Jewish Folk Chorus marks 90 years with anniversary concerts

Ninety years ago, San Francisco was booming, welcoming newcomers from across the U.S. and immigrants from throughout the world. In 1926, Emanu-El held the dedication ceremony for its new Lake Street synagogue, replacing the Sutter Street structure destroyed in the ’06 earthquake.

That same year, a group of Petaluma Jews gathered to sing Yiddish songs and labor songs, not knowing that their efforts would continue beyond their lifespans and provide audiences around the Bay Area with nostalgic and historical songs that connect to Eastern European Jewish roots.

Yiddish songs are a mainstay of the Jewish Folk Chorus. photo/robin ivester

The Jewish Folk Chorus is old enough to be considered an institution — its relevance supported by the singers themselves and the audiences who continue to relish their songs.

Honoring this 90th birthday, the chorus, now based in San Francisco with more than 20 members from throughout the Bay Area, will perform anniversary concerts on June 5 in San Francisco and June 19 in Berkeley.

The concerts will travel on a narrative describing the group’s history through song and story. Audiences will also get to peruse a library of old photographs, programs and articles about the chorus, said Renee Enteen, a board member and administrator who has been with the chorus since 1985.

“People have an interest in learning and hearing Yiddish,” she said. “For many of us, we like to carry on those songs, keep them alive and share them with new audiences. We draw people for the language. We present a lot of historical information about the composers and the context. People want to hear these stories. This year [our focus] is history of song and the landmarks of those 90 years.”

When Enteen joined the chorus, some of the original members were still singing. Now they are all gone, but new members continue to join.

Dan Kurtz linked up with the group 13 years ago, at age 22. A native San Franciscan now living in Oakland, Kurtz is one of the group’s younger members. He heard about the chorus from a family friend, and was instantly intrigued. Kurtz joined with very little exposure to Yiddish, but in his 13 years with the chorus he has grown to love the language and the songs.

“They made me see it’s more than a couple of words, it’s a culture and history that comes along with that language,” he said.

Rosie Gozali, now in her 23rd season with the chorus, said that growing up, Yiddish had little place in the suburban Chicago Jewish lifestyle of her parents. They had distanced themselves from that part of their heritage, she said.

But upon joining the chorus, Gozali said she did a “180-degree turn” in her appreciation of the language of the shtetl.

“I learned to embrace Yiddish and love Yiddish,” said the San Francisco resident. “It’s not just an appreciation of the language itself. It’s my culture. I’m an Ashkenazi Jew. I feel very connected that way. And I want to meet people who are … very committed to keeping this a Yiddish chorus.”

While the chorus sings many of its songs in Yiddish, it also incorporates songs written in other languages — such as Ladino, Hebrew and Russian. Many of the songs reflect the progressive “lefty” politics of the original members, while others are lullabies or fun songs.

The two anniversary concerts will pay tribute to longtime conductors of the folk chorus, as well as pianists and composers who made significant contributions to the group during its 90-year span. The program will also include three songs from a cantata that was performed in the 1930s.

All of the songs will be transliterated and translated for the audience.

The chorus, which rehearses at Menorah Park in San Francisco, typically presents six concerts a year. Enteen said many audience members are residents of Jewish assisted-living or nursing homes who love hearing these songs. Enteen expects those attending the anniversary concerts to feel the same.

“The U.S. is a melting pot, as they say, and many of us have assimilated,” she said. “That doesn’t mean we’ve lost our Jewish identity or given up parts of it. This is a piece of our unique history. I think that’s a very special thing to pass on to people, and share those stories as Jews.”

Jewish Folk Chorus of San Francisco performs 2:30 p.m. June 5 at Jewish Community High School of the Bay, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. and 3 p.m. June 19 at Le Peña Cultural Center, 3105 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley. Tickets: $12-$

Shoshana Hebshi
Shoshana Hebshi

Shoshana Hebshi is a freelance writer and former J. copy editor living in the North Bay.