Young seniors warm the heart of chorus director

Whatever urge Bob Cilman has to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony has been satisfied for the past 25 years by a group of New England seniors.

Cilman, who was raised Jewish in Rochester, N.Y., has been the director of the Young@Heart chorus practically since its inception. A kindly autocrat, he’s the one who selects the rock ‘n’ roll repertoire for the unique Northampton, Mass., vocal group.

“It’s Jewish kind of work, isn’t it?” he muses during a recent interview in San Francisco. “Integrating all kinds of people to make something artistic. Jews, blacks, Polish people, Irish people, French people — they’re a real American melting pot, this group. It’s a good thing to see, people in that generation, which drew distinctions pretty close to the bone. Blacks went out with blacks, Jews went out with Jews. There wasn’t a lot of integrating at the same level.”

Cilman and the chorus have built an audience abroad with 16 trips to Europe and Australia in the last 10 years. They’re about to expand their fan base in the States with the entertaining, poignant documentary “Young@Heart,” which records several weeks of rehearsals leading up to a concert. The film opens April 18.

Cilman, who was born in 1953, grew up surrounded by other Jews. His father ran a kosher meat market, and he went to Hebrew school, spent his summers at Camp Ramah and was bar mitzvahed.

“My cantor was kind of brilliant,” he recalls. “He was a real singer, and I think between him and the Beatles, I had a real appreciation for music.”

Cilman’s other key influence was a great aunt who was part of the labor movement, and worked with Sidney Hillman and the Amalgamated Clothing Workers.

“She used to stick strikebreakers with pins,” Cilman recalls. “It was really quite an amazing union, mostly Jewish people who were looking at the world in a very revolutionary way. She was a real character and probably one of the reasons why I got so interested in this work.”

Cilman inherited his great aunt’s affinity for political activism, and he also felt an immediate connection with the seniors who had joined Young@Heart at the beginning.

“The people I was surrounded with, the older people from that World War I generation, were so amazing on some level,” Cilman explains. “They didn’t have the seriousness that our parents’ generation had. They were wild and wacky. My great aunt [had been] into big-time wrestling, and she would make us go and watch Hans Schmidt and Fritz von Erik, all these German wrestlers, and make us throw popcorn at them.”

Immersed in a Jewish universe growing up, Cilman was determined to investigate to the broader culture.

“I think we as Jews have to be open to the rest of the world,” he says. “And the more we do that, the better off we are. We can’t see things from just a Jewish prism all the time.”

At the same time, he notes, “Jews have been very into integration. It’s one of our strong suits, I think, and so it’s natural that a number of the people involved in this project would be Jewish.”

One is Stan Goldman, a likable chorus member whose inability to remember the words to James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good)” adds some tension to the film.

Young@Heart’s songlist includes the work of Jewish composers such as Bob Dylan (“Forever Young”) and Lou Reed (“Walk on the Wild Side”).

“We also do a great band that all Jews should be proud of,” Cilman points out. “They were called the Fugs, and we do a song called ‘Monday Nothing.’ That song is where they sing in Yiddish. They have a Jewish radical sensibility.”

Cilman, who also serves as executive director of the Northampton Arts Council, couldn’t be more pleased about following in a Jewish artistic lineage.

“We have such a tradition of being on the edge artistically,” he says. “That gives me more pride than just about anything, what Jews have done for culture in this country.”

“Young@Heart” opens April 18 in at the Century 9 and the Bridge Theatre in San Francisco and April 25 at the Stonestown Theatre in San Francisco, the Albany Twin in Albany, the Smith Rafael Film Center in San Rafael and Cine Arts theaters in Palo Alto, Pleasant Hill and San Jose’s Santana Row

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.