Eleanor Epstein likes to point out that the hit TV show Glee did not launch America’s fascination with choral music; it only tapped into a part of American culture that has always been there.
“A cappella and choral singing is and has always been, for people who love it, the only hobby worth having,” said Epstein. “There are a huge number of people who love to sing in a choir. For people who are musical and love to sing, it’s often the highlight of their week. Jewish or not Jewish, it doesn’t matter.”
Jewish does matter, however, to members of Zemer Chai, the multi-denominational Jewish choir in the Washington, DC, area that she founded 37 years ago and still conducts.
On Friday-Saturday, Jan. 25-26, Epstein will serve as artist-in-residence at the Summit Jewish Community Center, where she will have a role both on Friday night and during Saturday morning services, as well as Havdala.
In her presentations, she will focuses on using music to help people get past whatever obstacles they find in the liturgy.
“As the music flies to the heart, our brains are less worried about whatever the text says about God that we may not exactly believe,” she said. “When we read words about God in a literal way, we can shut down; people don’t want to listen to a responsive reading with words they cannot believe and don’t want to hear. But music is so powerful. It engages the heart, not the brain, and it takes you to a place the words want to take you to but can’t quite get there.”
At the Summit JCC, she’ll also focus on the ways that music bridges ideological differences among Jews. Currently, Zemer Chai has 32 singers, with Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform members, as well as unaffiliated singers, for whom the choir itself is a connection to Jewish life.
“This was part of my idealism in my 20s: to have a room full of Jews who would otherwise never know each other and find common ground through music,” said Epstein in a recent phone interview.
Before launching Zemer Chai, she found few opportunities to sing the Jewish music she loved. “There were many choices of choirs. But if you don’t want to sing Christmas carols or about Jesus, or be in a position where the final dress rehearsal or performance was on a Friday night or a holiday, you’ve got problems,” she said. “So this little niche is for people who love to sing and who love to sing choral music, but don’t want to split their musical selves from their Jewish selves.”
Unlike synagogue choirs, Zemer Chai is a concert choir and does not participate in worship services. Its audition process is also more rigorous than the average synagogue choir, which rarely turns away prospective members.
While synagogues have embraced “rock Shabbats” or song leaders who draw on folk and pop traditions, Epstein eschews what she calls “easy listening” music. A Zemer Chai concert might include a Hebrew anthem by famed Israeli songwriter Naomi Shemer, a Yiddish work composed by the early-20th-century Ukrainian composer Lazar Weiner, or Epstein’s own arrangement of a Ladino melody from Turkey.
“What I believe is the spirit and soul of the Jewish people is carried in the music,” she said. “I am committed to preserving old tunes. Jewish people need to sing tunes from all periods of history and around the globe. These tunes connect us to our parents and grandparents, to Jews who lived thousands of years before us, and to Jews on the other side of the world.
“And they connect us to our children, and in some ways to ourselves.”
She said music is a kind of portable cultural and religious identity that Jews have taken out of the countries from which they fled or were expelled.
“Consequently, the tunes have lasted and have gotten passed down from generation to generation,” Epstein said, adding that now, if people don’t sing them to their children, the music “may be lost.”
Such music, she said, must be heard with “a sound you want children to remember, to be there when you are not.” She offered as an example the sound of a full congregation singing the last lines of Avinu Malkeinu toward the end of Yom Kippur.
“I’m planting the seeds to create that sound every single week,” she said.