HaZamir Los Angeles members make their voices heard

After facing down a formidable Milken Community High School sound system and the best vocal efforts of the knights of “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” who inadvertently “crashed” a recent rehearsal, the feat of harmonizing with 250 singers during a pair of sold-out concerts at New York City’s Lincoln Center should be a cakewalk for one local Jewish choir.

OK, maybe not a cakewalk, but come what may, HaZamir Los Angeles, the only West Coast chapter of the International High School Jewish Choir HaZamir, will be ready for its big event on March 17, said its founder, director and conductor Kelly Shepard. That’s when the group will perform in two concerts in celebration of HaZamir’s 20th anniversary.

Created by conductor Matthew Lazar, the Zamir Choral Foundation seeks to strengthen Jewish commitment through Jewish choral singing. HaZamir focuses on high school-age students. With more than 20 chapters across the country and in Israel, HaZamir — the word means “nightingale”  — accepts students of all levels of Jewish faith.

When asked what brought them to HaZamir, current L.A. members gave an assortment of reasons, ranging from an interest in music, to word-of-mouth from past members to the prospect of joining a community. Many members of the current choir have sung with other choral groups both in and out of school.

“A lot of the songs are new for me, and I like learning new songs,” junior Danielle Lowe said. “The songs you learn here aren’t typical Jewish songs.”

To veterans like Shepard and some of his students, the annual Festival concerts are simply referred to as “Festival,” but even with several past successful showings under their collective belts, the returnees are anything but jaded.

“There’s a bigness you can never imagine until you’re in that moment,” said Shepard, who has taken six previous HaZamir groups to Festival. “One of my favorite moments of the whole weekend is the first time they all sing together. We sing the ‘HaZamir Anthem,’ which we have all sung individually in our local chapters for months. When we all sing it together — 300 teenagers — I make a point of looking at the rookies and seeing the expressions on their faces. It’s a bit of a mind-blow for them.”

“You’ve heard everybody sing before, but when you’re up there on that stage, there’s another feel to it, and you feed off everybody’s energy,” added Celine Torkan, a senior and participant in two previous Festivals who will graduate out of HaZamir at the end of the year. “And you shouldn’t be afraid to let go and pretend like you’re alone on stage like a pop star. Go out there and have fun.”

Torkan auditioned for and was accepted into the HaZamir Chamber Choir and even had a solo in last year’s Festival. 

“I had a little extra time with some of the conductors to practice that solo and how I represent myself on stage and everything,” she said. “HaZamir has been such an amazing experience, and it’s so sad for me to think I’m going to be leaving this year.” 

Starting in the fall, all of the HaZamir chapters in the United States and Israel start working on the same musical program. This year’s 10-song lineup includes the aforementioned anthem, two world premieres and the “Yugnt Hymn,” a song which Lowe said is “so hard that even listening to the track I can’t get it.”

“First of all, it’s in Yiddish, and I don’t speak Yiddish,” said Lowe, who is in her first year with HaZamir. “There are all these strange rhythms, and it’s difficult pronouncing all those words. Hopefully I’ll get it.”

At 23 members, the 2012-13 chorus is the largest yet for Shepard, and more than half are first-year members. The choir practices weekly at Milken in Bel Air, where Shepard — who is not Jewish — chairs the performing arts department. Not all of the choir members are from Milken; several have been recruited from elsewhere by Shepard, assistant director Rebecca Schatz and by enthusiastic members of HaZamir past and present.

On a Sunday late afternoon, two weeks before Festival, Schatz picked out a tune on a piano in the music room at Milken. Shepard was due to arrive after the final curtain of Milken’s production of “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” which Shepard was conducting. The HaZamir singers would know exactly when the “Spamalot” was over — the sound system was blasting the audio of the performance into the music room, and neither Schatz nor any of the choir members knew how to turn off the system.

“Do your best to listen to each other,” Schatz told her singers, “and not to that.”

As a high school junior at Milken, Schatz went to Festival with Shepard before the HaZamir local chapter even officially existed. She eventually returned to Milken to assist Shepard even while she is enrolled in rabbinical school at nearby American Jewish University.

“It’s important that these kids really know their music and are really on top of their own musicality,” she said. “We want to make sure they’re aware of the intensity they’re about to walk into.”

For his part, Shepard had been a music instructor for several years at Milken when he was solicited by the Zamir Choral Foundation to open the L.A. chapter of HaZamir. Being part of the choir not only looks good on a college application, he said, it also helps build the foundation for a solid musical education. 

“Generally speaking, students in Los Angeles are not getting from most public or private schools as good a music education as they could be getting,” Shepard said. “So it’s particularly good they have this opportunity. We work on musicianship and on the kinds of things I think music teachers should be working on.

