Do you sing? I’ve always fancied myself as one who had a good singing voice. I love to sing. I’m always ready to join in when there’s a sing-song, particularly if I know the tune and especially if I know the words. Although I’ve never had ambitions to be a singing star, I’ve always been first in line to make a musical noise.
For me, singing is associated with all those times around the campfire. The nostalgia for those times may be the underlying reason for the positive response I have toward the whole idea. Those memories carry a strong positive emotional content.
When I was a kid, I never had the least idea about singing. I never was a fan of singers. I never bought records or tapes. I was too busy reading all those delicious books.
My greatest exposure to singing was my experience in the chorus when my high school – St. John’s Tech, in Winnipeg – annually presented operettas by Gilbert and Sullivan. I loved that. I was in the chorus every year I was at that school. I appeared in HMS Pinafore, Yeoman of the Guard and The Mikado. It was a lot of work, and we spent many hours after school in practices before we could get things right. It shouldn’t be a surprise then that some of the tunes are still with me after more than 60 years. The excitement, and even the thrill, of the performance occasions lends a rosy glow to my memories of those days.
It was only in later life, in Montreal, when I tried to repeat my vocal exploits, that I really learned to appreciate how small my talents were in this area of endeavour. I discovered that I was prone to take up the tune of anyone who stood beside me. I found out that my capacity to keep strictly to the notes of the part I was supposed to sing was variable. I had no knowledge of how one could sustain a note. In short, it was a hazardous undertaking for anyone to include me in a respectable chorus. To make things worse, I was known to become confused as to where we were in a production, and to launch myself forcefully into song when the rest of the chorus was steadfastly silent. These were the only solos I ever performed.
To the detriment of those who might be concerned about sound pollution, these small negatives have never discouraged me from forcing my voice on an unappreciative public. I leap with lusty abandon at any chance to show off my limited abilities.
Over time, I have passed from tenor to muffled baritone, and I continue to be eager to share my gifts. While I have never been offered money to do this, I feel it is my duty, nonetheless, to do so, especially when participating allows me to share in the buffet that can sometimes accompany such occasions. It is only fair that I sing for my supper.
When I am engaged in my full-throated roar, I am too busy to note the pained expressions of those around me. This is just good fun for all of us, isn’t it? I am just entering into the spirit of things, and covering for those lacking a musical sense, aren’t I? Or perhaps they are just too shy, a failing from which I do not suffer. Surely, they are enjoying the noise just as much as I am? I worry only if people start to leave.
I sometimes sing in the rain, something like whistling in the dark, to keep up my spirits as I venture into unknown places. Let the winds blow the clouds away to deliver to us another sunny day, I say.
We were fortunate enough, at one time, to have had a second home in Arizona. Really only a trailer, it permitted us to spend the worst winter months away from the cold and dreariness of both Ireland, when we lived there, and the wet fall and winter seasons in the rain forest where we’ve lived lately. What had brightened our time even more was to have fallen in with a group of Canadians fleeing the winter cold. Wonder of wonders, one of them played the guitar and liked to sing.
Was I happy? You betcha! We were just a small group and when I was belting out songs as loudly as I could, it was as if I were back at camp. And they tolerated my enthusiasm. And, sometimes, they fed me. I was singing for my supper, again.
Now, in our current hideaway, we’ve joined a group, mostly oldsters, who meet weekly to reprise all the melodies reaching back across recorded history. My Bride is a witness – and if I perform as required, she will serve me a hearty brunch as a reward when we return home. I can do this!
Max Roytenbergis a Vancouver-based poet, writer and blogger. His book Hero in My Own Eyes: Tripping a Life Fantastic is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.
Left to right, the Hot Mammas are Mary Ella Young, Julie Brown, Georgina Arntzen. (photo by Dee Lippingwell)
The Hot Mammas are busy this holiday season – and year round. With three albums to their credit, they perform at venues ranging from jazz clubs to shopping malls. Readers can next see them at Robson Square Skating Rink on Dec. 15, and then at Water Street Café Dec. 18.
One of the holiday songs the group performs is “Mamma Julie’s Hanukkah Song,” so dubbed by Georgina Arntzen and Mary Ella Young because the third member of the Hot Mammas, Julie Brown, wrote it, and “too many songs are called ‘The Hanukkah Song’ or ‘Festival of Lights.’” (A video of it can be found via facebook.com/thehotmammas.)
