Talented youth performers bring their art to the stage

During a typical lunch break at Berkeley’s Crowden School, Phil Hoxie doesn’t shoot hoops or whip out a Nintendo DS. Instead, he props up his bass fiddle and starts practicing klezmer.

“I really love klezmer music,” says the Orinda native. “And besides, it’s great keeping Yiddish culture alive. It’s fun music.”

Hoxie may be only 14, but he is already a veteran klezmer player, having co-founded Klezmorama in the fifth grade. The seven-piece band, made up of Jewish and non-Jewish teens from Crowden, a music specialty school, will be one of several youth groups performing at Israel in the Gardens this year.

In addition to Klezmorama, other groups in the lineup include the dance troop Tikvah, the Kehillah Jewish High School jazz band, the ODC Dance Jam and grade-school choirs from Congregation Emanu-El and Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School.

Elizabeth Stone of the Bureau of Jewish Education and the Israel Education Initiative coordinated youth performances this year. She says her goal was to find the highest-quality musicians. With her background in the arts, the search didn’t take long.

“I wanted to bring groups that are experienced and pre-professional in their approach to their art,” she says, “kids who have worked for years and are quite accomplished. I know a lot of talented kids.”

The musicians in the Kehillah Jewish High School jazz band certainly qualify. Under the direction of music teacher Tom Romero, the ensemble has won several local battle-of-the-bands competitions, usually playing rock and jazz.

For Israel in the Gardens, the nine-member group has gone in a more blue-and-white direction.

“The idea was to put together a band that would perform contemporary Israeli music at Israel in the Gardens,” says Rabbi Micah Citrin, the school’s director of community life and learning. “It’s a way for the kids to get excited about Hebrew and Israeli music.”

Together with Romero, he chose a song list that includes tunes by top Israeli pop artist, such as Shlomo Artzi, Beit Habubot and Kaveret.

The day’s entertainment is hardly limited to musicians. Two notable dance companies will also spin on the Israel at the Gardens stage.

Tikvah dance group will be performing June 7. Dancers are (back row, from left) Susanna Rafalovich, Kathrin Neyzberg and Elina Berman; (front, from left) Andrea Tirsky, Beata Vayngortin and Simona Ruzer.

Tikvah began life more than a decade ago as a multicultural dance program taught in English and Russian, featuring instructors from the former Soviet Union. Based at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, Tikvah is already on its second generation of dance teachers.

One of them, Arthur Sheyn, started dancing with Tikvah when he was 3. Now, the 21-year-old U.C. Berkeley student teaches kids the same steps he learned years ago.

Though the troupe excels in every style, from ballroom to jazz to hip-hop, Sheyn says Tikvah students also learn Israeli folk dancing. At Israel in the Gardens, six Tikvah dancers will move to the song “Kol Ma Shekadam” (by the Israeli group Duo Datz) in a dance choreographed by longtime Tikvah instructor Karina Rosinzonsky.

Even though he’s looking forward to a career in business, Sheyn says dancing with Tikvah shaped his life in many positive ways.

“The things I’ve gained from [dancing] affect me in every way,” he says. “It’s a huge self-esteem boost when you’re on stage and there’s an audience screaming for you.”

Hoxie and his Klezmorama colleagues have enjoyed that experience. He started the group a year ago, after composing an klezmer tune he performed at a friend’s bar mitzvah.

With his family belonging to Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, Hoxie came to love klezmer through the Mighty Kleztones, a band affiliated with the synagogue. “I heard that band and said, I want to be in it,” he remembers. “I got really hooked.”

Klezmorama includes two violinists, two pianists, a cellist, drummer, and Hoxie on bass. The group has played at Temple Isaiah services and at the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living, a senior residence in Danville.

But Israel in the Gardens is Klezmorama’s biggest gig to date.

With 20,000 people expected to attend, it might be the biggest gig yet for all the youthful performers. But gaining that kind of experience can only help young artists. And, adds the BJE’s Stone, it also helps the audience.

“The arts reflect culture that other forms of communication don’t,” she says. “Experienced by a group together, [the arts] communicate joy, they entertain, and they make people think about things in ways they haven’t before.”


Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.