When all you hear are superlatives, you look deeper. After all, nothing can be that good. But when you talk to members of the Jewish choral group Zamir Noded, cynicism begins to give way to appreciation.
Why do they say they love being part of the group?
First, according to its members — young adults ranging in age from 18 to their early 30s — it gives them the opportunity to work directly with Matthew Lazar two hours a week.
“Mati has high standards and is an incredible musician and leader,” Noded member Zoe Grossman said. Ms. Grossman, who grew up in Teaneck and is an alumna of HaZamir Bergen County, will be honored by HaZamir — The International Jewish Teen Choir — at its 26th annual gala concert on March 31.
“I love Mati,” Nathaniel Ribner said. “I was talking to people in the choir about how much we take him for granted, yet some people fly in from all over the world to be directed by him for one weekend. He’s a once in a generation kind of guy.
“He’s a supreme educator. I’ve never found anyone in my 26 years who I have enjoyed being critiqued by as much as him.”
And Mr. Ribner — who also grew up in Teaneck — knows what he’s talking about . He sings in the Jewish a capella group Six13.
“Mati talks about music history and how it relates to specific pieces,” Noded-nik Leora Lupkin of Teaneck said. Ms. Lupkin, who is a junior at Barnard College, said that she is thoroughly enjoying this informal education.
In addition to kvelling about the director, the Noded members paid tribute to the music they are making, the skills they are learning, and the friendships they are developing. While fitting a two-hour rehearsal into their academic or work schedule is not always easy, it clearly is fulfilling.
So who is Mati Lazar, why do Noded members say they are privileged to work with him, and what does he say about Zamir Noded?
Leaving aside his stints as lecturer, scholar-in-residence, and guest conductor for leading orchestras, Mr. Lazar is the founder and director of the Zamir Choral Foundation, committed to nurturing the growth of Jewish choral singing in North America and Israel. As part of this effort, he directs the Zamir Chorale and has inspired the creation of adult choral ensembles throughout the United States.
As a conductor and interpreter of Jewish music, he also has helped expand the choral repertoire by commissioning new music from noted composers, and he created the North American Jewish Choral Festival, which brings together hundreds of Jewish choral singers for an annual weeklong immersion in Jewish choral music.
HaZamir was established in 1993 to provide choral singing opportunities for Jewish high school students. That chorus, directed by Vivian Lazar, has grown into a movement of some 40 chapters. Noded is a more recent initiative, created in 2013. The group, for which a singer must audition, presented its debut performance at the Zamir Foundation’s Chanukah concert at Merkin Concert Hall in December of that year.
Mr. Lazar seems to be as proud of his newest choral group as it is pleased to be working alongside him. “HaZamir alums came to me because they were so disappointed that they couldn’t find singing possibilities in college, or there were no choirs for them to sing in at the same high level HaZamir ingrained in them,” he said. “And those who came close to that level were not singing Jewish music.” In other words, they could not find “the interface between excellence and Jewish identity expressed through Jewish choral singing.
“They were looking for an opportunity,” he said.
Responding to those concerns, Mr. Lazar created Zamir Noded, which now meets weekly at the office of the Zamir Choral Foundation on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “They’re fantastic young people,” he said; the group has grown steadily and now includes about 40 young adults.
Their program, he said, is “very challenging. They’re eager to learn and not only maintain high standards, but are well trained and love being nuanced on the spot. It’s a combination of precision and nuance, filled with emotion.”
Most of the singers had been in either the HaZamir chamber choir or “a higher-level smaller group with more developed skills and a higher level of repertoire,” he continued. This is reminiscent of the Zamir Chorale years ago, “when they were almost the same age as these kids. It’s rewarding to me to see the next generation of young Jewish people so excited about coming together in a high-level, non-judgmental way, musically, socially, and Jewishly.”
The most important component of all great choral music is integrating the text and the music, Mr. Lazar said. “It’s accessing both parts of the brain, one side processing text while the other is involved in the music, pitches and rhythm. You’re engaging two different skill sets, unifying them, and doing it with other people who are singing other parts. It’s very different from other kinds of singing.”
Zamir Noded will perform on March 3 at Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom. The concert is being endowed by Teaneck residents Adina Avery Grossman and Harman Grossman in memory of the late Cantor Lawrence Avery and Saralee Avery. The program “will reflect the culture and history of the Jewish people,” Mr. Lazar said. “The texts are expressive of different aspects of Jewish culture, with both Israeli and American classics.”
Almost one month later, the group will have a set at the HaZamir annual concert at Lincoln Center as part of the alumni group. Noded is “already proving itself to be a social and cultural vehicle for Jewish young people,” Mr. Lazar said. “There’s social engagement, fun, and a serious, non-judgmental environment across many borders.”
Zoe Grossman has been singing for a long time — “right out of the womb,” she joked. But it may well be true. “Since I was little, it was part of our home life. Singing around the Shabbat table; Tzipporei Shalom” — Congregation Beth Sholom’s children’s choir, which her mother, Adina Grossman, helps to conduct — “HaZamir in high school. I’ve been singing in organized Jewish choral groups since I was 5.” Her home, she said, “was filled with music all the time. We had Shabbat dinners in four-part harmony.”
