Practicing, practicing, and more practicing. That’s how I’ve spent two hours of my Sunday afternoons this year.
By deciding to join HaZamir, the international Jewish high school choir, mid-year of my sophomore year at Friends Seminary in Manhattan, I knew I had my work cut out for me. I hadn’t been in a choir since sixth grade, but I was in an a cappella group last year. In HaZamir, I found out that memorizing more than a dozen songs in just a few months really is just as hard as it sounds.
Ultimately, I knew that the learning of all this music would culminate in a HaZamir Festival concert at Lincoln Center in late March, which sold out a month in advance. When I heard that there was a weekend-long retreat at a resort in the Catskills leading up to the Festival, my excitement grew. “This sounds like a nice opportunity to relax and meet teens in the other HaZamir chapters before the big performance.” In the end it all worked out, except for the relaxing part.
The HaZamir weekend started when our bus departed New York City on Friday morning, March 25. As I expected, the experience of meeting new people began on the ride. There are 18 chapters of HaZamir (Hebrew for songbird) in most large cities, including a chapter in Israel. In all, there are hundreds of teens participating. I was sitting next to someone from New Jersey, and the fact that both of us were in HaZamir gave us a connection. Even though it was a long ride, the time seemed to fly by.
Upon arriving at the center, we headed up to meet our roommates.
After lunch, the first rehearsal began with an announcement by one of the heads of HaZamir, warning us about losing our voices. This warning puzzled me. It’s only one weekend, after all. How much singing could there possibly be?
The first rehearsal started with the anthem of “HaZamirniks,” conveniently titled “HaZamir,” a song about awakening emotion through song. It was an immediate sign of everyone’s talent that we got through the song once without interruption. The afternoon was the first time we’d all come together: like small pieces finally fitting into a greater choral puzzle.
Suddenly, it was almost 6 p.m., and we had been practicing non-stop since lunch. I received a note (a “Shabbat-o-Gram”) welcoming me to Festival. Even though I didn’t know the person who sent it, it made me feel like a part of a large community. After evening services, I heard people comment that “services sounded so much better! Everyone was on key!” During dinner, many of the chapters, including HaZamir NYC, got a chance to perform a chapter song before bedtime.
Saturday morning services were not “one size fits all.” Instead there was a choice of progressive, egalitarian or traditional. By choosing egalitarian, I thought I was replicating my normal level of observance, but during the Torah service, the egalitarian and traditional congregations merged, creating a temporary balance between the movements.
At lunch tables, this merging continued with easy conversations among the tables. Throughout the weekend I found all of the participants, American and Israeli alike, seemed dedicated to learning the music, and were quite friendly. With renewed energy from lunch, rehearsing started again. Much to my surprise, it was announced that I would be one of the concert narrators. I would get to have my own little moment in the spotlight at Lincoln Center, announcing a piece of music.
The final rehearsal of the night was by far the most emotional.
After the full run of the program, the graduating HaZamir seniors sang a farewell song. All of us then sang a song to the 12th grade Israelis. It had not dawned on me until then that all of these Israelis would be going into the army next year. It was sobering to compare the destinations of the two groups.
On Sunday morning, before the buses departed for Manhattan, I headed to Shacharit, hoping that prayer would distract me from my pre-concert nervousness. If nothing else, it gave me the chance to pray with other teens, an uncommon occurrence at my synagogue.
By the time we hit the Lincoln Tunnel, the entire bus warmed up with singing. It was surreal arriving at Lincoln Center. Backstage, I passed a wall covered with signatures of various performers. I made sure I signed my name, leaving a permanent mark before going onstage.
The concert showcased how much work had been done in one short weekend. It felt great to be standing on the stage at Lincoln Center surrounded by talented American and Israeli Jewish teens.
It was dreamlike to announce a song and receive applause for it. While backstage listening to the alumni, chamber choir, Israelis, and seniors perform, it reminded me that HaZamir was a bigger group than just the people with whom I had spent a weekend.
Eventually, the concert ended, but the experience still resonates. I had the chance to meet teens from all over the world who share a love of singing Jewish music, and I made my debut at Lincoln Center. Overall, it was an insane and wonderful whirlwind of activity that I will not forget anytime soon.
Bella Rubinton, 15, is a sophomore at Friends Seminary in Manhattan.