Israeli opera singer savors role as JCC culture impresario

Sitting in a small office in the Oshman Family JCC, Ronit Widmann-Levy is singing Gershwin in operatic soprano: “It ain’t necessarily so/The things that you’re liable/To read in the Bible/It ain’t necessarily so.”

Suddenly, she switches to Hebrew: “Baruch atah Adonai, elohaynu melech haolam, asher bachar banu mikol haamim, v’natan lanu et torato, baruch ata Adonai notayn hatorah.”

The “Porgy and Bess” melody is eerily similar to the Aliyah blessing over the Torah.

“It was probably George Gershwin hearing Ira practicing for his bar mitzvah,” said Widmann-Levy, a classically trained opera singer and now director of cultural arts at the JCC in Palo Alto. “In Jewish composers’ music in general, there’s a lot of liturgy embedded because it’s in us. It’s there; it’s in our DNA.”

It’s that kind of cultural cross-pollination that Widmann-Levy, 42, hopes will inspire audiences who come to the JCC for programs ranging from the music of Arturo Sandoval to the literature of Michael Chabon.

Widmann-Levy spent a lifetime immersing herself in music, Jewish culture and fine art before joining the JCC staff two years ago.

Ronit Widmann-Levy

Growing up in Israel, Widmann-Levy knew she loved music from a young age. She sang in a choir in her hometown of Haifa, but said the timbre of her voice drew her toward opera.

“My voice was a lyric soprano, and the more I sang, the more the voice grew,” she said. “I enjoyed being onstage very much.”

After leaving the army, a 21-year-old Widmann-Levy followed her Tel Aviv opera teacher to the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati. She brought her new husband, and former commanding officer, with her. She worked toward her bachelor’s degree in music while her husband did graduate work in engineering

“My husband and I left [Israel] thinking we’re just going to go to school and come back,” Widmann-Levy said. “But then life happened.”

Widmann-Levy was offered roles in operas and performances with symphonies around the country and internationally, including the New York Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. She played Violetta in “La Traviata” and Micaela in “Carmen.” She performed symphonic and operatic pieces including “Carmina Burana,” Beethoven’s Ninth, Mahler and Wagner.

“I got immersed in the world that was here,” Widmann-Levy said.

Her husband, an engineer, anchored the family at home while Widmann-Levy traveled to perform. They had children — a son, now 15, and a daughter, 5. Nine years ago, they moved to the Bay Area and settled in Sunnyvale.

Soon thereafter, Widmann-Levy received a rare opportunity to perform in Yiddish with San Francisco Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas, who wrote a stage show based on the lives of his grandparents, Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky. They were stars of the New York Yiddish theater scene in the early 20th century. “The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater” was performed in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami and at Tanglewood in Massachusetts. It later aired on PBS’ “Great Performances” in 2012.

“The text is in Yiddish but the music echoes genres of opera,” said Widmann-Levy, who learned to speak Yiddish as a child from listening to her grandmother and mother speak it when they didn’t want the children to understand them.

She found working with Tilson Thomas an incredible experience. “He’s lovely and funny and a genius. His personality, his willingness to train young artists, to give of his gifts, to share is incomparable,” she said. “He would come with great new ideas and change things up until the last moment.”

In 2010, Widmann-Levy toured with Israeli guitarist and composer Daniel Akiva as the duo Ladino Soul, bringing the music and language of Sephardic Jews to international audiences. She sees music as an essential way to keep Ladino, a dying language, alive.

“Ladino has that kick, a Spanish kvetch,” Widmann-Levy said. “It lends itself to music because it’s very close to Spanish; it kind of rolls off your tongue.”

Two years ago, Widmann-Levy joined the JCC as director of cultural arts, determined to bring her eye for performance, music and culture into programming for the Silicon Valley Jewish community. The career transition allows her to spend more time home with her family, though she still travels to perform. She replaced Kathi Kamen Goldmark, a noted local musician and author, who died in 2012.

“It’s my Jewish community, where I live, where my children are being raised,” Widmann-Levy said. “I very much enjoy and feel blessed to be in a place where I can choose how to nourish my community culturally.”

Since joining the JCC staff, Widmann-Levy has significantly increased the center’s theater and music offerings, adding to its already rich literary programming, according to Mimi Sells, the chief marketing officer.

“She’s a real visionary and had an idea of this incredible jewel of a boutique cultural arts destination where we would bring the finest performers, where people can get up close and personal with artists,” Sells said.

Widmann-Levy’s programs have included four back-to-back productions of “Peter and the Wolf” in Hebrew, English, Russian and Mandarin, and performances by Branford Marsalis and Sandoval. The JCC will soon begin offering a full suite of afterschool performing arts enrichment classes to children. Starting in November, pianist Frank Lévy will hold a performance series for children and families featuring music from around the world, and in December, jazz musician Ron Carter will perform.

Widmann-Levy is particularly proud that she can offer both audiences and artists an intimate and inviting experience that will compel them to return.

“At every jazz concert there is a reception. You get to hang out with Branford Marsalis in the courtyard,” she said. “Artists feel at home here.”

Drew Himmelstein
Drew Himmelstein

Drew Himmelstein is a J. parenting columnist and former staff writer. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two sons.