Ms. Grossman, 25, graduated from Brandeis in 2016 and now lives on the Upper West Side. HaZamir provided a “good foundation, a good jumping-off point to learn Jewish choral music,” she said. Noded “is a self-selecting” group of young adults committed both to Jewish choral music and to a certain standard of excellence.
Singing with the group is both familiar and new for her. She sang some of its pieces in high school. But even with those pieces, “now, as young adults, we have a different approach to it,” she said. “You learn new things about a piece when you sing it again.” The group also sings new pieces and new composers.
Ms. Grossman, who works for the Casper Mattress Co., will receive the Young Leadership Award at HaZamir’s March 31 concert. This is the first time the group will present such an award. “We’re investing in the next generation of Jewish choral music singers and supporters,” Ms. Grossman said, and she is excited to be receiving the award.
“In high school I felt there was space for a new program in HaZamir,” she said. “Vivian Lazar and I created a teen leadership program. I wrote a manual and handbook, and it’s blown up and grown into an amazing program, with one or two teen leaders from every HaZamir chapter.” The leaders, she explained, “act as a liaison between the singers and the organization and provide new singers with friendly faces at the first rehearsal. They also hold ice breakers, like camp counselors, to ensure a safe and warm space.”
It can be hard for latecomers to the group, she acknowledged. “In high school, it’s never easy to enter into a new space.” But teen leaders are on the lookout for new faces, helping the new members meet others and integrate into the group. “I met some amazing people in HaZamir and recognized people who could have benefited from this,” she said.
Working on the program has enriched her life. “I had an amazing opportunity to travel with Mati and Vivian to Dallas and L.A. to promote HaZamir, and I got tremendous insight into what Ha-Zamir could do for teenagers,” she said. “I knew how it was affecting me, but I could see how it could influence other students who never saw it.
“It’s a place where I’ve met Jews from so many different backgrounds and have become incredibly close friends with people who practice Judaism differently. We have the common language of music and we’re there for the same reason. The barriers are broken down almost immediately.
“It’s definitely influenced my approach to Judaism and my appreciation for different streams of Judaism.”
A case in point: One of her new friends is Nathaniel Ribner, who grew up in Teaneck’s Orthodox community. “We only met a year ago but we grew up four blocks from each other,” Ms. Grossman said. “I feel so lucky we both ended up singing here. Our paths wouldn’t have crossed.”
She believes that not only is Jewish choral singing important to her now, but “it definitely will be important in the future.” She talked about the group’s first rehearsal this semester — the choral group works on a college schedule, since a lot of members come from NYU, City College, Rutgers, Barnard, and other schools. “There were probably around 50 people,” she said. “There were no novices, since a certain level is expected. You need a really good ear and the right sound.
“Having a group of young people be so passionate about Jewish choral music is not something you expect every day. And not just passionate — if you look at pictures of us in concert, you can see we love what we’re doing. We’re having the best time singing with Mati and with each other. We’ve heard from the audience that the feelings of love and joy are really contagious.”
Nathaniel Ribner found out about Zamir Noded a year ago. Now, he loves it.
“I was very involved in the Jewish music scene but hadn’t sung in a choir since grade school,” he said. “Most of the participants in Noded have been in HaZamir. A lot joined as a continuation. I came from the Jewish a capella world. I still do it, but Noded is more fun because of how different it is. I connect Jewishly in a different way.”
Mr. Ribner, who works in corporate marketing for B&H, started playing piano when he was 6 and continued for 10 years. “I still play, but I mostly did singing in elementary school and middle school” — that was Moriah — “and a little in high school,” Frisch.
“In Frisch, I wasn’t aware of Ha-Zamir,” he said. “Anyway, I didn’t know I could have participated. I knew it was a Jewish choir but I didn’t know that anyone could do it. I thought it was just for Schechter kids.” (Solomon Schechter day schools are under Conservative movement auspices, and Mr. Ribner is modern Orthodox.)
At Yeshiva University, he participated in the singing group called Y-Studs. (It means Yeshiva Students.) Now he sings with Six13; the group produced a parody of Bohemian Rhapsody that went viral this Chanukah. “It got 4 million views in a few weeks,” Mr. Ribner said.
Singing with Noded is “not all about fun,” he said. “You’re working toward a goal.” He knew two people in the group before he joined, “friends through the singing world.” One of them was Josh Sauer of Franklin Lakes, another member of Six13. “I came to take a look, to check it out. Zoe came over and was friendly and welcoming. The second we started performing, I thought, this is something I’m sticking with.”
Now, he said, he is pushing himself musically, something you don’t do when you are involved in one area for a long period of time. “It’s important to open yourself up to a different genre,” he said. “Mati has a way of connecting you to much older pieces and explaining the feeling you should sing them with. He’s connecting us from 2019 to the 1300s. It’s really completely different.”
