Vocal Musicians Make a Joyful Noise

Human voices converge on the same note, echoing a haunting harmony — arousing complicated emotions.

This has been the buzz surrounding an award-winning Jewish a cappella group, Shir Appeal, a group of college students from Massachusetts, who will bring their hypnotizing harmonies to Orange County’s Temple Bat Yahm (TBY) for Shabbat evening service, Jan. 16. The group was named after Tufts University’s mascot — Jumbo the Elephant. The Hebrew phrase shir hapeal means "song of the elephant."

A cappella, Italian for "in the style of the chapel," is a term used to describe a type of music composed of entirely human voices.

A student-run organization, Shir Appeal receives no funding from their student government, and sustains their costs with CD sales, which feature Jewish folk songs, Israeli pop songs and liturgical music.

This year marks the group’s return to TBY in Newport Beach, also home of operatic cantor Jonathan Grant. The 15 members of Shir Appeal have been invited to stay with TBY congregants and will sit in a place of honor among the temple’s choir.

"Where ever there’s a sizable Jewish population [at a college], you’re bound to find an a cappella group," said Rebecca Bromberg of Shir Bruin, UCLA’s Jewish a cappella ensemble, who also co-founded a Jewish a cappella group in 1997 at Emory University in Atlanta.

Bromberg cites Columbia University’s Pizmon, which formed in 1987, as popularizing American Jewish a cappella on college campuses. As secular a cappella gathered steam in the 1990s, marked by the formation of major a cappella societies, Jewish a cappella also became more popular, especially among youth on college campuses. Techiya of MIT formed in 1994; Shir Appeal in 1995; Shircago, of the University of Chicago, in 1996; as well as a slew of others on university campuses whose participation waxed and waned over the decade — including Harvard, Brandeis and Boston and New York universities.

During the spring of this year, the University of Chicago hosted "Striking a Chord," the first-ever, all-Jewish Midwest a cappella festival, attracting groups from around the Midwest.

The San Francisco-based Contemporary A Cappella Society, a loose association of amateur, semi-pro and professional a cappella artists, recognizes groups that have produced a commercially available body of work with a Contemporary A Capella Recording Awards (CARA). Like the mainstream recording industry’s Grammy Awards, a CARA is given to artists in many categories. Groups with limited distribution also qualify for recognition, said Jessika Diamond, former vice president of the Contemporary A Cappella Society, however, they are less likely to have the resources to create a recording with high production values.

"This year is the first time in the history of the CARA competition that any religious group did as well as Shir Appeal," Diamond said.

Shir Appeal took home the award for "best collegiate song" and runner-up for "best collegiate album."

This year, approximately 60 volunteer a cappella aficionados judged the CARAs. Among them was the society’s representative, Greg Bowne, of Massachusetts.

"[Shir Appeal] used their voices in such a great way that really conveyed power and emotion in the song," Bowne said.

After the competition was over, Bowne said he kept listening to their recording, impressed with the group’s strong sound.

Two of the group’s songs were also featured on the "Best of College A Cappella" CD, a production of the International Championship of Collegiate A Cappella (ICCA), which Diamond directed from 1999 to 2003. The ICCA attracts a cappella groups worldwide and encourages them to submit recordings of their best songs for a competition. Out of thousands of submissions, 18 songs are selected for a compilation CD, "The Best of College A Cappella," released every year. Shir Appeal won coveted spots on the 2000 and 2003 collections.

Before their Newport Beach appearance, Shir Appeal performs in Los Angeles with Shir Bruin, the Scattertones and another UCLA-affiliated a cappella group on Jan. 11.

Cantor Grant said he expects the group to sing a 17th-century selection by Solomone Rossi, called "Eftach Nai S’Fatai" (God Please Open My Lips), and a unique arrangements of "Shalom Aleichem" and "Shalom Rav."

"I also look forward to the Israeli popular selections they will sing at our Shabbat dinner program," he said.

For information about the Jan. 16 appearance at Temple Bat Yahm, call (949) 644-1999.

Eliot "E.J." Safirstein

Eliot "E.J." Safirstein

Eliot "E.J." Safirstein, an award-winning playwright, died July 31 at the age of 39.

A childhood survivor of cancer, Safirstein wrote the 1988 John Cauble Award-winning short play "Waterworks," which was performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. His first television script, a "Family Law" episode titled "Generations," was broadcast on Dec. 11, 2000.

"E.J. was a purist," said Liz Safirstein Leshin, who married Safirstein in July. "He never lowered his standards, and he never gave up."

A funeral was held Aug. 5 in White Plains, N.Y. A memorial service for Safirstein will be held at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 16, at Leo Baeck Temple, 1300 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles.

Safirstein is survived by his wife, Liz Safirstein Leshin; son, Jack (Sue); sister, Julie Massey; and nephews, Scott and David Massey.

Donations may be sent to the E.J. Safirstein Fund at Vassar College, Box 14, 124 Raymond Ave., Poughkeepsie, N.Y. 12604-0014; the Pediatric Department at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Office of Susan Hershowitz, Box 139, 1275 York Ave., New York, N.Y. 10021; or the E.J. Safirstein New Play Fund at the University of Washington School of Drama, Box 35390, Seattle, WA 98195.

Pilot Project

During a pivotal moment in Elan Frank’s award-winning documentary, “Blue and White in Red Square,” a Russian-Israeli looks about his old Moscow neighborhood with an expression of dismay. Eugene had excitedly made the trip home with fellow musicians in the Young Israeli Philharmonic, many of them émigrés returning for the first time to post-Communist Russia. But as the violinist gazed at his decrepit old apartment building, surrounded by garbage and graffiti, his exuberance turned to bitter disappointment. “I feel like a stranger here,” he said.

The mixed feelings of Eugene and the other émigré musicians is the heart of “Blue and White,” which follows orchestra members as they prepare for a mass youth concert in Red Square in 1998. Violist Allah, who emigrated on her own at the age of 19, remembers her grandmother’s fear of anti-Semitism. Ayelet, a bassoonist, recalls that “throughout my childhood Russia always seemed very mysterious… abstract and forbidding.” Cellist Marima, meanwhile, eagerly anticipates performing in the same grand hall where she once competed in the prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition.

Frank, an Israeli who lives in Los Angeles, had just a week to put together the documentary after he was approached by Pelon Films in summer 1998. At the time, he was completing his twice-yearly reserve duty in the Israeli Air Force; “Blue and White” is something of a departure for the Holon-bred pilot, who previously produced and directed “Elite Choppers: Birds of Prey” for the Discovery Channel.

His own near-death experience was the subject of a segment he produced for Fox’s “Extreme Courage” series not long ago. It began around 1 a.m. on a full-moon night in Lebanon back in 1981, as Frank was piloting his helicopter deep inside enemy territory to pick up paratroopers who had completed a raid of terrorist bases. Suddenly, fire opened from six different sources, but Frank refused to abandon the 25 soldiers and managed to land amid the fracas. “My helicopter turned into a vacuum cleaner,” he recalls of the paratroopers’ frantic rush into the chopper. For his heroic effort, he received the coveted Israeli Medal of Honor.

Next on his plate is an “ER-with-pilots” kind of drama for Israeli TV and a Holocaust-themed feature film, among other projects. “I see myself as both a pilot and a filmmaker,” Frank 44, explains. “My interests lie somewhere in between.”

“Blue and White in Red Square” shows at the Israel Film Festival 2000 April 9, 3 p.m., at Laemmle’s Monica 4-Plex, including a discussion with Frank after the screening. For tickets, call (877) 966-5566.