When Menorah Winston sings the classic song of the Yiddish theater, “Rumania, Rumania,” at the Fort Lee Public Library on Sunday at 2 p.m., pay close attention.
Because the nostalgia of the song, which composer Aaron Lebedeff first recorded in 1925, applies to Winston as well.
She was born and grew up in Bucharest, Romania.
Winston’s memories include the opportunity to shake hands with Israeli leaders Menachem Begin and Moshe Dayan when they visited Bucharest in the 1970s and the synagogue choir she was in sang for them.
She remembers as well singing a solo in the choir welcoming visiting Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. “He dropped his fork,” she said.
Together with the Yiddish theater, her youth choir put on shows for Purim. “We celebrated and made jokes about our rabbi,” Rabbi Moses Rosen, the country’s chief rabbi from 1948 until his death in 1994. The choir toured Romania, “singing Israeli music and Yiddish songs. People in our community traveled two or three times a year to Israel, and always brought back cassettes and records,” she said.
Despite the cultural freedom, there was an inherent tension in being Jewish in Romania in those years.
“We were basically torn apart between the school – the Communist regime said God did not exist – and our rabbi, who gave sermons on how to stay close to our tradition and how to acknowledge God’s existence,” she said.
After high school, she emigrated first to Israel, and then to the United States, where she studied singing at the Manhattan School of Music, and later trained as a cantor at the Hebrew Union College ““ Jewish Institute of Religion.
Now, though, she finds that her operatic experience and classical hazzanut is less desired by congregations than what she calls “summer camp” music. She finds part-time work as a cantor; this month she led services in Boise, Idaho, during the High Holy Days.
“I continue to apply for cantorial jobs,” she said. “It’s a great love for me to serve a Jewish community.”