“It’s not just about preparing music,” he continued. “It’s about understanding music for music’s sake and creating an environment to give them a rich music education as well.”

As he took Schatz’s position behind the rehearsal piano, Shepard guided his singers through “L’Eyla,” another HaZamir perennial. The song title translates to “upward” or “rise” and contains swelling melodies backed by African tribal beats. But it has a resonance to the Jews as well, and Shepard wanted to make sure that his singers understood exactly what kind of a song they were presenting.

“Think about this,” he told them. “Jews are rising through history, generations of Jews. Guess what: as many times as you try to kill us, here we are and we will continue to rise.” 

Choir saving Ladino music

A dozen members of Kol Sephardic Choir stood in a semicircle, clutching songbooks as they rehearsed the lyrics of “Quando el Rey Nimrod.” Halfway through the Ladino folk song, music director Avi Avliav held his hands up and told the group to stop. 

“The idea is to lose yourselves and enjoy this,” Avliav said. “Let’s see if we can put our books down and find a connection to the music.” 

A week later, at the choir’s Chanukah concert on Dec. 16 in West Hollywood, it was clear that members had taken his advice to heart. Bedecked in sequined vests and ruffled skirts, Kol Sephardic Choir performed a moving selection of Ladino-language ballads and Chanukah songs at Plummer Park’s Fiesta Hall, accompanied by the clacking heels of flamenco dancers twirling brightly colored fans.

The concert capped the 20th anniversary of Kol Sephardic Choir, which began in Los Angeles as an informal sing-along group and blossomed into the only professional choir in the United States — and one of few worldwide — whose repertoire consists primarily of Ladino music, founder and director Raphael Ortasse said. 

Ladino, a fusion of Hebrew and Spanish that evolved among Jews in medieval Spain, has been kept alive by Sephardic communities around the world since the Spanish Inquisition expelled the Jews in 1492. Woven into the romanceros (love songs) and cantigas and coplas (Iberian songs) the choir performs is the DNA of a long-dwindling culture that Ortasse hopes to preserve.

“These are the songs that were sung by my mother, my father,” said Ortasse, a retired aeronautical engineer and Hebrew school educator who traces his lineage back to pre-Inquisition Spain. “Sephardic music and culture are almost unknown among the Jewish community. We’re just a small group, but we’ve been able to bring them to light.”

The themes of the music are timeless: ballads from lovelorn poets, drinking songs, prayers for a son, well-wishes for a bride. “They reflect the lives of the people — and their lives then, in some ways, were no different than our lives today,” Ortasse said. 

Ortasse declined to give his age, but with his white beard and glasses, he presides over the choir with a grandfatherly air.

Born in a small Sephardic community in Khartoum, Sudan, Ortasse moved to British Palestine with his parents when he was 6. He joined his uncles in New York to attend the Polytechnic Institute of New York University) around the time Israeli statehood was declared. After moving to Los Angeles, he worked on the space program for 22 years. 

Between his family and his career, Ortasse didn’t set aside much time for exploring his heritage. But he always remembered walking home from school as a child and hearing his mother’s voice waft out the kitchen window, singing “La Serena.” The beauty of that melody stuck with him for decades.

By the early 1990s, Ortasse wanted to revive interest in L.A.’s rich, but waning, Sephardic tradition. He had an idea: a choir. He partnered with the rabbi at what was then the Sephardic Hebrew Center to put out a call for members. Eventually, sign-ups started to trickle in. 

Then there was the question of what music they would sing. Ortasse pored over songbooks in libraries, dug through dusty files, and asked Sephardic cantors and acquaintances in Israel and Europe to recall melodies passed down from previous generations. 

“It was not an easy task,” Ortasse recalled. “I scratched around. I collected whatever I could lay my hands on. When you decide to do something like this, you don’t leave a stone unturned.”

Politics pushed him away from the fledgling choir when the center merged with another synagogue, but Ortasse regrouped and founded Kol Sephardic Choir as an independent entity in 1992. The group began with a dozen members who met at the Westside Jewish Community Center to sing Ladino songs. Since then, the choir has hired a music director and professional flamenco dancers, performed at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion twice and recorded a CD. 

Today, the choir is about one-third Sephardi. The rest are mostly Ashkenazi; one is Catholic. Members range in age from their 30s to 80s. 

Venus Kapuya, one of the original members, joined to rekindle a connection to her own Sephardic roots. She remembered many of the songs from her childhood in Turkey. 

“I used to hear them from my mom,” Kapuya said. “Sometimes she would tell me stories about how my grandmother sang them while she was doing her sewing; she would keep rhythm with the sewing machine.”

Elizabeth Martínez didn’t know she had a Jewish background until she joined the choir four years ago. Raised Catholic in a Mexican-American family, Martínez grew up singing in Spanish and English. She found her way to Kol Sephardic Choir through a friend, the ensemble’s pianist. When she showed up to practice, the first strains of music stirred something inside her. 