Brown’s Jewish heritage is Ashkenazi. “My maternal grandfather, who I’m named after (Julius Cohen), was a rabbi,” she told the Independent. “My father always followed our traditions. My mother was a phenomenal cook and it’s because of her I’m able to make latkes, matzo balls, knishes, chicken soup, etc. When she didn’t want me to understand something she and her sisters were talking about over the phone, she’d suddenly switch from English to Yiddish. That’s where and how I picked up some fun expressions, which I use to this day.”
Born and raised in Montreal, Brown said she has been performing music since she could walk.
“My older, late, great brother Martin Overland was the founding member of the Canadian folk group the Raftsmen,” she said. “Your readers may recall the song ‘Something to Sing About,’ which was one of their hits. Martin had perfect pitch and the voice of an angel. He was also a terrific guitarist and accordionist. Eleven years my senior, we would sing together in harmony when I was a very young child. I still recall performing ‘Buttons and Bows’ in front of a roomful of relatives and friends.
“When the opportunity arose as a 10-year-old to actually sing on camera, I jumped at the chance. The Montreal kids show was called Small Fry Frolics and there I was with my cousin Shirley singing the Everly Brothers’ ‘Bye Bye Love’! At 15, I joined a rock band, while singing lead as Carmen in high school.
“The singing/performing didn’t stop at teacher’s college either,” she added. “McGill’s Macdonald College offered a two-year teaching diploma program at the time and, much to my delight, also had yearly talent shows.”
During her teaching days, Brown brought her ukulele to class. “The kids were as crazy about the Beatles as I was and we sang our buttinsky’s off to start the day,” she said.
While at university, Brown performed in stage plays and film. She recalled working on a movie directed by John Huston, which featured Sophia Loren – “and I was fortunate enough to garner a wee speaking role when Ms. Loren walked over to a table of background performers of which I was one, and asked me a question. I wasn’t supposed to answer her as a silent on-camera person but spontaneously blurted out a comment because I didn’t want to be rude. (Out of my peripheral vision, I noticed John Huston smacking his forehead.) And that was how I got my first ACTRA permit! Even after moving out to Vancouver and doing radio full time, I still continued to audition for film, TV and did a lot of voice work. In fact, I was the Telus voice for nearly 15 years – ‘We’re sorry, the number you have dialed is not in order. Please hang up and try your call again. Thank you, from Telus.’ That was me and one of 40 or so prompts I did for them.”
Brown left Montreal after the Front de libération du Québec “raised its ugly head in Quebec” and the Parti Québécois was in power.
“My child came home in tears from school with a notice that all English-speaking children had to be educated in French the following year,” she explained. “French didn’t come easy to my son but it was more than that. We lived in Canada, or so I thought. Stop signs had Nazi slogans scrawled across them. Shop windows in the English and Jewish communities were smashed and vandalized. An elderly Jewish woman who couldn’t speak French and wanted to order flowers for a friend was disgustingly treated over the phone because she was trying to place her order in English. The clerk hung up on her.
“As a teaching friend once said to me, if you say, ‘ich bin a Yid,’ you get it from both sides. I still don’t think the rest of Canada realized just how dangerous and revolting that regime was. Well, I did…. We came out to Vancouver for a visit and, with tears in his eyes, my son asked if we could move. And we did just that in 1978.”
Within a week, Brown got a job as a news broadcaster at CFMI, the sister station to CKNW.
“Not long after that, the program director allowed me to develop an interview show as well. I had been doing interviews at the Montreal radio station, along with news, so this was a huge relief to me. I love people and am a naturally curious person, so interviewing was, and still is, a good fit. My radio career blossomed here in Vancouver. Eventually, I co-wrote, co-produced and co-hosted Vancouver at Noon on KISS-FM for 11 years.”
In her more than two decades as a broadcaster, Brown interviewed hundreds of people, including Bob Hope, Paul Newman, Shirley MacLaine, Johnny Depp, Leonard Cohen, Eartha Kitt, Sarah McLachlan, Neil Diamond, Buffy Sainte-Marie, François Truffaut, Jackie Collins, Jim Byrnes, Rick Hansen and Dee Lippingwell.
For Brown, singing in choirs has always fed her soul, and it was in one of those choirs she met Arntzen and in another that they met Young. The Hot Mammas have been together now for 11 years.
“They are both family to me – my sisters,” said Brown. “All three of us love performing because we give to our audiences and they give back. Something magical and marvelous happens, no matter where we are or how many or how few people are in that audience. Synergy. Energy. Love. Music heals. It is the ‘universal language.’
