Black gospel choir, Jewish singers make music together

At the final chorus of "Amazing Grace," everyone in the fellowship hall at Congregation Beth Sholom fell silent.

Even the piano accompaniment stopped. The only voices holding up the night were five members of the Sacred Heart Gospel Choir, harmonizing "I once was lost but now I'm found."

Those who had invited the gospel singers Saturday night — 100 or so Jews in the San Francisco synagogue's social hall — joined in only on the last line, swelling the testimony of "Was blind, but now I see."

"As long as we're singing and fellowshipping together, it's always going to come out good," said Sacred Heart tenor Neal Antwine, amplifying the spirit of the evening.

Members of the San Francisco Catholic Church's gospel choir and choirmaster John Scott came to Congregation Beth Sholom for the evening as guests of a regular Jewish singing society, the Kumzits. They sang songs shared by both Jewish and African American traditions.

The Kumzits is a loose confederation of people who have been meeting once a month for the last five years, singing various kinds of Jewish songs.

The Sacred Heart Gospel Choir sings Sunday Mass at Sacred Heart Catholic Church on Fillmore Street. But the singers also perform in clubs around the Bay Area. They recently appeared at Bimbo's in San Francisco, singing backup for the Cab Calloway-type review, "Vice Grip."

Kumzits leader Dr. Ami Goodman decided to invite the black gospel choir after he noticed how gospel songs such as "Go Down Moses" had made their way into Passover seders.

"I thought, `Why not ask those people from whom these songs directly come?'" said Goodman, who invited the group to share its music and participate in the havdallah service at the end of Shabbat.

For the synagogue's Rabbi Alan Lew, "Go Down Moses" also served as a prime example of an exchange between black and Jewish cultures.

"It's been a long time since we've lived in a global village," Lew said. "We now live in a global apartment house."

Extending the apartment metaphor, Lew told the gathering that "Go Down Moses" evolved when African Americans heard the story of Moses reverberating through the walls from the apartment of Jews celebrating Passover. Jews then heard the song come back to them from the African Americans' side.

"I'm so glad we're finally in the same room with no walls between us," Lew concluded.

The entire group sang "Glory Glory" and "Amen." The Kumzits singers taught the gospel choir "Hava Nashira." The Sacred Heart Gospel Choir in turn performed "Two Wings," while some among the Jewish crowd stood up and clapped along.

"You could come to Sacred Heart and fit right in," Sacred Heart's choirmaster John Scott told his enthusiastic Jewish hosts.

Singers from both groups joined in on a number of songs inspired by the Jewish Bible, including "Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho" and "Swing Low Sweet Chariot," and others. They wailed "Motherless Child," and swayed to "We Shall Overcome."

For Ron Postrel, a semi-regular attender of Kumzits gatherings, the rendition of "This Little Light of Mine" worked especially well because both black and Jewish communities knew it so well.

"There was a groove," he said.

"I knew the bonding between the two communities would be moving, and it was," Postrel added. "The way I connect with my Jewishness is through music."

Summing up the event, which served as a musical bridge between two cultures whose differences have often made news, Lew said: "An evening like this is good. Music helps us forget all that — especially music that we share."