Mr. Ribner thinks that more people should know about the group; if they can sing, they should show up to audition to join it. He hopes that even if his future involvement in choral music is only partial, “It will always be something I do.”
Leora Lupkin, who now is majoring in religion and Middle Eastern studies at Barnard, began her musical life at Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck, singing with Tzipporei Shalom. Since her three sisters were there as well — either actively or as alumni — and since her parents were in Tavim, the synagogue’s adult a capella group, there were times when all six were singing.
When she was in ninth grade, Ms. Lupkin joined Ha-Zamir Bergen County. She didn’t start singing with Zamir Noded until her fifth semester at college. “I started singing with an a capella group,” she said, but ultimately she decided to join Noded. “One of the reasons I left the first group was that I missed doing Jewish music. Jewish identity is part of the music. You really get that in any of the Zamir projects.
“Noded is much larger now than when it started, and it’s structurally different from a HaZamir rehearsal,” she continued. “The way Mati teaches is different from Ronit.” (Beth Sholom’s Cantor Ronit Wolff Hanan is the conductor of HaZamir Bergen County.) “They’re both incredible, but I grew up learning from Ronit and moved to learning with Mati.”
When she joined the group, she said, “I had a limited ability to sight-sing. It’s really stressed in this group. No part gets rehearsed by itself. You have to really know the music because we mix all the time.” That means, she said, that the singers spread out and may end up next to someone who may not be singing his or her voice part. “It’s a way to make sure you really know the music.”
Last semester, she said, the group sang mainly in Hebrew, with some English songs and two in Ladino. Noded usually performs once or twice per semester; some HaZamir alums go back to perform with that group at its annual concert.
In Zamir Noded, Ms. Lupkin has met people from different backgrounds. Some are still in college, and some are in graduate school or the working world. They also come from different denominational backgrounds. “It’s really nice,” she said. “The fantastic part of doing Zamir is that you get people from different denominations singing the same music. Right away you can sing together.”
Adina Grossman, a board member of the Zamir Choral Foundation, said she became involved with the organization because of Zoe’s musical involvement. And while clearly she has succeeded in passing down her own love of Jewish music to her children — her son Eli, she said, also has some a capella singing under his belt — for Zoe, choral singing is “her main extracurricular activity. She was born with natural talent,” and then singing with Tzipporei Shalom, HaZamir, and Noded “brought it to a whole new level.”
“The music these young adults make is incredible,” Ms. Grossman said, crediting Mr. Lazar with giving Noded members “an opportunity to really explore the texts themselves and music overlaid on these texts. It makes the Jewish aspect of those texts more meaningful” to the singers. Members “may be singing a prayer they sing every week, but hearing it come to life through a composer, the other singers, and Mati, it takes that knowledge to a more emotional place.
“I went to a Noded concert in New Haven and it was every bit as meticulous and amazing as HaZamir. It was really impeccable. The audience was stunned.”
The March concert at Beth Sholom, which is free and open to the public, is being sponsored in memory of Ms. Grossman’s parents. Both their yartzeits fall in the spring. “It’s an opportunity to make something happen musically for the shul,” she said. “My parents would have loved Noded’s level of artistry and level of Jewishness.” And, of course, seeing their granddaughter sing.
Cantor Ronit Wolff Hanan, Beth Sholom’s music director, said that the new young adults group is an important addition to Zamir’s offerings. She encourages her HaZamir students to audition for it. “It’s another activity for Jewish young people — for socializing and being exposed to all different walks of Jewish life,” she said.
“For example, Zoe and Leora were both in HaZamir and grew up at Beth Sholom, but they had different Jewish journeys. Nathaniel grew up in an Orthodox shul. They get a high-level musical experience they may not be getting elsewhere, as well as a connection to Jewish texts.
“The rest of the story is the fact that a fair number of these young adults hail from Bergen and surrounding counties. One New Jersey native is a current cantorial student at JTS and a HaZa-Prep conductor on Long Island. Another is a music educator and a HaZamir conductor in Westchester. Two of them sing in the well-known a cappella group Six13 and sometimes sub for other groups, including the Maccabeats. Some of the singers grew up not affiliating with a synagogue at all, while others were steeped in Jewish life.”
The cantor then answered a very important question: What does the name Zamir Noded mean?
“It’s word play,” she said. “Zamar Noded (Zamar with an ‘a’, meaning singer) is the name of a famous song by Israeli composer and lyricist Naomi Shemer,” who wrote hundreds of songs, including Yerushalayim Shel Zahav and Lu Yehi. “So literally, it means ‘Wandering Singer.’ They took that name and changed the ‘a’ to an ‘i’ to make Zamir Noded, since it’s part of the Zamir Choral Foundation. A Mati Lazar arrangement of Zamar Noded is always included in their concerts.”
Singers interested in joining Zamir Noded can arrange an audition by emailing ZamirNoded@ZamirChoralFoundation.org