“We sing songs we love. That’s how we choose our repertoire. Jazz, pop, rock ’n’ roll, folk, show tunes, you name it. We don’t just cover groups. We also write originals. In fact, one of our tunes is called ‘The Hot Mammas’ Song,’ and it’s quite amusing – all about being mothers who love their kids but have ‘traded in their aprons for a microphone.’”
Chanukah lights on Agron Road in Jerusalem, 2012. (photo from Djampa)
History tends to repeat itself or, as Sholem Aleichem put it, The Wheel Makes a Turn. In this story, he wrote about Chanukah, depicting a proud Jew lighting the nine-branched candelabrum, celebrating this festival of dedication and liberation with warmth and affection. Later in the story, this same Jew, now old and infirm, is barely allowed to light the chanukiyah by his assimilated son, while his grandson is not even allowed to watch. The story ends when the grandson is an adult, and celebrates Chanukah with his friends to the dismay of his “modern” parents who cannot understand why their son has rejected their assimilation and returned to his Jewish roots.
Chanukah is one of Israel’s favourite festivals, widely celebrated even by secular Jews. Unlike in the Diaspora, it doesn’t have to compete with the glamour of Christmas, with its shopping frenzy, Santa Claus, carols and other Christian symbols of the holiday, which can be very seductive, even to Jews.
In Jerusalem during the Festival of Lights, you can see chanukiyot and their tiny, multi-coloured candles on almost every windowsill and, at sunset, you’ll hear voices from quivering childish soprano to deep baritone, all singing “Maoz Tzur” (“Rock of Ages”). There is a candlelighting ceremony, as well as free sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts), in my local supermarket every evening for the whole eight nights, and a giant menorah burns atop the Knesset and many public buildings and water tower reservoirs throughout the country. Gifts are exchanged, children receive Chanukah gelt, often in the form of chocolate coins, and dreidels, spinning tops inscribed with the first letters of the Hebrew words for the phrase: “A great miracle happened here.”
The Zionist movement has used Chanukah as a symbol and historical precedent of national survival. The Maccabi sports organization was named after the Maccabees, who are the stars of the holiday, and it holds the Maccabiah Games every four years, just like the Olympics.
The singing of “Maoz Tzur” is a feature of the holiday with mysterious origins. The only clue to its composer is the acrostic of the first five stanzas, spelling out the name “Mordecai”; such naming was a common practice at the time and one used in a lot of zemirot (Sabbath songs). Many scholars believe the composer to be Mordecai ben Isaac, who lived in Germany in the 13th century.
There is a Chabad saying: “Song opens a window to the secret places of the soul.” It is hard to define what makes music specifically Jewish, and many categories exist, including Chassidic, Yiddish, Yemenite, Moroccan, Kurdish, Israeli, secular, religious … the list comprises a broad range.
There is nothing in Jewish law against creating new tunes for hymns. The Gerer Rebbe once stated: “Were I blessed with a sweet voice, I would sing you new hymns and songs every day, for, with the daily rejuvenation of the world, new songs are created.”
Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav wrote: “How do you pray to the Lord? Come, I will show you a new way … not with words or sayings, but with song. We will sing and the Lord on high will understand us.”
When we sing “Maoz Tzur” as a family, grouped around the candles, there is harmony of a special kind. The harmony is not just in the song, but in the sanctity and affection that binds the family and gives it a foundation as solid as a rock.
In painful times for Israel, which has seen so much suffering and loss throughout its history, it brings a measure of comfort to be able to recite the traditional blessing: “Blessed art Thou, O Lord our G-d, King of the Universe, who has kept us in life and hast preserved us, and enabled us to reach this season.” This year, amid the pandemic, the blessing resonates even more deeply. Happy Chanukah!
Dvora Waysman is a Jerusalem-based author. She has written 14 books, including The Pomegranate Pendant, which was made into a movie, and her latest novella, Searching for Sarah. She can be contacted at [email protected] or through her blog dvorawaysman.com.
How does a 1940 Yiddish theatre song – probably based on a passage from the Talmud’s Tractate Bava Metzia – end up becoming a popular piece sung around the world?
