Covid life is full of unpleasant ironies.
To be polite, we have to be rude. To be warm, we have to appear cold. To maintain community, we have to keep our distance.
We cross the street when we see other people; we cover our faces in their presence; we recoil at the mere idea of a hug, much less a kiss.
Music bypasses our brains to go straight to our hearts and souls, but we are not allowed to sing in public; in fact, singing is one of the worst things we could possibly do, one of the most certain ways of spreading the virus.
But just as we don’t give up on friendship or love or community, we don’t give up on music. We just have to reconsider the way we sing, at least for now.
That’s what Hazamir is doing.
Hazamir — more formally, Hazamir: The International Jewish Teen Choir — is an organization made up of chapters of ninth- through twelfth-graders. It’s pluralistic in that it welcomes Jewish teens of any background; it’s almost elitist in that it accepts members by audition and prefers singers who actually can sing. It’s got chapters throughout New Jersey and downstate New York.
Although of course it cannot allow anyone to sing together, Hazamir’s leaders did not want to deprive its members of music, so they are experimenting with ways to keep people safe and keep their song alive.
Cantor Ronit Wolff Hanan is the music director at Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck, and she leads the Bergen County Hazamir chapter. Last Sunday, she oversaw a five-chapter open house that explained the group to potential new members and gave old members the chance to reconnect and look forward.
Usually, a Hazamir season starts with a chapter working together; in midwinter, a regional gathering brings a few groups, with all their voices, to make a bigger sound. And then, usually in mid-March, before Pesach, there’s a weekend festival, and then “we always have a huge gala performance,” Cantor Wolff Hanan said. “The Israeli chapters come in; we in Teaneck host the Hazamir Hasharon chapter. There’s a whole lead-up to the festival. It’s usually about 100 kids from Israel, and another 300 come from coast to coast, from across the United States. They all come together for the festival, work with each other’s conductors, there are teen-led activities, and they get to know each other. There’s Shabbat — we’re totally Shabbat observant — and it’s a very intense weekend.” In 2020, that weekend was spent at a hotel in Stamford, Connecticut. On the Sunday afternoon of the festival, Hazamir members, staff, and their entourage all are bused to David Geffen Hall at Lincoln Center for the final concert.
“Kids come from all walks of Jewish life; from the non-affiliated to the Orthodox-affiliated, and everyone in between,” Cantor Wolff Hanan said. There are kids from day schools, who live and breathe Judaism all day and all week and all year, and kids for whom this is their only Jewish experience. Even in Bergen County, we get this breadth of Jewish experience.
“The festival is where they get to meet kids from other parts of the Jewish world, both geographically and in terms of observance.
“The Israeli kids learn what American Judaism is. They have never seen it before. In Israel it’s all black or white; you either are religious or you are not. And American kids learn to embrace their difference. They have the common language of music, which transcends all that. There are no political differences. There are no religious differences. There is just soprano, alto, tenor, and bass.”
This year was different.
“The first piece of news was that the Israeli government wasn’t allowing the kids to fly,” Cantor Wolff Hanan said. “That was a huge disappointment, but we were still planning to have the American chapters meet and have their concert. And then, when it became clear that gatherings were not allowed, we had to cancel the festival and the concert.
“There were tears all over, as soon as word got out that the concert would be canceled. There was nothing that could replace it.”
There’s a real emotional charge that you get from being in a large choir, Cantor Wolff Hanan said, and Hazamir brings kids to it gradually. “The kids were used to singing in groups of 5, 10, maybe 15 kids.” Then the midwinter weekend — usually on Martin Luther Day Jr. Day, in January — would introduce them to a larger group, sometimes as many as 200 people, sometimes even 250. “And then all of a sudden to be singing with 400 other people — it is an amazingly powerful experience.”
The festival also would introduce ninth graders to the joys of large-group singing, and allow soon-to-graduate seniors their swan song. “They were singing really sophisticated choral music,” Cantor Wolff Hanan said. It was music that most kids assumed they wouldn’t be able to sing before they started, and were doing with ease by the time they were done.
