‘We Came to America’

‘We Came to America’

JCC’s Thurnauer students sing about immigration, learn about music, perform at NJPAC

ON THE COVER:  The chorus sings during a rehearsal of “We Came to America.” (Kaplen JCC on the Palisades)
ON THE COVER: The chorus sings during a rehearsal of “We Came to America.” (Kaplen JCC on the Palisades)

The project that is about to have its premiere next Saturday night at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, and its second performance the next day at the Mayo Performing Arts Theater in Morristown, is ambitious. (See below.)

It’s a five-movement work for chorus and orchestra by the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades’ Thurnauer School of Music’s artist in residence, Rob Kapilow. It’s an educational curriculum that its creators hope will be adopted by schools across the country. It’s an opportunity to have choruses from New Jersey and New York, made up of children and of adults, of a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, sing together. It’s a work of music based on words and stories.

It’s also the result of a meeting between Dorothy Kaplan Roffman of Tenafly, the director of the Thurnauer School of Music at the JCC, and Faith Ringgold of Englewood, a well-known and beloved painter, quilter, writer, and social activist.

“I had the opportunity, a few months before covid, through a family at the JCC, to be introduced to Faith,” Ms. Roffman said. “I was able to go over to her home. I had read ‘Tar Beach,’” a picture book that had won a Coretta Scott King award and was a Caldecott Honor Book. “I knew that her works were in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Guggenheim.”

In fact, Ms. Roffman read every piece of Ms. Ringgold’s work that she could find.

“Faith was incredibly warm and gracious. It was a thrill for me being there. And I heard about ‘Coming to America,’ a beautiful children’s book, brilliant in its message. I fell in love with it.”

One of the basic truths of the United States is that it was built by immigrants. Even the Native American tribes arguably sprang from immigrants, those brave people who are thought to have crossed the Bering Strait millennia ago. Everyone else is descended from someone who came here far more recently.

Members of the adult chorus stand behind the children’s chorus as they sing together. (All photos are courtesy of the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades)

The United States has been pendulum-like in its attitude toward immigrants. Right now, at least part of the Republican party is vocally against them; one prominent politician rails again them as “poisoning the blood of our country.” (That was Donald J. Trump, in New Hampshire, last month.)

Traditionally, Jews have been in favor of immigration, since so many of us benefitted from it, and less than a century ago we saw what happened to the would-be immigrants on the ocean liner St. Louis, Jews fleeing the Nazis, who were turned away from our shores and returned to Europe, where most of them were slaughtered.

“My own reaction has been that the community music school, and every education institution, has a role to play in moving our country in the right direction,” Ms. Roffman said. “The younger children are when they begin to think about things in a positive way, the better. Not in a political way, a positive way.

Sandra Gold, above, reads from Faith Ringgold’s book.

“People are different, and we all have different traditions and customs and food and arts and literature. And that’s fine. Actually it’s more than fine. It is very valuable. It is what makes us be the country that we are.

“I’m so proud of that. And I feel that whatever we can do is just a drop in the bucket — but every drop counts.”

So Ms. Roffman gave the book to Mr. Kapilow, the composer. “I asked him to write something for the children inspired by the book. Why? “It’s a way for us to help the children understand that we’re all in this together. That we have to be able to work together, to listen to each other, to respect one another, and to appreciate one another. No matter what our differences may be, we can figure out a way to work together.”

That worldview inspires the Thurnauer School, which she has directed since it opened in 1984. “In creating the school, it was always important to me that everyone should be welcome here. Everyone has the opportunity to learn about music and to make music. We are a community school, and the JCC has been very supportive of that philosophy. You don’t have to be a member of the JCC to be at the school. You have equal opportunity for financial help to attend. The Thurnauer School of Music is open to everyone, and it welcomes everyone.”

Faith Ringgold wrote “We Came to America,” the inspiration for the music.

Part of Ms. Roffman’s goals for the school come from her own childhood.

“My parents escaped the Holocaust,” she said. “They went from Germany to Brussels, and from Brussels to Havana, Cuba. I was born in Havana; they were there for five years before they were able to enter this country. I was six months old when they left.”

The family settled in Washington Heights, in northern Manhattan.