Over a 75-year period, Aaron Zeitlin’s “Dona Dona” (in Yiddish, “Dos Kelbl,” “The Calf”) has been sung by some of the 20th century’s biggest English-speaking performers, including Joan Baez, Donovan, the Chad Mitchell Trio, Chad & Jeremy, and countless others. It has been sung in Japanese, German, French (in this version, the calf is replaced by a boy trying to figure out his future) Swedish, Hebrew, Russian, Italian, Catalan and Vietnamese. Zeiltin’s original “Dos Kelbl” was put to music by Sholom Secunda; in 1956, Arthur Kevess and Teddi Schwartz translated it into English.
“Dona Dona” was part of Zeiltin’s Yiddish play Esterke, based on the legendary relationship of a Jewish woman named Esther and King Casimir of Poland. Zeitlin first published it in 1932 in Globus, the Yiddish literary journal he edited. The play about Esterke and Kazimierz the Great was a Polish-Jewish mystery in four acts. Male and female actors sang “Dona Dona” as a solo, as a duet and as a chorus with orchestration.
Zeitlin was invited to New York for the performance of Esterke, which is an indication of how influential Yiddish theatre was in the pre-Second World War Jewish cultural world. With the outbreak of the war, however, he was unable to sail back to his family. His wife, two children, father and brother were killed in the Holocaust.
This terrible loss haunted Zeitlin for the rest of his life. Indeed, some maintain that “Dona Dona” represents the tremendous suffering and loss of life Jews experienced in the Holocaust. While Zeitlin – who was living in Poland in the 1930s – was certainly aware of the growing threat of Nazism, he composed the song before the Holocaust began.
Over time, the song has been interpreted in many different ways. In a 2010 article in The Jewish Magazine, Mendel Weinberger understands “Dona Dona” as a reference to the struggle between the physical and the spiritual. The calf represents the body, the seat of desire. The body seeks pleasure, wealth and honour, and is a slave to these desires. The calf on the way to the slaughterer is a metaphor for the body’s journey towards death. The calf (i.e. the body) is mournful because it has become attached to life and fears the unknown of the next world. The swallow, on the other hand, represents the soul, in Weinberger’s interpretation. The Divine Soul is a part of G-d’s Being and is not bound by the material limitations of the physical world; it is free to soar in the spiritual realms high above the earthly one.
Baez, who, probably more than anyone else in North America, was responsible for popularizing the English version of the song, has said she was attracted to the “beauty of the melody.” At the beginning of her long career, she started singing “Dona Dona” as a civil rights protest song. It appeared on her first album and became a “staple” in her performances.
In 1975, Seoul, South Korea, banned the playing of “Dona Dona.” The government considered the song to be leftist and violence-inducing. Two hundred and sixty other songs appeared on this blacklist.
Pointing to how times change or perhaps stay the same, in 2018, Liao Yiwu, a Chinese writer in exile, used “Dona Dona” to boost the morale of someone under long-term house arrest. He had been trying to get permission for poet Liu Xia (widow of Nobel Prize winner, dissident Liu Xiaobo) to immigrate to Germany. In a phone call that year, the severely depressed widow cried continuously, saying, “It is easier to die than to live.” Liao Yiwu played “Dona Dona” for his desperate friend, who has since been released and allowed to leave for Germany.
Given that Zeitlin had religious training, the Gemara of Talmud Bava Metzia 85a is a likely inspiration of “Dona Dona” and, therefore, probably best explains the song’s true meaning. The Gemara tells the story of how Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the redactor of the Mishnah, came to endure terrible pains. A young calf, destined for the slaughterhouse, met up with the rabbi. The calf placed its head under the rabbi’s coattails and cried. Yehuda HaNasi said to it, “Go! It was for this that you were created.” Because he should have shown greater mercy to the calf, the rabbi was punished for 13 years with great suffering. Only when he expressed pity for some baby weasels did his pains leave him.
Deborah Rubin Fieldsis an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.
On a wagon bound for market There’s a calf with a mournful eye High above him there’s a swallow Winging swiftly through the sky How the winds are laughing They laugh with all the their might Laugh and laugh the whole day through And half the summer’s night Dona Dona Dona Dona Dona Dona Dona Don Dona Dona Dona Dona Dona Dona Dona Don
Stop complaining, said the farmer Who told you a calf to be Why don’t you have wings to fly with Like the swallow so proud and free How the winds are laughing They laugh with all the their might Laugh and laugh the whole day through And half the summer’s night Dona Dona Dona Dona … Don
Calves are easily bound and slaughtered Never knowing the reason why But whoever treasures freedom Like the swallow has learned to fly How the winds are laughing They laugh with all the their might Laugh and laugh the whole day through And half the summer’s night Dona Dona Dona Dona … Don
Erica Dee curated the show Weaving Voices, which takes place Aug. 9 at CRAB Park at Portside. (photo from Vines Art Festival)
Weaving Voices features Jewish community member Erica Dee, Tonye, Miss Christie Lee, Janelle Reid and Sara Cadeau, with instrumentalists Sean Mitchell and Jonny Tobin. The performance at this year’s Vines Art Festival on Aug. 9 is based on Dee’s singing workshop, Sing for the Soul.
