Etta Perkins, joyous entertainer at Home, dies at 73

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Etta Perkins, beloved for her spirit and soulful singing, died Oct. 11 after a series of strokes. She was 73.

Residents at San Francisco's Jewish Home for the Aged are already feeling her loss as they prepare for this year's Chanukah show, an event Perkins participated in for the past six years.

"It's so strange to be on that stage without Etta," said Mark Friedlander, director of activities for the Home. The residents are planning a tribute to Perkins.

Perkins, who had been in an Indiana radio singing group in the 1950s, sang often at the Home, where she had lived since 1996. She had participated in the Home's day-care program for several years before that.

A year ago, she brought down the house at the Home with her rendition of "What I Did for Love," according to a Bulletin report.

Two weeks before she died, she sang at the Home's Generations Day event.

"She was the most amazing woman I've ever met," Friedlander said. A Jew-by-choice and the only African-American at the Home, Perkins "was one of our most spiritual residents."

Perkins grew up in an interfaith neighborhood in Hartford, Conn., where she used to follow her Jewish friends to Sunday school at the local synagogue.

She started attending Congregation Beth Israel-Judea in 1974. Three years later, she studied for her conversion at the College of Judaic Studies at the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education.

She learned Hebrew well enough to lead a traditional, Conservative service.

In a 1995 Bulletin article, Rabbi Herbert Morris, spiritual leader of Beth Israel-Judea, called Perkins "one of the greatest ladies of this world."

"There's a gentleness to her spirit and it just soars," he said.

Perkins, in turn, expressed deep affection for the congregation.

"When I told the rabbi I was all alone out here, he said, no, the synagogue is my family. I have a wonderful Jewish family," she said in the same article.

Perkins visited Israel with fellow congregants in 1982. Morris remembers how she inspired Israelis with her singing.

"She had a beautiful voice that reverberated to other souls and spirits," he said this week. "When she sang `Ani Oleh Yerushalayim,' one of her favorite songs, it sent shivers through people."

Cora Latz, her longtime companion, also remembers the trip fondly.

"Everywhere you went you just felt like you were living the Torah," Latz, 76, said.

She and Perkins met through mutual friends 26 years ago. "We were a team. We worked together on everything."

At the Home, Perkins sang in choir on the High Holy Days and helped with the day-care program's Shabbat celebrations. A weekly study session with Rabbi Malcolm Sparer, which she helped organize, led to a Shavuot rededication ceremony this year.

Perkins, who used a wheelchair, suffered from syringomyelia, a neurological disorder.

"Even with all her disabilities she lived life to the fullest," Friedlander said.

At the Home, she took up painting for the first time. Her art was displayed at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in October 1997's "Art with Elders" show.

Perkins came to San Francisco in 1956 on a two-week vacation and never left. She raised two sons alone, working as a beautician, singer and alcohol and drug counselor for the post office.

Concerned that she wouldn't be buried in a Jewish cemetery, she carried a note with her. It said to take her to Sinai Memorial Chapel, and to bury her at Beth Israel-Judea's Salem Memorial Park.

"That's my dream. I'm Jewish from my heart out," she said in the 1995 interview.

Perkins was buried at Salem Memorial Park in Colma on Oct. 13.

She is survived by Latz, and her two sons, Dennis Perkins of Hartford and Carlton Gibbs of Providence, R.I. She is also survived by several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Contributions can be made to the Jewish Home for the Aged, 302 Silver Ave., S.F., CA 94112, or Congregation Beth Israel-Judea, 625 Brotherhood Way, S.F., CA 94132.