters in their country and then with chapters across the Atlantic. Much of this last step takes place at HaZamir’s annual U.S. festival, attended by all Israeli and American chapters. The festival reaches its acme in a concert in a major New York City venue, this year Carnegie Hall, where Israeli and American HaZamir kids joined in glorious song. Just imagine the thrill teenagers feel performing on the stage of America’s premier concert hall.

But just like HaZamir is more than singing, the festival is more than the concert. The various Israeli chapters have American sister cities, and before heading to a hotel for a long Shabbat weekend of rehearsals and renewing old friendships and making new ones, the Israeli kids spend a few days in their sister cities, sleeping and eating some meals at the homes of local hosts. During the day they visit Jewish schools, senior citizen facilities, and other institutions (with some touring, shopping, and kosher restaurants thrown in). These pre-concert activities broaden the Israelis’ vistas, help our American kids broaden theirs, and forge even more relationships both across generations and between a new generation of American and Israeli youth.

For the past two years, my wife, Sharon, and I were privileged to serve as hosts for visiting Israeli singers. While most hosts open their homes to complete strangers, we hosted Israelis we knew: last year a great-niece, Maayan Roth, and great-nephew, Ilan Penkower, together with their friend Liam Rosenfeld (yes, we established one-and-a-half degrees of separation with him), and this year just Ilan, since Maayan and Liam spent their pre-hotel days with their chapter in its sister city of Providence.

And while we love Maayan and Ilan equally, I must note that Ilan is truly a unique member of HaZamir. His father, Ariel Penkower, sang in Zamir before he made aliyah, and his grandfather, Monty Penkower (Sharon’s brother), was among the early Zamir singers under Maestro Sperber. In fact, Monty participated in Zamir’s 1967 Israel trip, which he has often told us about with gusto. This makes the Penkowers a three-generation Zamir family — to our knowledge, the only one. It is a badge they wear with pride.

This year was difficult for HaZamir, as it was for all of us. But it was one where all these various relationships became even more important. Many of the Israeli kids were displaced from their homes, had parents, siblings, or friends fighting in the IDF, and, tragically, sat through more funerals than any teenager should be expected to attend. And HaZamir, both as an institution as well as through its individual leaders and members, gave them a shoulder to cry on, a place to receive emotional and practical assistance and advice, and the knowledge that people they knew cared about them and the difficulties they were enduring. No singer was left behind. They pulled together, so all could continue to participate and join in this year’s festival.

Sunday’s concert, “HaZamir Sings for Israel,” was truly a wonderful afternoon. But I know my limits, and I’m no music critic. So let me just note three personal highlights. First, hearing 400 magnificent voices opening and ending the concert with the more than 120-year-old ha-Zamir anthem united generations and continents. Second, their soulful rendition of Acheinu, which has become the anthem of October 7, reminded me how tragedy can sometimes beget unity. And third, when the 60-member Israeli choir was introduced to sing its selections, the audience exploded in a stirring minutes-long standing ovation, which ended only because we wanted to hear them sing.

I’m not a crier, but a packed Carnegie Hall audience standing on their feet, cheering young Israeli singers, some of whom will soon be young Israeli fighters, moistened even this Litvak’s eyes. May peace come speedily to acheinu kol beit Yisrael — to our brothers and sisters, the entire People of Israel.

Joseph C. Kaplan, a retired lawyer, longtime Teaneck resident, and regular columnist for the Jewish Standard and the New Jersey Jewish News, is the author of “A Passionate Writing Life: From ‘In my Opinion’ to ‘I’ve Been Thinking’” (available at Teaneck’s Judaica House). He and his wife, Sharon, have been blessed with four wonderful daughters and five delicious grandchildren.

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