Mir Zingen: The Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir Turns 40

Origins

Searle Friedman and his wife Sylvia were active in a variety of left-wing causes and were members of the folk music scene in Vancouver from the 1950s on. They moved to East Germany with their three young sons for Searle to advance his musical training in 1965. After completing his master’s degree in conducting and choral arranging, the family spent several years in Toronto where he conducted the Toronto Jewish Folk Choir. Then they returned to Vancouver in 1979, and Searle was looking for something to do.

Choir founder Searle Friedman.

Searle’s niece, Tammy Neuman, describes the founding of the choir.

“He was sort of at sixes and sevens…”

The choir was always envisioned as an inclusive community choir: no-audition, open to Jews and Gentiles, and not particularly fussy about whether you could sing.

Letter dated November 8, 1979, announcing the formation of the choir.

The choir initially sang for secular services at the Peretz Centre. In 1984, it started hosting its own annual concert as well, a challenge for a small group. According to member Victor Neuman, “when there were no-shows at rehearsals, the standing joke was that the choir could at least consider the possibility of becoming a barbershop quartet.”

Many early members were Yiddish speakers, some of whom knew much of the repertoire from their youth. They didn’t always need the music, or even all the words, so Searle sometimes gave them cheat sheets to work from, such as this one with stresses noted and lyrics split into parts, but no notes.

In My Village...

Dialect differences in Yiddish led to sometimes heated arguments.

“I guess Searle got fed up.”

Pronunciation wasn’t all the choir members fought over. They all had favourite songs they tried to promote.

“It reminded me of songs I heard at home.”

Growing Pains

The Tivoli Singers, circa 1990.

The Tivoli Singers, a choir based in the local Danish community, performed with the choir in 1990. The choir has often performed with other ethnic groups, learning each other’s traditions and creating bonds between different communities. The Vancouver Folk Orchestra (a project of the Ukrainian Hall) and the Vancouver Turkish Choir have also performed with the Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir.

Searle was never allowed to live down one infamous gaffe. He meant it innocently, but it didn’t come out that way.

“Searle was telling us we weren’t sounding so good…”

Searle’s manuscript of “Neyn mame,” a humourous song about a young woman who knows exactly who she wants to marry and won’t be dissuaded. He frequently pasted over changes to his arrangements, making a final manuscript copy before creating a version for the choir.

Searle was a larger-than-life personality whose charisma helped him manage the choir—except for one member.

“Sylvia was very feisty…”

The choir is as much a social organization as a musical one. Tammy Jackson and Victor Neuman met at the choir in the early 1980s, and married in 1987. Their wedding was pretty much a choir gig: Searle gave the toast and held the chuppah (in the photo, to the left of the groom), Sylvia served as MC, and the wedding was held at the Peretz Centre.

In January 1990, the Peretz Centre’s annual fundraiser was a roast to Searle. This may have been precipitated by his declining health. In the fall of 1990, he went into hospital, where Victor Neuman remembers visiting him:

“Me: How are you doing Searle?

Searle: Fantastic! I’ve gotten some very good news from my cardiologist.

Me: (greatly relieved) Wonderful! What did he tell you?

Searle: Well it turns out he sings in a choir and he’s not happy with it. He’s thinking of joining ours! AND HE’S A TENOR!!”

 

Searle Friedman died on the last day of 1990. His arrangement of “Mayn Rue Platz” is one of his most enduring works. The choir continues to sing this haunting song dedicated to the deaths of young women workers in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in 1911.

The Choir performs “Mayn Rue Plats” by Morris Rosenfeld, arranged by Searle Friedman. Recorded at the Peretz Centre, June 2018: Cynthia Ramsay soloist.

New Beginnings

After Searle’s death, accompanist Susan James moved into the conductor’s role. She stayed with the choir about five years, and was succeeded by David Millard, the tenor section lead, who has been the director ever since.

The Choir appeared in The Province newspaper on December 21, 1992.

David was a church organist and classical singer with no formal training in Jewish music.

 

“Somehow I knew not to say Happy Yom Kippur.”

In addition to conducting, David’s arrangements have been central to expanding the choir’s repertoire. “The first piece I arranged for the choir was the ‘Eliyahu ha-Novi,’ because it was a simple unison setting that the choir sang. I felt that I would like to sing it in harmony. And so I came up with the arrangement that we still sing.”

A chorister’s doodle of David, probably made while another section was learning its part.

The choir’s rendition of Peter Yarrow’s “Light One Candle,” a meditation on the meaning of Hanukkah’s liberatory message for us today, arranged by David Millard. Recorded at Vancouver Public Library, December 2018. Peter Kendall and Cynthia Ramsay, soloists.

