The Zamir Family Sheds a Tear

The extended family of the Zamir Chorale, and its parent organization, the Zamir Choral Foundation, suffered a painful loss last week. Chuck Kleinhaus, one of the original founding members of the choir that would eventually become Zamir, died in Jerusalem after a difficult, courageous battle with cancer. Slowly and painfully, the man who had been the epitome of good cheer, optimism and ageless, easy, gracious charm was humbled and ultimately claimed by a brutal and unrelenting disease.

Just a little over a year ago, when the Zamir Chorale celebrated its fiftieth anniversary with a sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall, Chuck and his beloved Tami came to New York to take part in the celebration. At the spirited gala dinner on the Saturday night preceding the concert, I had the opportunity, as emcee of the evening's program, to publicly recognize Chuck's seminal contribution to the development of Zamir.

Fifty years earlier, in Camp Massad, a small group of staff members, among them Chuck and a promising young musical talent named Stanley Sperber, joined together around their love of singing, and of Israel, and thus was the Massad Choral Group formed. Stanley was the musician whose brilliant musicality, conducting talent and knowledge of Israeli music was essential to the group's founding. But Chuck was the organizational glue that helped the group cohere and sustain itself as it grew in ability and popularity, eventually becoming the Zamir Chorale.

That was more than fifty years ago. In the interim, life happened. Ultimately, both Chuck and Stanley would fulfill their Zionist ideal and move to Israel, with Stanley becoming a major force in Israel's classical music scene, and Chuck developing a successful law practice in Jerusalem- and continuing to sing. Those of us who were lucky enough to be a part of the Zamir experience in those early years before their Aliyah have carried the wonderful memories of those early friendships throughout our adult lives. And through the years, those two great friends from Camp Massad, Chuck and Stanley, remained the best of friends, as much like brothers, really, as friends. The Talmud teaches us that Ein ish met elah l'ishto– roughly translated, a man's death weighs more heavily on his wife than on anyone else. That is certainly true. Losing your best friend, though, has to be a close second.

And for those of us who remained friends with Chuck across oceans and time zones, despite the myriad challenges of sustaining meaningful friendships from afar, we, too, grieve. The joy of singing the music of our people together has, at least for the moment, given way to a much quieter and less resonant world…

Singing with Zamir was never just about the music, and it still isn't. It has always been about the fusion of great music, passionate Zionism, and love of Judaism and the Jewish people. This past week, I was reminded that, perhaps most of all, it is also about the friendships that are produced when those powerful ingredients are all combined and given a chance to impact each other. Times pass, everything changes. The choir that was once led so wonderfully by Stanley is now under the musical direction of another great musician and passionate Jew, our dear friend Matthew Lazar. Aval hamanginah tamid nish’eret… but the sweet melody of the old friendships lingers on.

This picture of me with Chuck was taken backstage at Carnegie Hall, right before the fiftieth anniversary concert:

As it turned out, that was the last time any of us saw Chuck before he was diagnosed. Although, in retrospect, he may have already been suffering from the early symptoms of his illness, he was as warm and gracious to me as ever, and it felt so very good to see him…

I’m told that Chuck gave specific instructions that there be no eulogies at his funeral, and I’m not surprised. He was much too humble to allow people to praise him publicly. Sorry, Chuck- you were also much too good to let go of without at least a few words of tribute. Y’heh zichro baruch; may his memory be for a blessing.

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