Yiddish chorus last song: Theres very few of us left

After 20 years, the Berkeley Richmond Jewish Community Center's Yiddish chorus has belted out its last tune. The occasion was marked by fond recollections, a few tears and a call for younger generations to carry on the tradition.

Sheila Becker, who originated the Yiddish chorus when she took over the adult education program in 1981 recalled the program's humble origins. "I personally called 200 JCC members and told them that we were having a Yiddishkeit revival," Becker told the roughly 100 people gathered at the BRJCC late last month.

The guiding mission of the Yiddish chorus, according to Becker, was to maintain the legacy of the Jewish people and transmit it to others.

"I wanted to make sure that the adult program didn't merely become a kindergarten for adults. I wanted the program to honor these people's stories, because they were quite remarkable," Becker said. "You had people born at the turn of the century with Ph.D.s from Polish universities, and many people who grew up in Jewish neighborhoods just like Philip Roth writes about. I wanted the program to reflect those stories…stories that really contain a whole century of the Jewish experience."

Joel Bashevkin, the director of the BRJCC, said the chorus "was a tradition that had been with us for many, many years…It saddens me not to have this group here on a weekly basis anymore."

But Bashevkin was also hopeful that the void left by the departure of the chorus could be filled at some point in the future, saying that he was discussing the possibility of having a group of retired klezmer musicians perform at the BRJCC.

After several audience members relayed fond anecdotes about the group and its members, and rousing final renditions of "Hava Nagilah" and "To Life," several chorus members huddled together to exchange goodbyes and promises to keep in touch.

When asked why the Yiddish chorus had disbanded after more than two decades, Clara-Rae Genser sounded a wistful note.

"There's really very few of us left," said the 82-year-old. "A lot of our original members have passed on, and the rest of us are getting quite old. It's certainly a sad day, because this was such an important part of our lives. It's really one of the things that kept us going."

Genser also commented on the Yiddish chorus' intergenerational appeal, adding that her granddaughter — one of the group's biggest fans — was just learning to walk when the group commenced and is now on the fast track to college.

"Music makes you happy," chimed in chorus member Pat Berger, 79. "The joys of the Yiddish language really came alive during our time together and made for some great friendships."

The majority of the chorus members vowed to keep in touch, with a few even promising to "send an e-mail every once in awhile." They also lamented the fact that the younger generation was not waiting in the wings to take over the traditions.

The group's senior member, Ruth Brandwynne, 88, said "To Life" was an appropriate swan song for the group.

The song from "Fiddler on the Roof," she suggested, "really says it all. You take the good and the bad as it comes to you. It's a philosophy that's really reflected in the culture and in the songs. It's really a great feeling if you like being a Jew."