“I had this lightning-bolt moment,” Martínez recalled. “There were a couple of songs that I knew, and I wasn’t sure why.”

She examined her family’s background with her father and found uncanny similarities: knowledge of Ladino folk songs, for one, and family names that were Sephardic in origin. Like many descendents of Sephardic Jews who survived by hiding their faith, she had never been told. 

“I grew up knowing that some people in Mexico have menorahs, and they don’t know what they’re for,” she said. “Singing with this choir has filled in some gaps. It has been a really spiritual and enlightening experience.”

Each piece in the choir’s repertoire illuminates some aspect of life in the Sephardic communities of yore and also carries the stories of those who took the songs with them after the expulsion from Spain. “Arvoles Yoran Por Luvias,” for example, a cry of longing by a lover leaving on a journey, was sung by Sephardic Jews during the Holocaust as they boarded trains bound for concentration camps, Ortasse said. When the choir performs the song, lyrics like, “What will become of me?” follow the recorded screech of a train on its tracks. 

Music makes the strongest case for the preservation of Sephardic culture, Ortasse believes. 

“Music transcends,” he said. “Music, art — these are the things that everybody can relate to. You don’t have to be Italian to enjoy an Italian opera.”

Margarita Kligerman had “no idea what Ladino was, what Sephardic was,” when she joined the choir 12 years ago, she said. But the native of Tashkent, Uzbekistan, recognized what she calls “the Jewish soul.”

“I fell in love with the music. I’m Ashkenazi, but music is music; it doesn’t matter what I am,” Kligerman said. “When I stand on the stage and sing, I see people’s eyes looking at us, hungry for something spiritual in the music. People who come to one concert follow us to the next concert. We’re all so different; we come from different countries, speak different languages. But this is what we have in common — love for this music.”

Ortasse hopes to send the choir on the road someday, traveling with musicians, artists and performers to showcase the flavors of Sephardic Judaism. “My goal is to not let it die,” he said. “It’s not just a song or a language — it’s a way of life.”

West Point’s Jewish choir sings for the president and diversity

It doesn’t get more “only in America” than this: A Christian president with an African-born Muslim father throws a Chanukah party at the White House, and the featured act is the West Point Jewish Chapel Cadet Choir—a group that serves as a beacon of Jewish pride and identity at the nation’s top military academy, while also boasting a non-Jewish conductor and plenty of non-Jewish members.

And one more twist.

When the Jewish choir performed at the White House Chanukah party earlier this month, it chose to serenade the commander in chief with a song of peace.

“We were invited there for the party, a big honor,” said Cadet Evan Szablowski, 20, the choir’s non-Jewish conductor, a junior from Bakersfield, Calif.

After performing for arriving guests such holiday favorites as “Maoz Tzur,” ‘Who Can Retell” and “Oh Chanukah,” the 34 singing cadets—a group of men and women—were directed to file quickly into the Diplomatic Reception Room for a photo with President Obama and the first lady.

“Then the president came in,” Szablowski said, “and in a big booming voice welcomed us. He and Michelle shook our hands. The president looked into each of our eyes.”

Moments after the photo was taken, “totally out of nowhere, [the president] asked if we can perform,” recalled Szablowski, who spoke to JTA shortly after completing his final in “Mathematics and Networks for Counter Insurgency.”

From its repertoire of Jewish songs, the chorus quickly decided to perform one of the group’s favorites, “Lo Yisa Goy.”

But first, Szablowski recounted, the group explained that the song is based on the words of the prophet Isaiah, which translated from Hebrew includes the famous passage, “Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war.”

“It’s probably the coolest thing I have ever done at the academy. We were giddy,” Szablowski said, adding that about halfway through the performance it hit him—“a Jewish choir was performing for the president of the United States.”

It was a thrilling experience for the cadets, said Susan Schwartz, the “officer in charge,” or faculty adviser, of the chorus and the campus Hillel who accompanied the group on the trip.

“They met their commander in chief,” Schwartz said. “Afterwards they were bouncing off the walls.”

“We received a warm reception,” said Allyson Hauptman, an alto in the chorus who is a sophomore double majoring in international law and IT systems. Hauptman, who attended Hebrew school and had a bat mitzvah in Philadelphia, felt that seeing such a high level of support of Jewish culture in public was “heartwarming.”

According to Schwartz, the West Point Jewish Chapel Choir has been in existence for more than 60 years, with the most recent White House performance coming six years ago during the presidency of George W. Bush.

At the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York, 60 to 70 cadets identify as Jewish in a total population of 4,500, according to Schwartz.

