THE ARTS 5.29.09
THE ARTS 5.29.09

Swing and a prayer: Sherith Israels own to help put a jazzy spin on Shabbat

In New York, during the sticky hot summer of 1947, singer and pianist Dorothy Lefkovits first took the stage for the Apollo Theater’s legendary amateur hour. She was 15 years old and so nervous that she tried to hide behind the piano.

Now, 60 years later — with four grown children, three grandchildren and a conversion to Judaism — Dorothy seems perfectly comfortable with both herself and her musical ability.

Hear Dorothy Leftkovits sing the title track from her album “It’s Wonderful”:

Dorothy Lefkovits

She’ll be leading Congregation Sherith Israel’s free Jazz Shabbat concert from 6 to 7:30 p.m. June 5.

A member of Sherith Israel and singer in the choir, she got the Jazz Shabbat gig after years of performing in local clubs, bookstores and senior citizen centers.

As a child, Dorothy was a member of a different kind of choir — at the Christ Episcopal Church in Harlem. She would perform in the church during the day, then head to the Apollo at night.

Over a plate of french fries and a cup of hot tea at the Lucky Penny Restaurant in San Francisco, Dorothy dreamily recalls those youthful summer nights.

“It was a real good show,” she says, “and the audience was in control. They would yell and the [Apollo] manager would listen. I guess they knew they had people’s fate in their hands.”

Dorothy would go on to perform many times during Amateur Night at the Apollo, as would many then-unknown greats of jazz. People such as Sarah Vaughn and Count Basie were among those Dorothy and her family got a chance to see early on at the theater.

In the early 1950s, Dorothy met her future husband, Martin Lefkovits, while both were working for the state of New York.

“At first, it was an issue in my family that [Dorothy] wasn’t Jewish,” says Martin, “and, frankly, race was also a consideration.”

It was a tough time to be a young, interracial couple, but the Dorothy and Martin didn’t let the opinions of others get in their way. They married, moved upstate to Schenectady, N.Y., and started a family together. Martin, who had grown up in an observant Jewish household in the Bronx, took their three sons to synagogue and Dorothy took their daughter to church.

Dorothy Lefkovits as a teen.

Then, in the 1970s, Dorothy decided to convert to Judaism. She doesn’t talk about the specifics, stating simply, “I decided I needed a change.” When she originally brought up the idea to Martin, he replied, “Membership in the temple is still open.”

Dorothy went straight to Congregation Gates of Heaven in Schenectady and converted within the year, a move that impressed Martin’s family.

The family eventually relocated to San Francisco, where they live today. Martin was offered an administrative job at U.C. Berkeley, and Dorothy worked as a secretary for the city of San Francisco. They joined Sherith Israel and attended synagogue weekly; Dorothy studied under Cantor Martin Feldman and eventually became an adult bat mitzvah. Each of their three sons had a bar mitzvah.

Along the way, Dorothy had all but abandoned her previous singing aspirations. There was, however, that pesky piano still in their home — and it was calling out to her.

So, in the mid-1980s, Dorothy decided it was time to return to her love of jazz after spending years focused mainly on work and family. She toured the local open mic circuit in San Francisco, then got a steady gig at two senior centers (“they like all those old songs”) and a hip jazz and book store in San Francisco called Bird and Beckett. She’s been performing there every month for nearly eight years.

“Everyone is quite taken with her,” says Bird and Beckett owner Eric Whittington. “She’s very sophisticated in terms of her musical approach.”

Dorothy sings a range of classic jazz and blues songs from the 1920s to ’60s, including songs off her self-released album “It’s Wonderful.” She has garnered comparisons to artists such as Sarah Vaughn and Dinah Washington.

A few years back Dorothy got a call from someone at her old temple in Schenectady. They wanted her to fly back and perform a concert, an offer she quickly accepted. It seemed like everyone she knew in New York came out to the hear her.

“It was like a homecoming,” she says, beaming. “Some people looked different — white hair and all — but others looked exactly the same.”

At this she lets out a throaty laugh. “It made me realize I should do a concert at Sherith Israel.”

With the help of the Cantor Martin Feldman Synagogue Fund (set up by the cantor when he retired from Sherith Israel), Dorothy will do just that. The Jazz Shabbat will feature the temple’s Koleynu Choir, Cantor Feldman with congregant Billy Philadelphia and, of course, Dorothy, backed by her six-piece band.

“I realized after a while that it’s not that easy to play the piano and sing at the same time,” Dorothy explains. “You just might make a mistake, and a singer always sounds better with a good accompanist.”

Jazz Shabbat is 6 to 7:30 p.m. June 5 at Sherith Israel, 2266 California St., S.F. It is free and open to the public. For information, call (415) 346-1720 ext. 24 or e-mail [email protected]