Lovers of Israel speak of providing young people with the “facts” about Zionism, which is like thinking that the facts in a biology textbook can explain sweethearts slow-dancing in the gym. Love is best explained in song, and Zamir Chorale has been singing those songs — the great Jewish classical songbook — for 50 years this autumn. To hear the songs is to fall in love all over again with Israel and the Jewish people.
Zamir, which will celebrate its jubilee Sunday night at Carnegie Hall, is rightly proud of having worked, over the years, with conductors such as Zubin Mehta, Leonard Bernstein and Daniel Barenboim, let alone Theodore Bikel and Israeli orchestras, let alone singing backing-up for everyone from Dr. Ruth to Tom Chapin. But Zamir is legendary less for the legends it has worked with than for its own humble origins.
The story begins in 1960 in the old Camp Massad, a Modern Orthodox, Hebrew-speaking camp (now defunct) in the Poconos, when 12 counselors in the Massad choir decided not to say goodbye at summer’s end but to sing together in New York. Stanley Sperber, Massad’s tennis counselor, became the musical director, such as it was back then.
It was the height of the folk music craze, when young collegiates everywhere were forming singing groups, often with men and women harmonizing together.
By 1964, the group — now named the Zamir Chorale, inspired by the biblical verse, “the time of the nightingale [“zamir”] has come” — recorded its first album, “Israeli Hootenanny,” a title that tells you how much Zamir was positioned as a folk group, not a classical chorale.
And yet there was one cut on the album, “Barchu,” by Salomone Rossi, indicating that Zamir was more musically ambitious than anyone knew.
Way back in 1623, Rossi, an Italian-Jewish composer of madrigals and sonatas, produced a fascinating and ethereal body of Jewish liturgical music in the Renaissance-Baroque mode of the era. The music was infused with a Jewish consciousness and musical allusions, yet completely unrelated to any Jewish liturgical form, with the possible exception of the musical Levites in the Temple.
By all accounts, Rossi’s sheet music had been gathering dust for at least 150 years, before the “early music” aficionados of Pro Musica Antiqua, in the 1950s, discovered Rossi in the classical attic.
Zamir’s “Barchu” was the first time Rossi’s piece was ever recorded.
Zamir was new and young at the time, without allegiance or obligation to anyone or any genre. They took Ben-Zion Shenker’s chulent-thick Modzitz chasidic version of “Eishet Chayil,” stripped it clean, turned up the tempo — and the sensuality, with women’s voices and solos — and almost overnight Zamir’s version became the definitive, if not the only, version sung at Shabbat tables everywhere.
Zamir took a modern Israeli song, Naomi Shemer’s “Zamar Noded (HaDerech Arukah),” and turned it upside down and inside out. Sperber arranged the first stanza in a rhythmic, Columbia glee club fashion, with a touch of doo-wop, only to have Mati Lazar, who joined Zamir as a high school student from Music & Art, arrange the second stanza within a slow and stately classical harmonic setting, akin to a Bach chorale — nothing at all like Shemer’s version, which was closer to the Beatles’ “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” Then Sperber and Lazar had Zamir bring the song back, somehow, from the elaborate Bach-like arrangement, with a reprise of the glee club opening.
After the audience caught its breath, the reaction often was, did I just hear what I just heard? “To some, it was schizophrenic,” says Lazar. “To us, it was dialectical.”
Zamir made its first trip to Israel right after the Six-Day War. Early in the trip, the Zamir bus picked up a hitchhiker, a woman soldier. She heard the passengers singing. Sperber told the soldier that they were a choir.
“Have you heard the new song?” she asked.
“Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” (Jerusalem of Gold), she said. “Would you want me to teach it to you?”
The hitchhiker stood in the aisle and taught Zamir the anthem by Naomi Shemer that still gives chills, all these years later. Two days after learning it on the bus, Zamir sang it in concert.
Zamir swelled to about 100 singers, all volunteers. Singers came from all over. Bobbie Sue Daitch became intrigued by Zamir while still in her hometown of Waynesboro, Ga. She came north, heard a “magical” concert in 1975, and joined soon after. “My best friends are from my days in Zamir. We’ve grown up together.”
In the 1974-75 season, not long after Lazar took over as conductor, following Sperber’s move to Israel, Zamir performed a concert version of the opera “Aida” with Mehta. However, it was not opera but Zamir’s soap opera that is fondly remembered.
The gentle soap operas were a good thing. It meant Zamir’s Jews were falling in love with each other.
Gaya Aronoff, who met her husband, Lewis Bernstein, while both were in Zamir, says, in a documentary made for Zamir, “The social component of Jewish kids singing Jewish music with Jewish kids naturally leads to marriages, intimate relations, loving Jewish families. And I think we’ve seen that with Zamir, haven’t we?”
Gerry Skolnik — now Rabbi Gerald Skolnik of the Forest Hills Jewish Center, and an online Jewish Week columnist — joined Zamir in the fall of 1969, as a freshman at Yeshiva University. “I thought that Zamir was just about the coolest thing going. It seemed the perfect fusion of the values and commitments that mattered most to me: passionate Zionism, love of Judaism, great music, great friends.…”
He had never really been friends with non-Orthodox Jews before. He is now a Conservative rabbi.
He remembers how depressing it was to leave Zamir’s rehearsals on the Upper West Side and ride the subway back to his dorm in Washington Heights. “And, of course, there were no girls at Yeshiva. Sopranos and altos were a most welcome discovery!”
Sometimes the romance was with Zionism itself. “The music of Zamir,” says Alan Septimus, who joined in 1982, “was a critical part of my evolution as a Jewish person.” Septimus had a strong religious Zionist and musical background, from home, yeshiva and Massad, “but it had gone on a bit of a hiatus as I pursued my academic interests. Zamir was a way to connect to my Zionist roots. Zamir fulfilled that for me, and still does.”
Lazar, 62, is very careful that there is no overt preaching to the choir, or in the choir. He says Zamir has been carefully trans-denominational, and is now carefully “transpolitical,” particularly since “not only don’t Jews agree on the future but we don’t agree on the facts.”
Nevertheless, says Septimus, “It’s impossible to be in Zamir and not get from Mati a Zionist view of the world,” certainly through the music he picks, and Zamir’s several trips to Israel during the intifadah when few others were going.
Over the years, there have been numerous magazine covers, “The Vanishing American Jew,” “Can Israel Survive?” and dozens of essays suggesting that some American Jews are more alienated from Israel than ever.
You won’t hear any of that in the songs of Zamir.
As old folkies, its members seem to live by Woody Guthrie’s creed: “I hate a song that makes you think that you’re not any good. I hate a song that makes you think you’re just born to lose, bound to lose. … I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world, and if it’s hit you pretty hard, and knocked you for a dozen loops … I am out to sing the songs that will make you take pride in yourself.”
“HaDerech Aruka,” sings Zamir, “the road is long … and full of splendor.”
The road goes on.