Yiddishkeit to imbue sermon in song format

This ambitious concert typifies the offerings of Temple Sinai's choir, which does things just a little bit differently than most.

For the past two years, under the guidance of Cantor Ilene Keys and director George Anton Emblom, the Reform synagogue's 30-plus volunteer choir has met weekly, year-round, preparing and performing concert-quality music that falls within the Jewish tradition.

Although the adult volunteer choir has been in existence for a number of years, blossoming under the tutelage of former Cantor Nancy Kassel, it has grown rapidly since Emblom and Keys came on board in 1995, and has continued to mature musically.

"I wanted to expose both the choir and the community to new and unusual music within our rich tradition," Keys said.

To that end, concerts of classical, Ladino and Chassidic music have been prepared and performed. These have challenged the choir's linguistic as well as musical abilities.

For the upcoming presentation, a veteran of the Yiddish theater, Zalmen Mlotek, was recruited to coach the choir on pronunciation and interpretation. Rabbi Emeritus Samuel Broude also worked with the choir and will sing a solo.

Choral selections will include "Yidish Iz Main Loshn" (Yiddish Is My Language), the Chassidic folk song "As Der Rebbe Geht" (As the Rebbe Goes), "Sabbath Prayer" from "Fiddler on the Roof" and "Zol Shoyn Kumen Di Ge'Uleh" (Let the Redemption Come).

The Hebrew liturgical passages of the Sabbath service will be performed in Chassidic style, in order to retain the general Yiddish flavor of the evening, she said.

The concert portion of the program will conclude with a medley from the film "Schindler's List."

Said Keys, "The choir has really blossomed and grown and come a million miles since we started with it."

Director Emblom, who accompanies the choir on the piano, agrees.

"The choir has really improved on the level of musicianship and reading abilities," he said from his office at St. Martin's Episcopal Church in Berkeley, where he is director of music.

"I'm an Episcopalian and I'm kind of awed by all this," said Emblom, who is dean of the San Francisco chapter of the American Guild of Organists. "But I really love Judaism and the liturgy and I'm learning so much that my own tradition didn't teach me."

The choir has increased in numbers and ability in the past two years, he noted, and there is a wide range in age, from teens to senior citizens.

"I would say I'm probably the oldest," admitted soprano Pearl Wolffs, 77, of El Cerrito, a member of the choir for over 15 years. "And," she added, "I still sing well.

"I love it. I love the choir and they do beautiful work."

As for the upcoming event, "Yiddish is very close to my heart," she said. "I grew up with it. It's the mamaloshen, the mother tongue."

Oakland tenor Ruben Gomez comes from a Sephardic background. A member of the Sinai choir for some seven years, he has worked under several different cantors and directors and, without disparaging any of them, said he can hear a definite difference in recent performances.

"George has focused on an ensemble sound," he said. "And, as a result, we're sounding a lot more individual. When we do our sermons in song, other members of the congregation hear us and want to join. We're growing — in more ways than one."