There are plenty of photos and tchotchkes in Manny Helzner’s apartment in Leisure World. One of them shows Helzner standing with a few others. The most famous of them is former President Barack Obama.
Sit down at his dining room table, and Helzner, 90, will give you the full story.
In 2014, Zemer Chai, the Jewish choral group that Helzner has belonged to for 45 years, was invited to the White House to perform at a Chanukah reception. The visit included a tour and an introduction to Obama.
When Helzner introduced himself, Obama had asked Helzner about his diet since he seemed to be in such good health.
Sitting at his dining room table, Helzner says that after Zemer Chai’s performance, Obama came to him and said, “Now I know what keeps you so young. You keep singing.”
Obama got it right. Singing is Manny Helzner’s passion.
“I think music is a great outlet, a great activity and very creative,” he says. “And at this stage, I think it’s my kind of exercise. It keeps my vocal chords working, keeps my body active and hopefully contributes to the cultural scene of the community.”
Helzner was born in Massachusetts, but he’s lived in Maryland so long that he’s “close to being a native.”
“Singing came very early in my life,” he says.
As a child, he performed for the adults in Yiddish. “I grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home and my education there involved a lot of school plays and activities. When I went down to G.W. [George Washington University for college], I became president of Hillel and was a member of a choir. From there, I decided that Zemer Chai was my outlet for Jewish music.”
He attended the choir’s first concert when he was 45. After, his first wife, Charlotte, turned to him and said, “That’s your outlet. That’s the kind of group singing I think you would enjoy.”
That was half a lifetime ago. Since then, he’s served as the choir’s treasurer and on its board. His voice has deepened from baritone to second base.
“Helzner is a very special singer, a very special Jewish singer,” says Eleanor Epstein, Zemer Chai’s founder and conductor.
The group sings all kinds of songs, from “classical and liturgical pieces to world Jewish folk music in multiple languages,” the choir’s website says. Helzner also explains that the choir is designed to preserve and share the musical heritage of the Jewish people.
And Helzner brings something unique to the choir, Epstein says: his Yiddish background.
“He was bringing that whole piece of Jewish culture in a very authentic way,” she says, “He is a dynamic and engaging singer. He embodies and owns the Yiddish music that he sings. He understands the words. He is just so completely immersed in the music that his authenticity and love of it comes through.”
“These Yiddish songs are very often like a snapshot of Jewish life, and what it was like to live during those years,” she says. Because Helzner grew up in those times, these snapshots aren’t “a historical curiosity to him.”
Both of his daughters have become cantors. Robyn Helzner is cantorial soloist at Temple Sinai and is associated with Sixth & I Historic Synagogue. Rochelle Helzner is the cantor at Congregation Tikvat Israel, which Manny Helzner attends. Son David is a chemical engineer who shares the family love of music.
Robyn Helzner says there was always Jewish music playing in the house when they were growing up. The sisters began performing when Rochelle was 10 and Robyn was 8.
“I’m very proud that they chose to share that talent with the Jewish community,” says Manny, who was religious school director for several area synagogues.
His grandchildren have also inherited his love and talent for music. Grandson Ari once performed a Yiddish duet with him at a Zemer Chai concert. It was duet between a father and a son. In the song, the father complains about his son’s behavior. The son, replies that he spoke to his grandfather who said, the dad was no better as a child.
Grandfather Manny doesn’t see himself or his family reflected in that song. And none of the Helzners are complaining about his enthusiasm for Jewish music.
“It was just so contagious,” Robyn Helzner says. “I really do owe to my dad for making Jewish music such an important part of growing up.”