Its not just about singing: New choral group at Reutlinger helps bring back fond memories

Barbra Streisand sings about “memories” in one of her most famous songs, “The Way We Were.” The members of a new choral group at the Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living in Danville can relate.

The songs they’ve been singing in recent months have been lighting up the corner of their minds.

“The songs relate to my Jewishness and remind me of the good times in my past,” says 93-year-old resident Rachel Tunkle. “My father used to walk around and sing, so these songs bring back fond memories.”

Likewise, Gerry Gluckman, 104, says the songs remind her of her youth. “My parents spoke Yiddish because that was all they knew,” she remembers.

Now, through the choir, she is able to relive those memories of her childhood. An enthusiastic member of the choir, she always sits in the front row and especially loves singing the Yiddish classic “Tumbalalaika,” a Russian Jewish folk song performed by many stars.

Rivka Amado

Gluckman also loves hearing the stories behind the songs, which choir leader Rivka Amado points out is a vital part of the experience for the seniors.

“The choir is important, but it’s also important to talk about the content of the songs,” Amado says. “It’s not just about singing the song, but also to give them some background about the song.”

Amado, 58, is a singer herself; born in Holon, Israel, she now lives in Berkeley with her husband and two sons. She released an album of Ladino music in 2009 and currently is working on a second CD, which will feature her own compositions.

Although she has a job in the field of medical ethics, Amado truly enjoys her involvement with the Reutlinger choir.  “I work with them on singing traditional Jewish songs, but the purpose of this is to engage them, to bring them back to reality, and suddenly, it’s fun. It’s a very graceful moment.”

Amado believes the choir also gives the residents an important outlet.

By participating, seniors are lifted spiritually, they can express their emotions, they interact with one another, and they are engaged and stimulated, she says. “What motivates me is that they really appreciate what you do for them. It’s very rewarding.”

To illustrate, Amado points to a choir member who used to be an opera singer when she was younger.

“When she started singing ‘Tumbalalaika’ in Yiddish, it was amazing, because it really brought her back to her childhood,” Amado says. “It triggered her longtime memory of when her father would sing songs in Yiddish to her. She was so excited about the song, she took the tambourine and started moving, she was so engaged and lost in the ecstasy of the music.”

The choir’s membership fluxuates between 12 to 15 people, most of them women, and rehearsals are twice a month. The group is preparing for an in-house concert later this year.

“There’s a consistent group that comes, and then there are others that will come occasionally,” says Carol Goldman, Reutlinger’s activity director. “They love it and look forward to it.”

Amado began at Reutlinger several years ago, starting with a program called “A Jewish Journey Back to Spain Through Songs and Story.”

Goldman says the choir not only enhances the residents’ creativity, but also has a therapeutic aspect.

“When I watch the group rehearse, you see a lot of personal things come out,” she says. “When she’s talking about something, you’ll see one of the people make a movement, as if to say, ‘Oh yes, I remember that,’ or ‘I’ve heard that before.’

“It’s not just about singing. It’s about taking that music to another place and pulling up memories. It brings something different to each individual.”

Amado hopes to take the choir to a higher level, beyond just singing for other residents or visitors.

“Maybe the next step is to ask them to write poetry and then I can write music for them,” she says. “There are a lot of things we can do. It brings back memories. For some of them, it’s an emotional challenge, but it’s good to let it out.”