Looking Back on Zamir at Fifty

Although the dinner celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Zamir Chorale took place last Saturday night, and the gala concert at Carnegie Hall was on the Sunday that followed, I must admit that, as a participant in both, I am having trouble snapping myself back into the here and now. I had such a wonderful time!

I’m not a big reunion person. They intimidate me. I’m always reluctant to “put myself out there” among the people who knew me when I was so much younger. And yet when the opportunity came along to reunite with my friends from the Zamir Chorale from forty years ago, I jumped on it.

Every since last weekend, I’ve been wondering why. What made Zamir such a different kind of experience for me that I would run to see those old friends, as opposed to running away from them?

Well- I suppose that I can’t discount the opportunity to sing at Carnegie Hall as an enticement. Having done it more than once now, I can attest to the fact that it is, for a performing artist, a uniquely magical feeling. But Zamir’s pull on me is about much more than Carnegie Hall…

There are so many different ways to give expression to what that feeling emanates from, but when all is said and done, I think it’s about growing up- in every way. It was via my years in Zamir that I grew into at least the beginnings of adulthood as a person, as a man, as a Jew, as a Zionist, and, of course, as a music lover. Zamir was first and foremost about the music. I fell in love with it, and never fell out!

But via the music, and the social connections it created, we all came to know ourselves better. In those heady years of the 60’s and 70’s, when so much tumult and upheaval was going on all around us here in New York and in the country, Zamir was the essential framework within which we were able to assimilate it all, and put it in an appropriate framework. It became an extended family for all of us, a deeply gratifying and meaningful way to give expression to so many of those values and ideals that mattered to us.

When Israel was threatened, we could show our solidarity and caring by singing… and we did, every chance we got. When friends were engaged or married, we sang to express our joy. And when the Jews of the former Soviet Union were imperiled, we sang to express our dismay. The music became an essential part of our vocabulary. And along the way, the friendships and relationships that were formed then have endured, many as long as fifty years. I dare say that there were almost as many hugs and tears in our rehearsals last week as there were notes sung.

At one point early on in rehearsal, I consciously separated myself from the assembled group and just stood in the back of the room, taking it all in. I felt none of the angst that reunions ordinarily bring out in me. Actually, I felt bathed in that special kind of love and caring that only old friends can provide, the kind with whom you have a lot of history, and a common narrative.

The dinner was wonderful, and the concert was spectacular. All this is true. But beyond all of that, it just felt so wonderful to be with those people again, singing that music. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.