When fantasy becomes reality: HaZamir at the Met!

Of the many different communal hats I wear besides being the rabbi of a large synagogue, none gives me greater pleasure– actually “nachas”– than serving as a Vice-President of the Zamir Choral Foundation. Almost fifty years ago, long before the Foundation was formed, I stood outside the rehearsal room of what was then the Zamir Chorale and heard a sound that I had never heard before. Of all things, they were singing Hava Nagila- surely the most prosaic and hackneyed piece of Jewish/Israeli music there is. But what I can still recall with total clarity is that in four-part harmony and pulsating, syncopated rhythms, Hava Nagilah was actually– at least musically- exciting. And it was Jewish. Musically exciting, and Jewish… two possibilities that had never been used in the same sentence before in my very limited Jewish world.

Now, almost fifty years later, the intercollegiate Zamir Chorale of old has morphed into a major foundation, spawning a variety of musical programs that have served to bring that exciting possibility to many, many more people. The passionate, determined conviction of Maestro Matthew Lazar, Founder and Director of the Foundation, has taken the perviously small and parochial world of quality Jewish choral music and expanded it exponentially. The annual North American Jewish Choral Festival, a new version of the Zamir Chorale, the commissioning of new, high-caliber Jewish choral music. conferences, musical missions to Israel, and more… His work has been nothing short of remarkable. But no single program of the Zamir Choral Foundation has so captured the essence of what the Zamir experience has historically meant to its members than HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir. The maestro will be the first to tell you that, as regards HaZamir, the real kudos go to his wife Vivian Lazar, the international director of HaZamir, and the driving force behind its amazing growth.

HaZamir is a network of small choirs across America and Israel that, according to its mission statement, “provide Jewish teens with a high level choral experience in a Jewish environment.” Completely transcending denominational lines by welcoming Jews of every stripe and orientation, HaZamir takes teens from all over the Jewish world– literally and figuratively– and uses the medium of high quality Jewish choral music to strengthen their Jewish identities, teach them love of and respect for their fellow Jew, love of Israel, and, not least of all, leadership skills. There are now almost forty chapters of HaZamir around the United States and Israel. The growth has been phenomenal, and there is no limit in sight to how many teens can find their musical and Jewish homes in HaZamir. No limit except for perhaps one thing… finding a performance venue big enough to have them all on stage simultaneously.

Which leads me to the point of this article…

All chapters of HaZamir rehearse a common repertoire, but once a year they gather here in New York for a major concert together. As far as New York concert venues are concerned, they’ve “gone about as far as they can go,” to paraphrase Oklahoma. At least we all thought so, until this year. Where can you possibly perform after you’ve sold out Jazz at Lincoln Center, Avery Fisher Concert Hall,(now David Geffen), and even Carnegie Hall, a virtual shrine for performing artists?

There’s only one answer: the Metropolitan Opera House! As I write it, I can hardly believe it myself… the Metropolitan Opera House! On Sunday afternoon, March 26, Hazamir: The International Jewish High School Choir will be performing its annual joint concert at the Metropolitan Opera House. What to say? If Carnegie Hall is a musical shrine, the Met is the Jerusalem Temple. Standing on that stage is a privilege most performing artists will never know.

I recall how thrilling it was when I was privileged to stand on the stage of Carnegie when Zamir performed there, and then to do it again when my own two oldest children, who were singing in HaZamir at the time, joined me when the two choruses performed there together. Musically (and obviously as a parent), it was like being in heaven, as good as it gets. An experience like that is almost inexpressibly exhilarating, and certainly one to be remembered for a lifetime.

But the stage of the Met? As a teen? HaZamir is reaching new and unprecedented heights.

It it were only about the music, I could easily say “Dayenu.” This alone would be enough, But the glory of HaZamir, as it has lovingly and dedicatedly been developed by Vivian Lazar, is that it’s not just the music… It’s the seamless fusion of the music, the Zionism, the bonding with other Jewish teens, and the heightened understanding of the singular importance of Jewish unity.

As a Jewish professional, not to mention a father, who has devoted much of my life to meeting the myriad challenges of Jewish continuity, I see in HaZamir one of the truly remarkable success stories in the Jewish community. What is particularly thrilling for me is that the vehicle for its success is the arts. How often is it true that, when school budgets are tight and cuts need to be made, the first things to go are programs in the arts. HaZamir is a shining example of the arts being a crucial component of self-actualization and identity formation. Jewish schools, take note!

And to all the teens in HaZamir around the world who are about to discover the majesty of the Met, I can only say- break a leg!

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