Sing in Hebrew class hits right note with choir

I grew up in Israel, where everyone sings and dances,” says Rina Paz, who created the Israel Center’s “Learn to Sing in Hebrew” class/choir in 2008 with the help of Moshe Babel-Pour, who recently left Tucson after serving for four years as the center’s director.

The group, which meets two Thursday evenings per month, gave four public performances last year, culminating in an appearance at the Tucson Israel Festival.

It wasn’t easy, says Paz, to teach a disparate group of adults to sing in a difficult language.

“For me, it was one of the most challenging, yet rewarding life experiences. For weeks, which turned into months, this amazing group mastered not just the music and words, but also the meaning and correct pronunciations,” Paz wrote in an essay suggested by Babel-Pour at the close of last season’s class. Tremia Cox, the Israel Center assistant, was also a great help to the group, says Paz.

Choir members agreed that learning the Hebrew songs was sometimes hard, but ultimately rewarding.

“When I spotted the announcement that the Israel Center was forming a Hebrew choir,” wrote Vicki Kaufman, “my first thought was ‘That looks like fun. What a shame I can’t sing.’” She decided to try the class anyway, figuring she could “slouch down in the back row and lip-sync.”

“Wrong. Wrong. Wrong,” says Kaufman. “With Rina in charge, I never had a chance. Such a tiny person! So much enthusiasm, discipline, determination and positive energy! Her explanations of the traditional Israeli songs we sang were so passionate and meaningful, I felt a stronger tie to Israel than I’d ever felt before.

“The lyrics weren’t easy to master. Some were even in Arabic. We kvetched. We practiced. We drank coffee and ate mandelbread. We tried to lip-sync and got caught. Eventually we were ready and we were good,” she recalls.

Ann Rush joined the group as a newcomer to Tucson. “Singing fit in nicely with my intention to do all the things I’ve always wanted to do but was too afraid to try,” she says. Rush believes that singing is an important vehicle of self-expression — one that should not be left to professionals — yet during the group’s performances, she confesses, “I didn’t dare to look at the audience, but when the high school kids started to clap in rhythm to one of our songs, it was a wonderful moment.”

Participants do not need to have a great voice to join, says Gail Ben-Jamin. “None of us comes from a singing background, but when we sing as a group, we are not too bad,” she says, adding that the group has “a great guitarist, Tom [Condarcure], who accompanies us with his talent.”

Condarcure says he soon learned that accompanying Israeli folk music is different from strumming along with American folk tunes. Their complicated chord progressions, he says, may stem from “Eastern Europe meeting the Middle East.”

“I was surprised to see how much of the music some people already knew before they came to the class,” he says. “It was an opportunity for them not just to learn but to remember.”

While Joan Kramer hadn’t sung any of the songs before, “the music was stirring,” she says, and the class was “a night out to be with nice group of people.”

For Rise Rosenfeld, the class brought back happy memories of visits to Israel, where she spent time on a kibbutz. “Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to share my love of music and song with the country I came to love,” she wrote.

Moshe Toister notes that along with Paz’s expertise and dedication — she enlisted family and friends in Israel to send her songs and sheet music —Babel-Pour “infused his soul and connection with the land into the singing group.”

Kaufman recalls the group’s final performance at the 2010 Israel Festival. “There I was standing tall, right out front, with my blue sash cutting a proud diagonal line across my chest. I belted out those Hebrew lyrics like a sabra. Okay, maybe more like a person in Tucson learning Hebrew, but with lots of oomph.

“We did it for Rina. We did it to give something back to Moshe Babel-Pour, our dedicated Israel Center director. We did it for Israel and for ourselves, and we made a beautiful sound.”

Paz has one more goal, inspired by one of her Israeli nephews: for the choir to sing in Israel. When he first suggested it, says Paz, her response was “What are you talking about? That is like selling ice to the Eskimos.” But she began to imagine the choir in Israel, singing Hebrew songs with American accents, and adding American patriotic songs to the mix. Babel-Pour was supportive, she says. “Now,” she says, “we are looking for a sponsor to underwrite the choir’s trip to Israel.”

The choir meets two Thursdays a month at 7 p.m. at the JCC. For more information, contact Paz at 304-7943 or ericashem @cox.net.