There seems to be an unfair distribution of talent in this world. There are more genuinely talented people, it seems, than there are audiences to support them.
So sometimes talented people give up on their talents, at least for the middle of their careers, setting them aside as they take care of their children, earn money, live their lives as upright citizens.
But sometimes they keep on working at it in the background, keep singing, keep painting, keep writing. And then they retire, with their desire to make art still alive — and they have the time and energy and wisdom to find their audiences.
That’s what Lois Goldrich of Fair Lawn and her singing partner, Joe Ferrante of North Haledon, have done.
They’ll be singing at the Jewish Community Center of Fort Lee on Wednesday, March 13, as part of the synagogue’s March music series. (See box.)
Lois — it’s too hard to do the formal Ms. Goldrich stuff here — has worked for the Jewish Standard for a long time; she was this newspaper’s editor, years ago, before leaving to head the communications department at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. She retired from that job a few years after her husband, Kenneth Goldrich, died in 2004; the two had been deeply in love, and Ken’s death was a huge blow to Lois. But Lois managed to keep going; her name probably is familiar to our readers because she’s among the most stalwart of our writers.
What her readers don’t necessarily know is that Lois always was a singer. She grew up in East New York, Brooklyn, and then in Laurelton, Queens; her house, she said “always was filled with music.” Her mother, Elsie Silverman Kaplan, loved opera. Her own mother died when Elsie was 3, living on the Lower East Side, and her father couldn’t afford music lessons, but she got free lessons from a local voice teacher and trained as an opera singer. “She had a beautiful soprano, but it wasn’t strong,” Lois said. “I used to play piano for her while she sang, and later my daughter, Keren, played piano for me when I sang.”
Different times made for different tastes. “My mother couldn’t understand how I could like rock ’n’ roll, because I liked classical music. She didn’t understand why I made such a big fuss over Barbra Streisand, because she had seen Fanny Brice.”
Lois sang in school choruses, and after she got married, “I would bring my guitar to sisterhood meetings,” she said; “I learned to play guitar then, but I only learned the chords that I needed.”
She moved to Fair Lawn in 1976, and still lives in the house where she brought up her three children.
Later, she took classes in Manhattan that culminated in performances in clubs like Don’t Tell Mama. “I loved the feeling of being in a dark place, surrounded by the audience, up close, singing the songs I love.” By then, her repertoire consisted in large part of the Great American Songbook.
She remembers singing “The Man Who Got Away” soon after her husband died. “My widowed friends all sat in the front row, and we all cried,” she said. She only sings songs that have meaning to her, she said; “that one has a lot of emotion, and I felt that my own emotion was poured into it.
“I can’t sing what I can’t feel,” she added. “I feel that a song chooses me.”
It’s not unlike her writing, she added — to be fair, when prompted. “I like to touch people through my articles,” she said. “When people tell me that they are moved by something I’ve written, I’m moved by that, so yes, it is related.”
Joe’s backstory is different. He’s entirely local — born in Passaic in 1940, grew up in Paterson, and then moved to North Haledon in 1972, where he lives now, with his wife and divorced daughter, in a house “that overlooks the city skyline,” he said. He knows the town just about as well as anybody possibly could know any town; not only has he bought and sold property there, building houses and then moving on, but for 33 years he was on the town’s police force, retiring after five years as its chief.
He joined the army in 1960 and until 1963 he was a member of the 82nd Airborne Division. “We jumped out of airplanes,” he said. He was based in North Carolina; his unit should have gone to Berlin but when the Berlin Wall went up (“We’re talking about it going up,” he stressed. “Not coming down. Going up.”) a freeze went into effect that kept all forces where they were. His service was during the civil rights era. “James Meredith,” the civil rights icon who integrated the University of Mississippi, “had to go to college, and he needed a police escort. The 82nd was there on the campus to be sure he got in.”
The most dramatic part of his service was the way it ended. “The 82nd Airborne Division was an elite corps, and with an elite corps, you couldn’t just leave when your time was up. You had to have a personal conversation with the general in charge. The general then was William Westmoreland.” The point, he said, was for the general to try to talk the younger man into staying; he’d been given a lot of expensive training and his leaving represented a loss for the Army.
“I had my meeting the General Westmoreland, and he asked me to sit down, and said ‘Tell me why you want to leave.’ And I said, ‘Sir, I am really tired of parades and living in the woods. I want to go to war.’
