On a recent morning, 14 women gathered in a Short Hills living room and rehearsed for an upcoming concert. They sang from the heart: the works of Naomi Shemer, Carole King, and Debbie Friedman; liturgical pieces; Yiddish songs; even the compositions of Leonard Bernstein and Rodgers and Hammerstein.
Conducting and directing the singers was Ronnie Weinstein, who also mouthed along as Fran Sprinzen accompanied them on piano.
They are the women of Shiru Nah — it means “Sing Please” in Hebrew — a nearly five-decades-old women’s choir. They are not all on the same level of proficiency — some have trained voices — but auditions are mandatory, so they are all capable performers.
Most sing with other groups but they’re committed to their Tuesday morning rehearsals at Weinstein’s home. “The love of music is in all of us, and that’s what’s really pulling us together and keeping us together,” said Robin Shoulson, a longtime member.
But there’s another reason they come: It’s the place where they feel supported and loved. In fact, skipping the regular Tuesday morning rehearsals at Weinstein’s home when you’re down is a mistake, according to another choir member, Ethel Singer. “It’s the best place to be if you’re not well,” she said. “Many of us have gone through things in our lives, either with ourselves or our families. And this is where you want to be on Tuesday…. On Tuesday morning, you can forget all of that and just be enveloped in love.”
There’s a secondary, agreed-upon requirement for joining Shiru Nah: “You have to be nice,” said Weinstein.
What happens if a person has the voice but not the neshama — the soul? “They don’t last,” said singer Judy Berson. “It’s just not a good fit.”
The group has an unofficial mantra, from Psalm 118, which is translated from Hebrew as “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” Group member Rabbi Helaine Ettinger explained, “We pull it out to inspire us if we’re feeling low or before we have a gig, to remind us of why we do that.”
Shiru Nah is now in search of new recruits. The camaraderie of many current members stretches back decades, but now, they feel, it’s time to have some younger voices among them, the role they served when they themselves joined.
Weinstein was the first among the current roster. She discovered Shiru Nah in 1978, when she had preschoolers and the other members were her mother’s age or older, women in their 60s or 70s. “I thought they were fabulous,” she said. “So, I started bringing more people.” She acknowledged that as she traveled among temple preschools as a music specialist, she would covertly “audition” the teachers, listening to them sing with the kids, and then invite the ones who measured up to join.
Roberta Lichtenberg was an early recruit from the preschool teachers’ cohort. She joined in 1983. (She could come to rehearsals only during the summer until she retired, but she and another choir member working at the same preschool would rehearse together on Tuesday mornings in the school office.) Lichtenberg described the benefits of the intergenerational nature of the group. “We had these women who were our mothers’ ages. And you could have these amazing relationships with people — and you didn’t have to call them every day,” she said, as the other women laughed. “But if someone was suffering or if something was wrong — if they were put into assisted living — we would go and sing there. I mean, it was such a tie.” The bond is so strong, she said. “This is family. This is my home.”
Shiru Nah was founded in 1971 as a Jewish women’s choir that raises money for Israel by charging a small honorarium ($150 to $300) for each performance. Over the years, they’ve donated an estimated $110,000 to what is now known as the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ.
The women call Weinstein, who became director in 1981, the glue that holds them together, but they also point to her partnership with Sprinzen, who trained at Juilliard and the Mannes School of Music, as critical. Weinstein chooses the repertoire; Sprinzen arranges the numbers. They sometimes spend hours together working on a single arrangement.
Selections must have a Jewish tie-in, whether through liturgy, language, Israel and Zionism, or composer identity. The repertoire has evolved from all Hebrew and Yiddish songs to mostly English, based on what engages their audiences (mostly residents of facilities run by the Jewish Community Housing Corporation, Jewish women’s organizations, synagogue senior groups, and sisterhoods, but they also sing at non-Jewish senior housing facilities and country clubs. They have found that familiarity breeds engagement, so they stick to tried-and-true fare — the music of Carole King was brave new territory they debuted at a concert for the Livingston chapter of Hadassah this spring.
As much as they love Tuesday rehearsals, the performances provide a different kind of high. “We’re performers — we like to perform,” said Weinstein. “We’re giving back to the community as well because they are having this enjoyable experience,” she said, referring to the seniors and other audience members. With money going to Israel, she concluded, “It’s a win-win for everybody.”
The energy in the room on this morning, the affection among the women, and their passion for music make it an easy sell. They even tried to recruit this visitor. “You’d fit in with us,” they insisted. (That was before they heard me sing.)
Berson keeps a brief excerpt in her music folder from “The Elegance of the Hedgehog” by Muriel Barbery (Europa Editions, 2008), which she read for the group: “There’s this life we’re struggling through full of shouting and tears and laughter, and fights and breakups and dashed hopes and unexpected luck — it all disappears, just like that, when the choir begins to sing.”
That’s what Shiru Nah is for these women, when they sing together.
Come ‘listen please’
SHIRU NAH’S next appearance will be Monday, July 1, at 12:30 p.m. in
a performance for the Margulies Senior Center at the JCC MetroWest in
West Orange. Those interested in auditioning for Shiru Nah should contact
Ronnie Weinstein at firstname.lastname@example.org or 973-467-4947
(nice women only need apply).