Dee has been offering the group singing classes over the past two years. “This has been one of my favourite projects I have ever created and it has inspired me to write a whole new album and live performance,” Dee told the Independent. “Sometime in 2020, I will release this new project with a new name and it is very different from anything I have performed. It will be a live, multi-sensory experience that is meant for listening rooms and theatres, or parks. And I will activate the spaces with my singing workshop prior to the show and then include the participants in my live performance. I won’t share the name yet, but it does include my family’s name in it.”
Dee’s cultural heritage includes Jewish and Italian roots, and jazz on both sides of the family. Her paternal grandparents are Evelyn Stieglitz (z’l) and Murray Landsberg, who she described as “the sweetest Jewish couple, who met in the Bronx in the 1930s. They were 13 and 15 and they were together until my grandmother past away a couple years ago. My father, Paul Landsberg, is a prolific jazz guitarist, who started his career teaching at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Mass. My mother, Rita Marie, was born to Rita Shirley Dallesandro and Jim Smith. Rita Shirley’s brothers, Frankie and Arthur, started a jazz big band in the ’50s called the Dellasandro’s, where they played saxophone and clarinet.”
Born Erica Dee Landsberg in Boston, Mass., Dee goes by only her first and middles names. She grew up “in the mountains of the Sinixt Territory (Nelson, B.C.). My mother, father, sister and I moved to the Kootenays in 1989 because my father helped start Selkirk College’s music program.”
Expressing her gratitude at being a Canadian citizen, Dee said she first moved to Vancouver in 2005, a couple months after graduating high school. “I followed my passion,” she said, “as I had already been performing and writing and I was ready to move to the big city to expand my artistry. I also followed my heart here, after falling deeply in love with a female DJ and producer who was running Vancouver’s only lesbian bar at the time.”
Dee is a vocalist, DJ, writer and producer. She released her first recording, Golden Mixtape, a combination of remixes and original work, in 2011. Her debut album, New Skies, came out in 2016.
“I am firstly a singer,” she said, “which means I get to connect to my instrument (aka my body) in such a deep and intimate way. I usually have some burst of inspiration come to me, whether it’s a hook, or a bass line, or a drum beat. Then I spend time developing the tone, feeling and resonance. Words usually come after, as I find when I add words to my art, it brings it into the mind and I like to stay in the body for as long as possible.
“As far as production goes, I have been producing music for over 10 years and have yet to release something that is completely self-produced. I use production as another way to get my ideas out, using drum pads, keys and programs like Logic and Ableton, and then eventually collaborate with other musicians and producers to complete the creation.
“Recently,” she added, “I have been creating on a loop pedal, which has taken my artistry to a completely new level. I started DJing when I was 20, when I realized that I could be my own band mate, and started touring a performance where I would sing and MC over top of my DJ sets, fusing together the music that I love and moves me with my originals and remixes.”
Dee collaborates a lot, both in performances and in the creation of new work. Her bio notes that she has “supported and toured with artists such as Lil’ Kim, Mos Def, Quest Love, A Tribe Called Red and Bad Bad Not Good.” Past guest artists have included Snotty Nose Rez Kids and Desiree Dawson.
“I love the magic that happens when artists share space together,” she explained. “Each person is unique, with their own experience, tone, voice, stories and inspirations. It activates every part of my soul to witness artists coming together in this way, harmonizing, improvising, and the dynamics of different voices coming in and out of the music. I always say, sometimes just having another person in the room is enough, without a word shared. I can feel every piece of music they have absorbed since their creation lighting up the space. It is truly is my favourite part about being an artist.”
For the Vines Art Festival show, Dee said, “I have brought together a group of such powerful artists…. Each of these artists shares their stories and truth in such a real and accessible way.”
Dee said she is honoured to be part of the festival, as she really connects to its core values. Part of the festival’s mission is to offer “platforms for local artists and performers to create with and on the land, steering their creative impulses toward work that focuses on the environment – whether a deep love of nature, sustainability, or climate justice.”