“This was at the very beginning of the war in Vietnam.
“He looked at me as if I was crazy. He stared at me. He studied me. And he stood up and put his hand out and said, ‘Have a good life, son.’
“He saved my life.
“That was a month or two before we brought troops into Vietnam. The 82nd was jumped in, and they were defeated, two months after I got out.
“All he had to say to me was, ‘We are going to war,’ and I would have re-enlisted. I always credit him with saving my life.”
Like Lois, Joe always sang, and there always was music “My mother was the youngest of five children,” he said. “My oldest aunt was 20 years older than my mother, and she had a son who was in the Second World War. She had a collection of records, 78s, and I remember going to her house and wanting to play the records, and I remember her saying, ‘This is how you do it. Whatever you do, don’t drop it. They’ll break.
“I would put them on, and the song I liked the most was ‘Someone to Watch Over Me.’ It had an introduction, and I would play it over and over again. The version I ended up liking most was by Ella Fitzgerald, but the one I listened to then was either Rosemary Clooney or Doris Day.
“I never heard the introduction to that song again until I was in the Bergen County Community College chorus.
“Lois had just joined the chorus, and because she has a beautiful voice, she got the solo and sang the song, and when she started I thought, ‘I know those words.’”
Now they sing it in every performance.
Joe started singing when he was in high school — it was a way to get girls, he said — and he was good. He learned how to harmonize — “I never sing lead” — and he had a number of tantalizingly near misses as he almost had a career in music. But he feels that those near misses were appropriate; he didn’t put in the obsessive, almost soul-deadening work that along with talent is necessary for success in that world.
Eventually, though, as he joined the police force and moved up in it, as he got an undergraduate and then a graduate degree, he stopped singing. He loved police work. “What I liked best was helping the residents,” he said. He pushed for and the town council approved a move to hire only people with undergraduate degrees; that helped eliminate the nepotism that often plagues small-town police forces, he said. Under his watch, the town’s ambulance system was upgraded.
But then he turned 65, and that was that. “I could have lasted easily another five years,” he said.
“I was bored.” And then he discovered the chorus. And volunteer work — he does a huge amount of it. And a doo-wop group, the Wildcats, where for years he was the only man.
And Lois — and their duo, Sentimental Journey.
Lois and Joe sing mainly for senior groups now; the music they sing, from the Great American Songbook, is not only brilliant and beautiful and emotionally wise, but it also is the sound that evokes their audiences’ youth, when they had a future rather than a past.
Recently, the two sang in their rehearsal space, which doubles as Lois’s basement. They’re good. Their knowledge and experience and innate musicality are clear. And they’re also good friends, in a way that allows them to trust each other and have fun with each other, and to invite the audience in.
They are not entirely nonprofit; the equipment is expensive, and if someone offers them money, they’ll take it. And if not, then not. “Last year, we earned $75,” Lois said. They don’t do it for the profit.
They also have a musical director; Marilyn Kessler, recently of Rochelle Park but for decades of Ridgewood, travels with them, helps them select music, helps engage the audience, helps them pick songs, and in general beams love and support at them. Marilyn’s background in theater has helped hone her instinct for what audiences want.
Lois and Marilyn met about 15 years ago, at a support group for widows, and have stayed close.
She works with Lois and Joe because it makes her happy, Marilyn said. “No matter whether I come to hear them in a bad mood or not, by the time I leave, I’m always in a good mood,” she said.
For a link to Lois and Joe’s video on YouTube, search for Lois Goldrich Sentimental Journey or youtu.be/0n6hBzndgek.
What: Music in March
Where: At Gesher Shalom — the Jewish Community Center of Fort Lee, 1449 Anderson Avenue, on Wednesdays in March; the program starts with refreshments at 12:30, then music at 1.
How much: It’s free
For information: Call (201) 947-1735 or go to geshershalom.org
What: Sentimental Journey, featuring Lois Goldrich and Joe Leonard, celebrating the music of the Gershwin and Big Band eras
When: Wednesday, March 13, at 12:30 p.m.
What: The Noah Solomon Chase Band — Sephardic music mixed with middle Eastern/Arabic styles and Jewish-American folk mixed with bluegrass.
When: Wednesday, March 20, at 1 p.m.
What: Lois Bruno and Company — Classics from the Jewish-American songbook
When: Wednesday, March March 27