Rob Kapilow wrote the music for “We Came to America.”

“I still remember that I had to bring my lunch to school, and my mom would make me the most amazing lunch, limburger cheese on pumpernickel bread. And no one would want to sit with me or trade sandwiches with me. Everyone else was trading sandwiches. I felt that being American was to have a tuna fish sandwich on Wonder bread.

“Eventually I tried to explain it to my mother, and the sandwiches she made changed over time. She couldn’t let me have Wonder bread, but to this day I still love tuna fish. I’m 83 years old, and I still remember that I felt that I didn’t belong because of the sandwich that I had in my lunchbox.”

Ms. Roffman was accepted into the High School for Music and Art, and that’s where her career began. But she never lost her sensitivity to children’s need to fit in, and the marvels behind the stories of how they got where they were.

Ms. Ringgold is 93 years old now, so it’s not entirely certain that it can work out, “but we hope that she will be well enough to attend,” Ms. Roffman said.

From left, Dorothy Roffman; the JCC’s CEO, Steve Rogers; Sandra Gold, and Rob Kapilow.

The piece has five movements. Two of them are sung by a chorus; the librettos are immigration stories, based on interviews that Mr. Kapilow did.

His connection with the Thurnauer school goes way back, he said. “Dorothy asked me to be artist in residence a year or two before the pandemic — because you always say yes to Dorothy.

“I live in River Vale, and my son went to the school — I have known Dorothy and Michael since my son was 10, and he’s 32 now.” Michael is Michael Reingold, the school’s associate director, who, like Ms. Roffman, is deeply involved in “Coming to America.”

The Thurnauer School’s Young People’s Chorus performs onstage.

“And when I discovered that Emma would be the conductor” — that’s Emma Brondolo, the Young People’s Chorus’ artistic director — “well, I’ve known Emma since she was 11 years old.” Because the JCC in general, and the Thurnauer School in particular, is that kind of place. Everyone’s connected — and everyone’s talented.

When she asked Mr. Kapilow to write a piece of music based on Ms. Ringgold’s work, “Dorothy gave me a bag full of her books and told me to look through them and see what struck me. ‘We Came to America’ really resonated with me.”

Mr. Kapilow often does a great deal of research before he writes. “I had been working on other projects, including a documentary film called ‘Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas,’ he said. “It was a look at why most Christmas songs are written by Jews. And I wrote a book about composers including Irving Berlin, and as I was researching his life, I realized that his story was like my grandparents’ story. But I didn’t know their story — they didn’t want to talk about it, and I was a teenager then, and teenagers are interested only in themselves. They must have had a torturous journey and an incredible story, but I don’t really know it.

“That’s when it all began.

Chorus members rehearse for “Coming to America” in Manhattan.

“So we put out a call to families in Emma’s chorus, which is so very multicultural. We asked if anyone was willing to come to a meeting at the JCC to talk about their experiences coming to America. I wanted it to be intergenerational — kids, parents, and grandparents.

“Amazingly, about 100 people came and started to tell their stories.

“One of my favorites was a story about a woman from Colombia who had planned to get married to a man there, and she came to New York to get a wedding dress. She met a man there. And I watched their son listen as she told the story. And there was another story, about someone who defected on a folk music tour. They were great stories.

Thurnauer School students play their instuments; the school’s goal is to teach them how to play, listen to, understand, make, and love music.

“So then we asked if anyone wanted to have a longer interview to tell an in-depth story. We created hourlong slots. We recorded them. They were amazing interviews.

“Then the pandemic hit. In a way that was good, because everyone discovered Zoom, and once that happened, everyone was available. Sometimes grandparents were in another country, and we still could get all the generations together.”

This idea — making music out of stories — isn’t new to Mr. Kapilow, although this is the first time he’s told family stories.

“I have written a lot of what I call city pieces, where I pick a topic and spend many years on it. I did a big project about the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge. I did a project with the state of Louisiana on the Louisiana Purchase. I spent two years going to the Blackfoot Indian reservation for a project on Lewis and Clark. I’ve done a lot of these kind of deep dives.”