“Growing up, I spent a lot of time outside and I find a lot of my inspiration in nature,” said Dee. “I attended Waldorf School as a kid, where I learned how to use my hands to connect and create with the natural world in a sustainable way.
“Since then, I have always had a very strong connection and appreciation for the land I occupy. Wherever I travel, I always take the time to educate myself on whose land I am on and acknowledge that within my show. I use my platform to share information about the social and environmental issues that I feel are important – I actually got fired from a festival in Calgary for speaking about the pipeline and how much harm it will cause to indigenous communities.”
For the performance at Vines, Dee shared that there is going to be “an extra special element.”
Of that element, she said, “I have never done this before and I am so excited. During the first time I sat down with Heather [Lamoureux, the festival’s artistic director], I had a vision and I am really looking forward to bringing it to life!”
Weaving Voices on Aug. 9 takes place at CRAB Park at Portside, at 7 p.m. Other Jewish performers in the festival include mia susan amir, Ariel Martz-Oberlander and Rabbit Richards, and it features more than 80 artists overall, performing at parks throughout the city. Every event is free admission and more information can be found at vinesartfestival.com.
The Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir in a performance last fall at the Peretz Centre, led by conductor David Millard, with pianist Danielle Lee. (photo from VJFC)
As they say, nothing comes from nothing and so it is with the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir of the Peretz Centre for Secular Jewish Culture. Officially, our birth date was 1979 – and that’s what we’re celebrating in the June 9 spring concert unironically called Freylekhe Lider: Yiddish Party Songs – but, when you come right down to it, we were in labour for around 25 years before finally coming into the world.
An early predecessor to the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir was a group called the UJPO’s Vancouver Jewish Folk Singers. UJPO was the United Jewish People’s Order and it was a decidedly political organization that positioned itself somewhere left of Lenin. Its eight-member choir, though keen on socially progressive issues as well, was somewhat less political and more focused on bringing Yiddish and international music to the Vancouver community. Yiddish singer Claire Osipov, the choir’s founder and director, formed the group in 1956 and kept it going for six years. In that time, the choir performed at Peretz Centre events, as well as reaching out to the community beyond. On two occasions, the choir performed at the CBC studio and was broadcast over CBC Radio.
Everyone familiar with Claire knows she seems to have boundless energy when it comes to her love of music and so, to no one’s surprise, she took on additional musical duties and began a children’s choir at Peretz in 1959. The Peretz Centre had an active children’s education program under principal Leibl Basman and Claire’s choir drew on this group, bringing in children who ranged in age from 7 to 11. Noteworthy in this choir was part-time piano accompanist Gyda Chud, current president of the Peretz Centre.
Time and circumstance brought both those choirs to an end some time in the 1960s and, for a time, the halls of the Peretz Centre were chorally silent.
Then, a Peretz choir formed under the direction of Morrie Backun, an employee of Ward’s music. Little is remembered about this choir because Morrie discontinued the group after just one year. Tammy Jackson sang in this choir and one of her main recollections is not so much the repertoire and performances as the brilliant discount they got on sheet music.
* * *
Searle Friedman arrived on the Vancouver scene 1978. He had been out of the country for a number of years studying music in East Germany. After his studies, he and his family – wife Sylvia and sons Michael, Robert and David – settled in Toronto, where Searle became conductor of the Toronto Jewish Folk Choir.
After a time, the family decided to move to Vancouver and Searle came here on his own initially to pave the way. At first, he taught at an alternative education program (called Relevant High School) that was based at what was then called the Vancouver Peretz Institute but, after a year, he parted company with that organization. Since his Ontario teaching credentials were not immediately transferable to British Columbia, Searle spent much of his time at Peretz and it was there that he had a conversation with Tammy, who suggested that he form a choir to occupy his time.
The beginnings of the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir were rather humble, comprising just a few members and a Russian pianist named Wolfgang. The roster at that time is only vaguely remembered but it certainly included Tammy (Searle’s niece) and Sylvia (his wife). It likely also included David Friedman (Searle’s son), Goldie Shore, Betty Ewing, Davie Cramer, Carl Lehan and Margie Goldhar. When there were no-shows at rehearsals, the standing joke was that the choir could at least consider the possibility of becoming a barbershop quartet.
