You won’t find too many Yiddish choirs in the Bay Area. It’s hard enough finding active Yiddish speakers, let alone singers.
And if you do find a group of Yiddish singers, it’s unlikely it will have an 81-year-old lead soloist.
But look no further than Jackie Griffin, one of the founders of the Yiddish Choristers group at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto.
As an active Yiddish choir for 29 years, the Choristers have been performing for audiences across the Bay Area for decades — and Griffin, a Palo Alto resident, is one of the group’s most respected members.
“She is one of those people who truly has a gift,” Choristers director Karen Bergen said.
At rehearsals, Bergen said, when most people practice their solos, there is no reaction. “But when Jackie finishes, the other chorus members applaud,” she said. “She has the respect of the entire chorus because of her instrument, which is just so unusual.”
Though Griffin did not grow up learning Yiddish, she was around it her entire childhood as she grew up.
It was the kind of family, Griffin said, that “when the parents spoke Yiddish, it was to tell secrets.”
She grew up in Fairview, Mass., approximately 50 miles north of Springfield, the youngest of six children.
“We lived out in the country where we were the only Jewish family,” she said.
Her father was a professional violinist who played in local orchestras and taught music in schools.
Although Griffin said her family was not very musical, she took singing lessons from a woman her father knew in the music industry. She never sang professionally, but said she always enjoyed it.
Though in her 80s, Griffin still works — as a part-time office assistant at a local insurance company, where her co-workers affectionately call her “Cindy” (short for Cinderella, because she helps with a number of different tasks).
She moved to the Bay Area in 1960 and quickly became active in the Jewish community.
When she joined Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto, she became a singer in the congregation’s choir and met the choir’s director, Lotte Solomon.
“People were interested in Yiddish,” Griffin said. “[Solomon] thought it would be really nice to try and start a Yiddish chorus and see how it went.”
Griffin and Solomon and two others, including Bergen, founded the Choristers in 1982 at the JCC in Palo Alto. When Solomon retired as the group’s director about 10 years ago, Bergen took over.
Today, the group is an eclectic mix of about 20 singers from their late-30s to early 80s, some of whom know Yiddish and others whom do not. Israeli and other music is also performed.
Griffin, who does not speak Yiddish, said it’s wonderful for anyone who wants to learn to sing Yiddish. And it’s not a requirement to read Yiddish.
“It’s in transliteration, not Yiddish,” Griffin said. “If it isn’t, someone will help us pronounce it. There’s one friend who’s in the group and he’ll say, ‘Jackie, it’s pronounced such and such.’
“Every once in a while I slip up, but I try.”
The choir meets in 10-week sessions during a season, and normally performs anywhere from one to three shows. Shows can go as long as 45 minutes, and Bergen said the choir explains the meaning of the song before singing it to the audience.
The group primarily plays at retirement homes and elderly day programs. Some of their audience knows Yiddish.
“That’s the most gratifying thing for us,” Bergen said, “to sing our Yiddish songs to people who appreciate them.
“To me,” she continued, “it’s a way of holding hands with my Lithuanian Jewish forbearers who are no longer with us and most of whom I didn’t know,” she said. “But I knew my grandmother, and when I sing Yiddish, I can hear my grandmothers voice in our songs.”
Bergen said being able to sing Yiddish music is “a gift” — and another gift is the camaraderie within the group.
“They come together because of the music, but they stay for the sociability,” Bergen said.
“The people in our chorus are so nice,” Griffin said. “I would call it a nice haimisha chorus. It’s so nice to say ‘Hi’ and just sing.”
To see a YouTube video of Jackie Griffin singing a solo on “Rozhinkes Mit Mandlen (Raisins and Almonds),” visit www.tinyurl.com/3hldgyu. For information on the Yiddish Choristers, visit www.paloaltojcc.org.