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Ancestry Unites a Symphony of Singers for Ukraine Crisis Relief

Some years ago, I was waiting in a long line at Century 21 on the Upper West Side. I discovered that Mont Blanc had a nice cologne and I couldn’t resist making the purchase. Not just for the scent, but for the snowcap white logo. It reminded me of the fountain pen that my rabbi presented to me at my bar mitzvah. He said it may be interpreted as a Star of David and a symbol of resistance against the Nazis during WWII.

With this on my mind, I spotted an unusual pair of men’s shoes in front of me. They looked like vintage crocodile. I asked the man wearing them if he had purchased them there. “No. It’s from a vintage store.” This innocuous comment sparked a conversation. I spotted his violin case. He conducts an orchestra, composes, teaches, plays the violin. He asked if I was a musician. “Maybe we’ll get to work together some day?” He handed me his card. It read: Gregory Singer, Manhattan Symphonie. I was in shock.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I said, “You’re a Singer too!”

“No, I’m not a singer, I’m a violinist. That’s my last name.”

“That’s my name too! Dan Singer! But I really am a singer. I am the cantor at Stephen Wise just around the corner.”

“Really? I recently rented their space, for our orchestral rehearsals.”

“I’m the one who set those rehearsals up for you. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you!”

We got to know one another over time and explored our Singer ancestry. Gregory’s grandfather was Meier Singer, the chief cantor — Oberkantor — of Przemysl, a Polish border town that today is receiving many Ukranian refugees. My grandfather, Anshel Fuchs, also a Polish violinist, was from Zamosc, just a couple hours north on the Ukranian border. He changed his name to Aryeh Talmy when he escaped the war, on tour with his violin, to the British Mandate of Palestine, where he headed kibbutz string orchestras. Gregory’s violin teacher was the renowned American teacher, Joseph Fuchs, whose father was Polish. Polish Jews named Fuchs who play the violin are probably just about as common as anything, but who knows, perhaps there’s a connection there too.

Soon after meeting Gregory, Caitlin Hollander, a professional genealogist, discovered the elusive records for my father’s Singer family in Kovno, Lithuania. In a little town called Birzai, close to Panevezys. I asked Gregory if he had any Lithuanian ancestry.

“No, but ask my cousin, Josef Feigelson. He’s a virtuoso cellist from Latvia, but might have Lithuanian ancestry.”

“Yosef Feigelson?! I know him well. He performed two amazing centennial concerts of the Polish composer, Miecyzlaw Weinberg, in our sanctuary!”

I contacted Josef. He directed me to his Singer genealogy online. The Singers of Panevezys are said to have comprised over six generations of Lithuanian cantors and rabbis, originally with the name of Khazan, a trade name. I already knew of this Singer family for decades, first as the voice chairman of the Flint Institute of Music, when teaching a student whose father shared an old typewritten page from this original family document. Discovering other descendants of this family years later, one also quite randomly while on a family vacation in Florida, I found several Singer descendants who were all able to confirm our DNA was a solid match, corresponding to four generations back, Berel Khazan, who my father Barry was named after.

Fast forward to last week. Gregory contacted me, as frustrated as I am by the situation in Ukraine, thinking about our ancestral Polish towns of Zamosc and Przemysl that are in the news daily as they take in millions of Ukranian refugees from across the border. He asked if we could work together to raise money for Ukraine through a musical offering at the synagogue. I asked my leadership. They approved. Gregory organized his orchestra. I reached out to my cantorial colleagues. The outpouring of support is overwhelming. Dozens of cantors from the tristate area responded eager to participate and support in any way they can.

Together, in less than a week’s time, we are assembling the full Manhattan Symphonie with a full chorus of cantors. We are performing a program of major works live (and live-streaming) in our sanctuary. This Thursday evening at 6 p.m. Eastern Time, we’ll open our doors and our livestream to enjoy selections including an improvisation by award winning pianist, Michael Gallant, Mendelssohn’s “Reformation Symphony,” “War and Peace” and “Memorial Procession” by Gregory Singer, a Ukrainian folk song, “Adonai Roi” by Gerald Cohen, and “Finlandia” by Sibelius. We will let the orchestra take a brief intermission and sing some songs of peace featuring our cantors, with my sister-in-law, Cantor Inbal Sharett Singer, who will soon be serving Temple Israel in Minneapolis. The second half of the program will be much lighter, including Luke Hawkins, an incredible tap dancer; Lucy Yeghiazaryan, a renowned Armenian jazz singer; and “Hoedown” by Aaron Copeland — and concluding with contemporary musical theater songs.

Space will be very limited. So we ask that people buy tickets in advance to attend the program in person, or tune in online at swfs.org/live. All proceeds will go to the World Union for Progressive Judaism’s Ukraine Crisis Fund, which is directly helping Ukrainians, including refugees and efforts to help them cross the border into Poland.

Please support our symphony of Singers in our effort to help Ukranian refugees! Give generously, and enjoy a beautiful, enchanted evening of great music.

About the Author
Daniel Singer is the cantor of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on New York City’s Upper West Side. Drawing on a wide-ranging knowledge of Jewish music, Cantor Singer is as comfortable singing an 18th-century classical liturgical repertoire or leading the congregation in traditional Hasidic or Sephardic melodies as he is performing Jewish pop acapella with SIX13 or singing roles with the Yiddish Theater or opera.
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