In those early years, the choir performed informally at various Peretz Centre festival occasions and cultural gatherings. The repertoire was a potpourri of traditional Jewish folk songs sung in Yiddish, as well as some non-Jewish selections that piqued Searle’s interest – “Roosters Crowing on Sourwood Mountain” and “Martian Love Song,” to name two. Incidentally, Searle could never figure out why the “Roosters” song never sounded quite right, until one day he discovered somebody in the bass section was singing “roosters growing on the side of the mountain.”
But the choir grew rapidly. Searle was not just a brilliant conductor and arranger. He was very much a people person and had a charisma and affability that drew others to him. He had a knack for making his singers believe in themselves. Maurie Jackson, an early recruit, recalls Searle often saying to struggling singers: “If you can talk, you can sing!” In a short time, the choir grew to around 30 members, including me.
I had seen Searle’s choir perform and I thought about joining but my interest was kind of a passing thing. I was determined to do something Jew-ish but my real hope was to join a folk dancing class at the Jewish Community Centre. My job kept me glued to a desk most days. I figured folk dancing would be a good way to get some exercise, lose some weight and meet new people. As fate would have it, the folk dancing class was canceled, so I had to begrudgingly fall back on my second choice – the choir. It was a choice that I stuck with for almost 36 years and a choice that introduced me to Tammy – the remarkable lady I’ve been married to for 31 years and counting.
Tammy’s uncle, Searle, was inordinately pleased to know he had played matchmaker to two of his choir members. As often as Searle gave me pointers on singing, he also asked for updates on the state of my relationship with his niece: “Are you seeing each other after choir?” “Are you engaged yet?” “Do you have a wedding date?”
Rehearsals were a lot of fun. Searle liked to laugh and humour was always a part of our repertoire. I recall one day when Searle was working hard at getting us to blend our voices more closely. He wanted to hear the choir singing as one voice. After puzzling over how to make us understand this, he said, “I want all of you to try really hard to feel each other’s parts!” That did us in for most of the rest of that rehearsal, and even Searle had to take time to get back his concentration.
Searle’s one nemesis in rehearsals was his wife, Sylvia. While the rest of us were in awe of his talents and put Searle on a pedestal, Sylvia felt no such compunction. She freely advised Searle of proper pronunciations of Yiddish words and even was vocal about the pace of various songs when she thought Searle had got it wrong. The expression we often heard from Sylvia was, “In my village….” The expression we often heard from Searle was “Sylvia, who’s running this choir?” For fear of hurting his feelings, no one ever answered that question. Many a rehearsal degenerated into heated debates regarding Yiddish linguistics and the proper treatment of traditional songs.
As well as increasing the size of the choir, Searle wanted to increase our presence in the community and give us a focal point for our efforts. With that in mind, we performed our first annual spring concert in the spring of 1984. Our guest artists were the Shalom Dancers. In addition to the choir fans who attended, the Shalom Dancers brought to the performance their own appreciative followers. The result was a very large and lively audience. The pervasive feeling in the choir was, “We’ve got to do this again!” And so, we have, every spring.
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Searle’s energy and love of music had always made him seem like an unstoppable force of nature. We thought and hoped he would last forever. We were wrong. Due to a childhood bout of rheumatic fever, his robust exterior masked the effects of a damaged heart. When he was still a young man, his doctors basically told him not to take on any long-term magazine subscriptions. They said that, with the damage to his heart valves, he would not survive past the age of 40. Searle’s response was to get married, raise three sons, travel to East Germany to study music, get his Canadian teaching certificate and start a choir. When it came to living his life, Searle was not about to call it a day.
In September 1974, Searle had a heart valve replacement and got on with his life. After he founded the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir in 1979, he was spending repeated stints in the hospital. Nevertheless, he pushed through his medical setbacks and always came back to us ready to lead the choir without a backward glance.
I had a conversation with Searle that pretty much says it all. I was visiting him in the hospital.
Me: How are you doing, Searle?
Searle: Fantastic! I’ve gotten some very good news from my cardiologist.
Me: (greatly relieved) Wonderful! What did he tell you?
Searle: Well, it turns out he sings in a choir and he’s not happy with it. He’s thinking of joining ours! And he’s a tenor!
Searle returned to us from that hospital stay and all of that seemed behind him. But tragedy struck on Dec. 31, 1990. Searle’s heart just stopped. He was only 64.