All that ended abruptly and irrevocably, at least for this year.
Hazamir International started offering courses, programs, and social activities online almost immediately. It was smart and effective, but not the same as singing.
One of the problems with all the platforms that educators, businesses leaders, friends, and just about everyone else uses is that there always is a time lag. You cannot sing with someone else. It just doesn’t work. The technology to allow it has not yet been invented. “We looked at every platform under the sun. Every choir did that. Everyone was trying to find something that works in real time, without the lag,” Cantor Wolff Hanan said. “Nothing doing.”
At first, Hazamir’s leaders hoped that this upcoming new school year would allow everyone to go back to normal, but soon they realized that the new abnormal would continue. “As it became clear that we were not going to be able to start our 2021 season in the normal way, with gatherings and rehearsals, the international office got to work,” she said. “We had an international conductors meeting and brainstormed ways in which we could actually rehearse, not in person.” Some real good came out of that. “Although in a normal year we would rehearse just with our chapter, or maybe with one other one, until the winter retreat, this year we used covid for our advantage.
“We had a five-chapter open house, and it was virtual. It was all on Zoom. We had Bergen, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Westchester, and Columbus, Ohio.”
The Zoom meeting included three breakout sessions; in one, the teens met for icebreakers while the adults were invited to an informational meeting, which both gave them facts and also got them out of their kids’ faces. In the next breakout session, the kids were divided by their voices into four sections — soprano, alto, tenor, and bass. They rehearsed. “Because you can’t have everyone singing in a Zoom meeting, because that’s just a cacophony, we were sampling how we would teach a voice part in a regular rehearsal,” Cantor Wolff Hanan said. “I took the alto section. We taught them a piece of music — we shared it on the screen because they didn’t have it yet, but at a regular rehearsal they would — and there I was at my piano, scrolling the music on my screen, teaching the alto section. I was the only one unmuted, but they all were singing.
“In a longer rehearsal, there would have been interactive parts, there would have been questions, but we didn’t have time at this one.
“And then we came back together and played the piece we’d learned. It was a beautiful piece, ‘Heal Us Now,’ by Leon Sher.” (Leon Sher was the first conductor of the Bergen County Hazamir chapter, which he cofounded with Cantor Wolff Hanan.) “The Israeli chapter Hazamir Hasharon made the video, and it has been circulating like wildfire.” (You can find it on YouTube; it’s beautiful. The music and the faces of the young singers combine to make magic.)
“So we came together and played the video, and the kids could sing along with it,” Cantor Wolff Hanan said. The third breakout session was by chapter, so participants could catch up with each other.
“One of the things that makes Hazamir Hazamir for me is its pluralistic nature,” Cantor Wolff Hanan said. “And the other part of it is its high standards for music and performance. The kids totally rise to the occasion, in singing incredibly sophisticated music.”
How will it work this year?
“The plan is to start our season virtually, similarly to the way we did the open house,” she said. She’s talking to other chapters about holding joint meetings. It’s the you-have-lemons-so-make-lemonade approach that characterizes many organizations’ activities during covid. Make the best use of what you have. If distance doesn’t matter, then distance doesn’t matter. (Except, of course, when it comes to time zones. You can’t have a Sunday morning meeting if it’s only morning for some of you, and for others it’s the afternoon or the middle of the night.)
That means that while until now “up until January, kids didn’t really understand that Hazamir is so much larger than a local teen choir, now they can understand that they are part of something larger right from the start.”
That’s another irony, but a good one. When you most feel that you’re trapped in your own little Zoom box, you get to realize that you’re part of a big movement. A whole world of people who find joy and togetherness in the sounds that come out of their own mouths. From their own individual songs, put together.
To learn more about Hazamir in Bergen County, including how to go to its first meeting and how to audition, email Cantor Ronit Wolff Hanan at firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.hazamir.org.