These projects, which have come to be a deep source of fascination and inspiration for Mr. Kapilow, started pragmatically. “I had a manager who once said that the only thing an audience is less interested in than classical music is new classical music. So I wanted to find a way to connect with an audience.

“The first one I did was in Kansas City. I was doing an outreach program; I’d go every month with a string quartet. We’d take a van to different places — a group from an art gallery, from a senior center, from an inner city school — and then they’d all gather for activities. It was a great program.

“I was in a taxi from the airport. I always like talking to taxi drivers, to find out what’s going on, and the driver started ranting about a sculpture there. He was going on and on about an artwork that had just been unveiled. That was not the usual taxi driver rant. It was about a piece by Claes Oldenburg called ‘Inventing the Shuttlecock.’

“So I said to the audience, ‘I know that some of you love ‘Shuttlecock’ and some of you hate it. What do you think a piece of music about it would sound like? And we were deluged with responses. I followed up, and I thought that there is an opportunity here. What if I wrote a minute every month? The city got very involved. Hallmark Cards is centered in Kansas City, and they created a scholarship. The city added ballet dancers. We wrote the piece, it was performed, and NPR recorded it. People said that it attracted the most diverse audience anyone had ever seen, because everybody had a stake in the piece. They had watched it develop.

“That was my first city piece.”

So clearly Mr. Kapilow is a man of enormous creativity and invention.

“Then I started a two-year dive into immigration. I created Facebook pages for it. I wanted to do something with all the stories, but I didn’t want it to be only about the present moment. I wanted a bigger perspective.

“So I went to a wonderful Cambodian immigrant, Sokunthary Svay, who is a librettist, and asked her to create two movements, the third and the fourth. One is called ‘What Was Left Behind: Home Until It Wasn’t.’ People’s comments about that were so varied, both positive and negative. I wanted to include both sides. America has cycled through both inclusionary and exclusionary attitudes toward immigration, and I wanted to include both.

“The other one she wrote, ‘We Came to America,’ has little vignettes from the interviews.”

The first movement, “Thou Shalt Open Thy Hand,” is “from Deuteronomy 11, in English and in Hebrew,” Mr. Kapilow said. “I took the original trope, and I made that the melody for a hum at the end. The whole first movement puts the issue in the biggest perspective. It’s the most positive, inclusive version, and it’s been there since biblical times.”

Here, the JCC committee that works with the music school meets on Zoom.

The second movement, on the other hand, “is taken word for word from the Immigration Act of 1982, and it’s a list of who shall be excluded. And the fifth is a glorious section from Walt Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass.’ Welcome, welcome whoever you are. Health to you. Good will to you. All in the ecstatic text. It’s a beautiful welcome to America, and that is how the piece ends.”

Sandra Gold of Englewood, a past president of the JCC, supports the project passionately. (That is how Ms. Gold supports things that she loves. With great passion.)

She has enlisted the support of every living past JCC president, and many other prominent community members.

She stressed that not only will the piece be performed, but the curriculum that comes with it will be piloted in a public school, a secular private school, and a Catholic school in Bergen County. “We are funding a professional recording of the concert,” she said. “And it is being published by Schirmer, the classical music publisher. And the Sandra and Arnold Gold Humanism Research Fund, which I direct, and the Russell Berrie Foundation are funding a research project, done by St. John’s University, to evaluate the project.”

The orchestra at the premiere performance is the New Jersey Symphony.

The concert, and the ideas behind it, matter because “although there is a problem with immigration now that has to be fixed, that doesn’t change the truth that we are a country of immigrants,” Ms. Gold said.

“Immigrants bring their talents, their children, their hopes, and their belief in freedom and democracy to this country. That’s the purpose of this project, to help remind people of this. And if music and working together can change attitudes, can help people understand this truth about immigration, then our children will be better off for it.”

The Thurnauer School is a great way to bring those truths to the community, she said. “The music school at the JCC is a reflection of the Jewish community’s outreach to the community at large.”

Who: The Thurnauer School of Music at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades

What: Presents “We Came to America”

When and where: On Saturday, January 20, at 8 p.m., at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, and on Sunday, January 21, at 3 p.m., at the Mayo Performing Arts Theater in Morristown.

To learn more and buy tickets: Go to jccotp.org.

read more: