It’s not that often that you can find deep friendship, solace, excitement, support, huge injections of major small-child adorability, music, community and Shabbat through a ukulele.
Lois Brodie of Fort Lee did.
It’s at Shaboomers, one of the offshoots of the Shababa tree.
What is all this?
It all starts out with a play on words; sababa means cool, more or less, not as a measure of temperature but of, well, coolness. Shabbat is obvious. The Sabbath. Saturday. The day of rest.
So Shababa combines those two, twines them around each other, the lovely mouth-filling sh sound and then the baba part, deliciously fun as it leaves your lips.
Shababa is a program that began at the 92nd Street Y on Manhattan’s Upper East Side and since has gone global. It started as a program for very young children and their parents or caregivers (remember, this is the Upper East Side) and since has grown to include the Shababa Sparks, for slightly older children, the self-explanatory Shababa Mamas, the Shababa Abbas (who meet less regularly but come together for special occasions and performances), the Shababa Nannies, and the Shaboomers. Who are, but of course, baby boomers. (You might not remember the song “Shaboom,” by the Crew Cuts, from 1956, and in fact most of the Shaboomers probably don’t remember it from then either, but that’s where the name came from.)
Ms. Brodie became a Shaboomer after her son-in-law saw it listed in a catalogue and told her, “Ma, this has your name on it.” That was about two years ago; Ms. Brodie’s husband, Richard, had died a few years before, and she had moved out of their long-time family home in Tenafly to an apartment with no lawn to maintain, windows on three walls that overlooked the Hudson, the George Washington Bridge, and New Jersey, and no memories.
Ms. Brodie, who grew up in Jamaica, Queens, had been a music major at Cortland, one of the colleges of the State University of New York. Her main instrument was the cello, she also played piano and guitar — and the far more portable ukulele and the even more portable harmonica.
She also had recently retired from her job at the Ridgewood public library, where she was head of the children’s department. She worked with puppets and sometimes played the ukulele in the library.
All of that — the music, the singing, the instruments, the outreach, the puppets — are prized (although not necessary) attributes for Shaboomers.
Now, the Shabbomers are a big part of Ms. Brodie’s life. “We meet every other Wednesday,” she said. “It’s supposed to be from 11 to 12, but it ends later because we can’t pull ourselves away.” It started as a singing group, but “it’s become so much more than that. We are a sisterhood group — men are welcome, and we’d be happy if some men were to join us, but none have appeared. We are all of grandmother age; some of us have retired, and some of us never really worked. Some have kids and grandkids, and some don’t.” Ms. Brodie has two children, and so far three grandchildren too.
But the differences in the women’s background don’t matter.
Not everyone in the Shaboomers is particularly musical, Ms. Brodie said — “you don’t have to audition to join, and let’s just say that it’s even better if you can carry a tune.”
The Shaboomers are part of the big Shababa concerts, and they also sing at nursing homes, assisted living facilities, and childcare centers.
Esther Genuth lives in Bergenfield with her husband and their three children, 4-year-old twins Adira and Orly and seven-month-old Amitai. She’s a college counselor at the Frisch School. She’s new to the suburbs — the family moved to Bergen County at the end of the summer — and much as she loves her new life, part of her heart still is with Shababa.
Shababa meets twice a week for Shabbat services; first on Fridays and then on Saturday mornings.
“We used to live on the Upper East Side,” Ms. Genuth said. “Since they were four months old, either I or my nanny took Adira and Orly to Shababa. They were there almost every single Friday, and when they started to go to school on Fridays, I was sad because they couldn’t go.
“Shababa is one of the things I miss most about the city. It became a community for us.”
What’s so special about it? “It is meant to get kids excited about Shabbat — or at least that’s what I thought when I first took my kids there,” Ms. Genuth said. “But then I realized that it is more of a warm, welcoming community for all different kinds of people. I started seeing different faces all around the city from Shababa. It was so amazing.
“Rebecca and Karina” — that’s Shababa’s founder, Karina Zilberman, who won a Covenant Jewish education award in 2013 for Shababa, and Rebecca Schoffer, who took over Shababa at the Y a few years ago — “were their celebrities. Their pretend play was being Rebecca and Karina. This was an amazing once-a-week opportunity to just focus.
“Lots of kids’ activities get very crazy. They’re all over the place. But Rebecca and Karina were able to make kids excited about Judaism. Shababa became about the larger picture of being Jewish.”
Shababa on Fridays begins with a lot of movement and music, Ms. Genuth said. “There is a lot of jumping, singing.” A lot of energy. A lot of instrumental music. But then, “at the end, they do the Shema.
“They turn off the microphones and move away from the guitars. Those last 15 minutes are when they turn everything off. It’s all about slowing down your week and focusing on being there, in the moment. It is 45 minutes of not looking at your phone, of putting your phone away. It is about being in the moment. And it’s the Shema that is the culmination. And that’s how my girls — aside from being taught at home — that’s how they learned the Shema.”
It’s for the kids, but it’s not only for the kids, she said. There are mothers and nannies, and “there are a lot of nannies who know the Shema,” she said. “There are older parents, and there are grandparents. There’s an older woman who isn’t a grandparent but always goes anyway, because she loves it.”
Ms. Genuth adds to the diversity. She and her family are Orthodox; Shababa began at least in part as an outreach to the secular Jewish community, but has extended way beyond that demographic and now reaches across the Jewish world. “You can’t really tell people’s denominations when you go there, and it really doesn’t matter,” she said. “It’s all about who’s there.”
At first, Ms. Genuth just went to Shababa on Friday mornings, but soon she noticed that although her daughter Adira loved the family’s modern Orthodox shul, just a few blocks north of the Y, Orly did not. “So my husband and I would split for the morning,” she said. “He’d take Adira with him, and I’d take Orly with me.”
There is no Shababa in Bergen County, Ms. Genuth said, although certainly some of the local shuls do great things with their children’s services. She still takes her children to Shababa concerts, and because she works in a school and has the summer off, she plans on taking them to Friday mornings again during those months. Still she misses the weekly Shababa, and she hopes that maybe some day the Shababa empire could set up a branch in Bergen County. Then once again her children’s Friday mornings could feel its joy, and her son could grow up with it as her daughters have.
At base, she said, “it’s authentic. Rebecca and Karina have the ability to connect with everyone. It takes talent, and it is real. They can connect both with children and with adults, and with families. They are very special people.”
Rebecca Schoffer is the Y’s director of Jewish engagement. She lives in Manhattan and directs Shababa there, but has strong local roots. She comes from south Jersey — Margate — but her grandmother, Norma Zimmerman, was from North Bergen, and her grandfather, the marvelously named Smitty Zimmerman, was from Weehawken. They both graduated from Weehawken High School. Her mother, Patti Zimmerman Schoffer, grew up in Palisades Park and graduated from Palisades Park High School. Her grandparents later moved to Leonia, where Ms. Schoffer spent a lot of time as a child.
She’s trained as an actress and singer.
It makes sense for her to weave her family into the discussion because Shababa itself is multigenerational, she said. It began 10 years ago on the floor of the busy lobby of the 92nd Street Y because there are always more programs that want rooms than rooms to offer them, and so “Karina would go to the lobby on Friday mornings. She’d take her guitar and she’d take her puppet Cocoa, and she started celebrating Shabbat.
“Now, I have a girl in high school who is volunteering her time in Shababa who started on the floor with Karina. We have nannies who finish with one family and start with another and say that ‘We must go to Shababa.’
“Now, a lot of parents and grandparents come on Fridays. There’s a real mix. I play a lot of Jewish music, and some folk music, some spirituals. I try to make it universal. We are here to celebrate Shabbat and Jewish life and all the people in the room and where we all come from and what brings us together, to this special holy place.”
Shabbat morning are slightly different. “We pray with our whole bodies. It’s not a class. It’s an experience. We make it spiritual. We celebrate how close playing and praying are to each other. When we play, we open up the senses to the holy inside ourselves.
“We feel very strongly about helping to find connections to Jewish life, and to each other, and we need that today more than ever. We all live such crazy busy lives, so when we create a space to sit down and unplug and be together, something very holy happens. It is a very special moment.
“We hope to be engaging to the kids and also to the adults. It’s not a kids’ program. It’s for everybody. Everybody is engaged and present and in the moment, with no phones, eyes up, voices lifted.”
Children “rejoice in ritual and repetition,” and a prayer service provides those things, but the tone varies depending on who is in the room and what has happened that week. The leaders are sensitive to the feeling. “If the kids start by jumping around, I will sit down on the carpet and play very slowly, but if I walk in and everyone is yawning and sleepy, I bring a different energy,” Ms. Schoffer said. “I listen to the needs of the room every day.”
She loves the Shaboomers. “It is a lovely sisterhood of women who come together for singing and conversation and to be there for each other.
“We are a group that sings together. There is very little small talk between us. We talk about death and life and the world and health and sickness and whatever is really going on between us. It is a special bond. We are very real with each other. We sing together, and that is one way that we create the space together, but we are much more than a singing group.”
Ms. Schoffer includes herself in the group, but she is far younger than its other members. But “most Shababa experiences are intergenerational.” And anyway, these women “bring a special energy when they come to Shababa Fridays” — something they do a few weeks every year — “they light it up. There is a very special energy they bring to the room.
“They are all like Lois. You know the way she brings warmth with her? The way she smiles and everything lights up? And the way she always is smiling? They are very special women. They are not a choir. They are a group of women who love to sing, and who light up the room.”
All of Shababa, from the smallest children to the Shaboomers, comes together for a concert around Chanukah. Those concerts are online, so if you want to know what it looks and sounds like, just google it, and enjoy.