Part of the group’s mission, the chorus and Hillel adviser said, is to make people aware that there is Jewish life at the school charged with educating the future leaders of the U.S. Army.

In the last year the group has performed at synagogues in Palm Beach, Fla., and Rockville Centre, N.Y., and the Hillel at Yale, as well as at the dedication of the Arlington National Cemetery’s Jewish Chaplains Memorial.

Especially for older Jews who have served in the armed forces, Schwartz has found that the group serves as a point of connection.

The Jewish Chapel Choir is one of several singing groups at West Point, including Protestant, Catholic and gospel, that serve as a form of outreach, showcasing the cadets’ and the institution’s religious diversity.

The choir itself is a diverse group, with Szablowski and other non-Jewish cadets taking part.

“All of these cadets are going to be officers, and they need to become aware of other cadets’ needs,” said Schwartz, who is Jewish and grew up in North Miami, Fla. “There is an expectation that they will respect our traditions.”

“I have learned more about Jewish culture than the beautiful songs,” said Szablowski, who only a few years earlier was the drum major at his high school in a region of California not known for having a large Jewish population. At West Point he sees his fellow choir members as “really just a group of friends.”

“If I have Jewish members in my platoon, I will be able to understand them more,” he said.

The non-Jewish members of the chorus “learn a little bit of Hebrew and Jewish culture through the songs,” Hauptman said.

According to Schwartz, some of the Jewish members, who were more “secular” in their Jewish identification when they first come to West Point, learn a bit, too.

“They find a Jewish home at West Point,” she said.

In addition to the private concert, Obama received a few early Chanukah gifts from the chorus.

The Jewish chaplain at West Point, Rabbi Maj. Shmuel Felzenberg, presented the first family with West Point Jewish Chapel coins.

Additionally the cadets “wanted me to give him one of our kipahs,” said Schwartz, speaking of the gray head covering imprinted with the chorus’ name. The group had the kipah made from the same fabric used for the full dress uniforms they were wearing the day of the party.

According to Schwartz, the president said, “I have several yarmulkes, but none like this one.”

Edmon J. Rodman is a JTA columnist who writes on Jewish life from Los Angeles. Contact him at edmojace@gmail.com.

7 Days In Arts


Entertainment comes at no price today in North Hollywood
and West Hollywood. Take your pick: The NoHo Theatre and Arts Festival offers a
variety of theater performances that includes musicals, kabuki, sketch comedy,
improv, poetry jams and children’s shows. Also on the agenda are dance
performances and fine arts including chocolate portraits by Sid Chidiac and
Jewish-themed art by Dover Abrams. Those in WeHo can partake in the city’s
“Movies in the Park” free screening of Disney’s “Finding Nemo,” which features
the voices of Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks and Alexander Gould. NoHo Festival:
11 a.m.-8 p.m., May 15-16. Lankershim Boulevard, between Chandler and Magnolia,
in North Hollywood. (818) 763-5273. “>www.laemmle.com



Debbie Gibson, Larry from “Three’s Company” and Angela from “Who’s the Boss?” all share a special place in our popular cultural nostalgia, and starting tonight, a stage as well. UCLA’s Freud Playhouse presents Stephen Sondheim’s “Company,” starring the now-mature Deborah Gibson, Richard Kline and Judith Light. The musical comedy centers on the theme of relationships.
8 p.m. (Tue.-Fri.); 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. (Sat.); 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. (Sun.). $55-$65. MacGowan Hall, UCLA, Westwood. (310) 825-2101.


Grade school show-and-tell could’ve been more fittingly referred to as show-off-and-tell. But tonight, thankfully, “Show and Tell” the event, is not what you think it is. No need to feel anxious. You’ll be doing the spectating as professional comedy writers, journalists and playwrights take the stage to perform monologues in support of the Westside Food Bank. So leave the Western Barbie with special winking eyelid at home. You won’t need her.
8 p.m. $25-$50. Silent Movie Theatre, 611 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (310) 828-6016.


Issues of “wardrobe malfunctions” and “The ‘M’ Word: Morality and the Business of Entertainment” become the topic of conversation this evening at Valley Beth Shalom. Does the “Industry” have a moral responsibility to its viewers? L.A. Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg sounds off, along with fellow panelists Jerry Offsay, president of Parkchester Productions; Frank Pierson, president of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; and writer-director Lionel Chetwynd.
7:30 p.m. Free. 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (818) 788-6000.


Singer-songwriter Stephanie Schneiderman’s latest album is titled “Touch Down.” Intimate, at turns bluesy, sexy and a little bit raw, “these new songs are about courage,” she says on her Web site, “not about the absence of fear but the strength to move through it.” She graces you with intimate lyrics and an elastic voice tonight at Genghis Cohen.
8:30 p.m. $7. 740 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 653-0640.