One of David’s most popular pieces is his original setting of “Jabberwocky” in a Yiddish translation by Raphael Finkel. He describes the origin of this piece: “Stephen Aberle and I used to go to home together, he would drive me part way sometimes when he had a vehicle. And often we’d be riding transit together. And we’d get to talking. And at some point, he mentioned that he encountered a Yiddish translation of Jabberwocky on the web. And, and so I, I filed that away. And one time, we were working on material for a spring program that just was not coming together and determined that we pretty much had to scrap it and try to start with something fresh. And I didn’t know what that was going to be. Because I didn’t want to go back and just pull out another old standby that we’d already done. And the notion came into my head to check out this Yiddish Jabberwocky. And so I found it… And I sat down with it and tried over some ideas and went to my computer and used my music software to write the opening movement. This tends to be a thing with me, I don’t write for the pleasure of writing. I’m not driven to write. But when something is needed, it seems to happen that I could decide I’m going to sit down and do something and the inspiration or whatever you want to call it is there… I actually sit down on a Tuesday morning and I have something finished by Tuesday afternoon to take to choir that night. And so I had the first movement drafted and took it in and and we tried it over and asked the choir if they thought it was worth pursuing. And I got the affirmative. Unbelievably had the rest of it finished for the following week.”

The Vancouver Jewish Folk Choir performing Yomervokhets at Limmud Vancouver, January 2016; Stephen Aberle soloist.

Eliot Dainow was the choir’s piano accompanist from 1997 to 2018. He remembers a few times when things did not go so smoothly.

The choir was invited to sing “Yomervokhets” at the opening event for Limmud Vancouver in 2016. The evening also included a trivia contest, which resulted in the choir’s table—including family and friends of choir members—winning the “Most Jewish Table” award. Not bad considering there several rabbis and senior Jewish Studies scholars present: and especially ironic since only about half the people at the table were Jewish.

Choir members celebrate their victory for “Most Jewish Table” at Limmud Vancouver, 2016.

Asked for a highlight or favourite memory, David offers this: “One thing I think might stand out is the, the reception the choir got when we did the ‘Family Naiman’ performance for the first time. This is a program that was developed around the history of the family of one of the members, Victor Neuman… He wrote out the story of his family and in consultation with me and with others, we selected songs to highlight the different parts of the narration. It was one of the first times when the choir did a full program on its own. Because the concert structure that I inherited was that the choir would do the first half of our program, we’d have a guest artist of some kind who did the bulk of the second half and then would somehow join forces with the choir to do a concluding number or two. But on this occasion the program itself was the whole show and I’m not sure if it’s the first time the choir did the entire show on its own without a guest but it’s certainly one of them. But it was an extremely moving experience and that’s certainly a highlight.”

The choir sings the folksong “Lomir beyde a libe shpiln.” Recorded at the Peretz Centre, June 2017: Diana Diaz soloist.

As an inter-generational organization, it sometimes happens that an active member of the choir dies. Davey Kramer was much loved in the choir community.

A Celebration of Life for David “Davie” Cramer was held on November 29, 1998.

Ethan Minovitz’s passing in 2013 at only 50 was hard for the choir. David Millard remembers the bond they shared as fans of early Warner Brothers cartoons.

In March 2019 Richard Rosenberg passed away suddenly. Richard was a former Peretz Centre president and a stalwart of the bass section. The choir mourns his loss.

Longtime choir member Richard Rosenberg.

Delica Cee (centre, with all the hair) sitting in for tenor section lead Tristan Pearson. The choir has always had a significant contingent of LGBTQ members. Delica Cee is Tristan’s drag alter ego: on one occasion s/he didn’t have time to change into boy clothes after a photo shoot. Tristan’s 2014 performance as Angel in “Rent” was attended by most of the choir, including a very frail Sylvia Friedman near the end of her life.

The choir sings “Dzhankoye,” a Soviet-era song about Jewish collective farms in Crimea, arranged by Stephen Cohen. Recorded at the Peretz Centre, June 2018

Conclusion

The choir remains committed to its core missions: providing an open, welcoming place to sing, whether you can sing or not; maintaining Yiddish and other Jewish languages; and providing a progressive vision of what Jewish culture can be.

The exhibit is dedicated to the memory of Sylvia Friedman, whose contributions to the choir and to progressive Jewish life in Vancouver were endless. We lost her in December 2016. May her memory be for a blessing.

Sylvia Friedman, September 2015.

Sources and Acknowledgements

Writer: Faith Jones

Research: Cynthia Ramsay, Faith Jones, Donna Becker

Interviewers: Victor Neuman, Penny Goldsmith, Felicity Dunfield, Faith Jones

Audio editing: Faith Jones

Video editing: Cynthia Ramsay

Transcription editing: Rachel Mayer

Tech support: Winnifred Tovey

 

Thanks to the following individuals who generously agreed to be interviewed for this project

Donna Becker
Elliot Dainow
Felicity Dunfield
Norman Epstein
Rob Friedman
David Millard
Tammy Neuman
Stevie Steiner

Other sources used to create this exhibit

The online archives of the Jewish Western Bulletin and the Jewish Independent
Victor Neuman’s essay “Choir Memories at 40

Further Reading

On the history of Jewish choruses
On the Toronto Jewish Folk Choir
On the Peretz Centre