Yiddish singer does mitzvah project her way through music

Walking through San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood a few years back, classically trained singer Heather Klein was struck by something.

She saw how her then-boyfriend, a chef who struggled with addiction, was always giving to the homeless people on the street — money, time and food.

“I was consistently in shock of his generosity,” Klein says. “He always thought of those less fortunate then himself.”

Heather Klein

After her boyfriend died, Klein says her own spirit was transformed. She took the lesson she learned from him, about the importance of tikkun olam, and spun it into a series of Jewish music events to benefit the San Francisco Food Bank.

“Being a musician, I do [charity] my way — though music,” she says.

“Hungry for Yiddish? A Mitzvah Project” kicks off at 4 p.m. Dec. 19 at Congregation Ner Tamid in San Francisco. Each $10 event of the series will include a smattering of different local klezmer and Yiddish musicians.

The first event will feature performances by Yumi Thomas, Lorraine Helms, Achi Ben Shalom and Klein’s group, Heather Klein’s Inextinguishable Trio. Subsequent shows will take place in January at Peninsula Temple Beth El and JCC of the East Bay. The other artists involved include the Red Hot Chachkas, the Klezmakers and Yiddish dance instructor Bruce Bierman.

Klein’s trio, which now includes viola player Be’eri Moalem and pianist Alla Gladysheva, reinterprets Yiddish folk into classical music. Klein sings the Yiddish lyrics in a higher key and the musicians change the arrangements to a more classical style.

While Klein was raised in a Jewish household, she only learned Yiddish in adulthood through studying the musical works. She’s not fluent, but she knows the words well enough to sing.

Klein, who attended the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, has had an interest in music since preschool.

At age 10, Klein was backstage at a performance of “Man of La Mancha” in Las Vegas when she met the woman who would become her voice teacher for the better part of a decade. “I wanted to be Mariah Carey and she wanted me to be an opera singer,” Klein says.

The teacher’s opinion took precedence. Years later, as an undergrad at the conservatory, Klein was still studying opera.

When she needed to put together a senior recital, however, she decided to perform a Yiddish piece because she’d recently discovered her father’s old collection of klezmer albums.

Klein got some fellow musicians together and poured over old Yiddish works in the library. The trio performed for the school and got hired that day for another performance at the Workman’s Circle. And so it’s been ever since, Klein says.

When she decided to put together the “Hungry for Yiddish” series, her first order of business was to start calling her musician friends. “People were interested quick — I was afraid because I’m not paying anybody but everyone was so excited.”

She also called in local visual artists to submit pieces that show awareness of hunger and homelessness. The works will be displayed during performances.

Klein says it was when Achi Ben Shalom asked her why she decided to donate proceeds to the food bank that she realized the impact of her late boyfriend’s selflessness. “He gave to people and has inspired me to give.” 

“Hungry for Yiddish? A Mitzvah Project” takes place at 4 p.m. Dec. 19 at Congregation Ner Tamid, 1250 Quintara St., S.F. ; 6 p.m. Jan. 23 at Peninsula Temple Beth El, 1700 Alameda de las Pulgas, San Mateo; 4 p.m. Jan. 30 at JCC of the East Bay, 1414 Walnut St., Berkeley.