Just over a week later, we had our first choir rehearsal without Searle. We stood in a large circle and began our warm-up exercises, led by our accompanist, Susan James. No one’s mind was on what we were doing. After a few minutes, I suggested we stop so I could say a few things about Searle. I can’t remember exactly what I said but I spoke about Searle and how much the choir meant to him, and about keeping it going as a tribute to his memory. The floodgates opened. Every choir member spoke of how much Searle had meant to them personally. When it ended, we got down to the business of carrying on what he had begun. If we doubted ourselves, we only had to look at one of the choir members who stood in that same circle to warm up and sing with the rest of us – Searle’s wife, Sylvia.
* * *
After Searle’s passing, Susan stepped up and became our conductor. She was a more reserved individual than Searle but a skilled conductor and her attention to detail was legendary. Nothing got by her and every note sung that was not to her satisfaction was drilled again and again until we got it right. And, sometimes, when the notes were right, we were still stopped dead in our tracks because the page turns were too loud. We worked harder during rehearsals, and we were better singers for it.
Susan’s tenure was five years. She was a devout Christian and the choir was composed mostly of a bunch of godless secularists. In her farewell letter to the choir, she expressed her sadness at not being able to share her beliefs with the rest of us. She left in 1995, after our annual June concert and our season had ended.
Again, a member from our ranks stepped up and helped us carry on. In fall 1996, David Millard – who for a few years had been a paid professional singer in our tenor section – became our conductor and, much to our good fortune, is still at it today.
Over the years, David has conducted, served as our resident Yiddishist, sung as a soloist, filled in on occasion as our pianist, written choral arrangements for many of our songs and led audience sing-alongs at festival celebrations. As we declared in one of our concert narrations, David is the Swiss Army knife of conductors.
In recent times, he composed an original six-part cantata based on a Yiddish translation of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem, “Jabberwocky” – “Yomervokhets,” in Yiddish. David’s interest was piqued when he read a Yiddish translation of “Jabberwocky” by Raphael Finkel. Finkel had apparently found a Yiddish-English dictionary that no one knew existed. In this dictionary, the “Jabberwock” translates as the “Yomervokh” and the “frumious Bandersnatch” is noted as the “froymdikn Bandershnits.” The hero’s blade that went “snicker-snack” as it sliced into the Jabberwock made a different sound held by a Jewish hero – “shnoker-shnik.” Who knew?
Translation issues aside, “Yomervokhets” is a brilliant original composition and an audience favourite. No history of the choir would be complete without it and it is to be featured at the choir’s 40th anniversary concert in June.
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Helping us sound our best over the years have been our piano accompanists. Some choirs sing a cappella (without accompaniment). Some choirs, such as ours, are community choirs that welcome enthusiasts of all abilities. For that reason, many of us welcome the guidance of an accompanist to help keep us on pitch. (Some of the choir still think a cappella is an Italian dish involving meatballs.)
Good accompanists are not easy to come by. They need to work closely in tandem with the conductor, often to the point of reading his or her mind.
Over the years, we have relied on many pianists to keep us in tune. Currently, we are accompanied by Danielle Lee, who joined us at the start of this season. But, Elliott Dainow stands out as our longest-serving accompanist – almost 20 years! Beyond contributing his talents at the piano, Elliott was a choral arranger and his version of “Oseh Shalom” has been performed by the choir many times. Though he grew to be a member of the family, to everything there is a season, and Elliott left us in June of 2017, in order to give more time to the renovation of his home on Hornby Island.
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Over the years, the choir has performed at countless venues, including the Peretz Centre, South Granville Lodge, Louis Brier Home and Hospital, Cityfest Vancouver, Vancouver Public Library, VanDusen Gardens, Cavell Gardens, Orpheum Theatre’s Parade of Choirs, the Vancouver Planetarium, the Israeli Street Festival and Victoria’s Congregation Emanu-El.
Sadly, one of our more recent choir performances was at a memorial service for our beloved Sylvia. Shortly after our June concert in 2016, she became ill and passed away that December. She was our last original choir member still active with the choir. In the program notes of our June 2017 concert, we wrote: “The choir dedicates this concert to the memory of our beloved Sylvia Friedman, who sang with us for all but one of the 38 years of our existence. Sylvia wanted to sing this one last concert before retiring. Her death in December 2016 prevented that, but, in our hearts, she is always right there beside us, singing as beautifully as ever.”
Under David’s able baton – figuratively speaking, since he really just waves his arms and hopes somebody notices – and inspired by the devotion to Jewish music of Searle and Sylvia Friedman, the choir is looking forward to its next 40 years.
For tickets ($18) to Freylekhe Lider June 9, 2 p.m., at the Peretz Centre, visit eventbrite.ca.