Pickin and a lot of grinnin in Napa synagogue: Ukulele club is helping build community

If you were to walk around residential Napa on a Thursday evening and enter Congregation Beth Shalom, you would come across a group of about 25 people strumming ukuleles and singing “You Are My Sunshine.”

What you have stumbled upon, in such an unexpected setting, is the ukulele club Gordon Lustig started in June as a way to make the synagogue an even livelier community than it had been.

“The ukulele has become very popular again in the last 20 years or so, but it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that I began to realize its potential,” said Lustig, the synagogue’s part-time music director. “Now I know this little instrument that I played with as a kid can be as simple as a music box or as sophisticated as a symphony orchestra.”

Gordon Lustig (left) teaches ukulele at Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa.

So after years of teaching friends, family and students how to play the guitar, banjo and piano, Lustig, 52, couldn’t keep his newfound love of the ukulele to himself.

“I would joke around occasionally at services during the announcements and say, ‘And coming soon, the Jew-kulele Club!’ But as I said it, I thought, ‘Hey, this is actually a really cool idea!’ ”

Lustig was encouraged by the fact that the ukulele is quite easy to play; it has only four strings and can sound beautiful without much effort.

“I think it’s a great gateway instrument because it is tuned like a guitar and gives the player a great musical foundation,” he said. “And because of the uke’s accessibility to all ages, I thought I could reach a much wider audience.”

Lustig appears to have been right because the club has attracted a wide range of people — children, adults, seniors, congregants, non-congregants, Jews and non-Jews — all of whom have little to no experience with the instrument. Beth Shalom Rabbi Lee Bycel isn’t one of the pluckers, but he is a big fan nevertheless.

“If you look at the range of ages joining the group, you realize that the program is another way for people who are already connected to the synagogue and people who are new to come in and feel comfortable, which is one key to building community,” Bycel said.

“The other part,” he added, “is that it’s not like we went out and hired someone to teach the ukulele. Gordon is a gifted artist who knows Jewish music, who has soul, and who does a lot of creative things, so this is one more way for him to use his talents to bring people together.”

Part of the attraction is Lustig’s unique style of teaching; he helps people focus on the “language of the music,” which enables them to play a piece soon after they hear it.

“Gordon is the kind of person who can explain anything to anybody,” club member Rachel Friedman said.

“It’s wonderful to watch their faces light up when they realize they can play without any music in front of them,” Lustig said.

The group plays a wide variety of songs,   from folk to rock to pop to songs from the Great American Songbook. So far Lustig has refrained from teaching Jewish songs because they are difficult to play on the ukulele and would be unfamiliar to the handful of students who aren’t Jewish. That being said, Lustig does plan to teach Jewish music in the future, including melodies one hears at synagogue.

“I would love to have a Ukulele Shabbat where the club members can play music of the service in a relaxed setting without feeling any pressure,” he added.

Although the club has had five sessions, there is always an empty spot in the circle of soon-to-be ukulele masters. And Lustig has a rebuttal for what he said is a common excuse not to join: “But I missed all of the sessions until now and will be completely lost.”

Au contraire, Lustig says. He starts every practice from scratch so that everyone is brought up to speed.

And for those who might say, “But I don’t have a ukulele and have no clue where to buy one,” Lustig already has a stock on hand; only $30 each. As for the cost to join the club, there is none.

“I just want to have something that is good, fun, and welcoming to everybody and anybody.”

Buoyed by how the club has uplifted spirits at Beth Shalom, Lustig said he might even take his strumming beyond the synagogue’s walls.

“It would be so cool to create a nationwide Jewish ukulele club,” he said. “The chord-sheets for the songs could be uploaded to a website and made available for synagogues all over the country. You know, I think I’m gonna do it!”

Ukulele club at Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa meets6:30-8:30 p.m. on most Thursdays. Contact Gordon Lustig at [email protected] or (707) 265-6881.