Eleanor Epstein remembers childhood car rides with her family, when they all sang together — Jewish music, show tunes, popular songs. There was more singing at home around the piano, with her mother as the accompanist.
“My father sang both tenor and bass, mother was an alto and I’d sing soprano,” says Epstein, 66, the director of the Jewish choir of Washington, Zemer Chai. “I remember a very famous Jewish song, a ‘Hallelujah.’ Later I learned that it was by well-known Jewish-German composer Louis Lewandowski and is sung especially on the High Holidays. But then, it was our song.”
They also sang folk songs like “There’s a Long Trail A-Winding.” “That,” Epstein says, “was the encapsulation of my childhood with these beautiful harmonies.”
In July, Epstein received the Hallel V’Zimrah Award at the 28th annual North American Jewish Choral Festival, held in Kerhonkson, N.Y. It’s an acknowledgement of a life immersed in Jewish music and dedicated to the values and lessons the songs sung communally convey. In the 41 years since Epstein founded Zemer Chai, she has been a consummate conductor, educator and friend for the group and its members.
“I always loved communal singing, choral singing,” Epstein says. “It was always a great source of nourishment for me. Maybe I loved it because of the harmonizing in my household.”
As a student at American University in the 1970s, she discovered the music department and graduated with a degree in music. Early in her career, she taught music at local Hebrew schools and lead High Holiday choirs at synagogues, including Bethesda Jewish Congregation. For the past 15-plus years her full-time job has been directing the choir.
Zemer Chai rehearses religiously every Wednesday evening from late August through June at the Hebrew Home of Greater Washington in Rockville. Epstein leads practices in the choir’s repertoire of Jewish liturgical, folk and popular music in Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, Arabic, Aramaic, Russian and German like a teacher, pausing to explain a text or discuss the origin of a melody. Jews have always sung in the language of the land they lived in, Epstein notes.
“Music is an ear art,” she says. She asks choir members who can read music to put their sheets down and “sing by ear.”
Early in the rehearsal process, Epstein calls the choir to form a tight-knit circle around her. “In a circle they’re no longer next to someone singing the same part. That gives the singers a real sense of the sound that they’re creating,” Epstein explains. That circle also helps the singers build community, which has long been one of Epstein’s goals in creating a consciously nondenominational choir.
Choir members call this “come to huh,” in imitation of Epstein’s unapologetic New York accent which renders “her” as “huh.” Joan Wolf, Zemer Chai’s president and a member for 11 years, says the moment is a beautiful one that allows Epstein to hear all the vocal parts. And, as the group gathers shoulder to shoulder, they see each other’s faces, their eyes.
“She is encircled by us,” says Wolf, a Bethesda real estate agent. “The rehearsal is energy filled and draining at the same time. Eleanor has that ability to hear both the big picture and each individual part.”
Zemer Chai was founded on the heels of a successful musical Shabbat service Epstein organized at Temple Beth Ami, a Reform synagogue in Rockville
The participants enjoyed themselves so much, Epstein says, that after the service they wanted to continue meeting and singing together. Singing, Epstein believes, is a life force, as important as breathing, eating or sleeping.
She recalls the first rehearsal in February 1976: “I put an ad in Washington Jewish Week and all kinds of people came.” During its initial decade, Zemer Chai — which means “living song” — sang for community and synagogue groups like Hadassah and sisterhoods. She also didn’t require prospective singers to audition.
“I was just 26 and didn’t want to turn anybody away. In those early years I said I would do it, but I didn’t want to become a performing choir. I’ll teach [the group] all the Jewish music I know and we’ll just have fun.”
That evolved as demand for the choir grew. These days numbering about 40 singers, who audition and pay modest dues, the nonprofit choir is sustained by grants, private contributions and ticket sales.
Jim Perlmutter joined the choir in 1984. Though traveling frequently for work as a Labor Department executive before retiring, he always made it home in time for Wednesday’s rehearsal.
“I see Zemer Chai as a chevra,” he says, a friendly community. “Eleanor created that. We’re there for each other in good times and in bad times.” A self-described old timer, he has watched the group grow with an infusion of younger members.
Sarah Fishman grew up in Montgomery County hearing the choir sing at its annual winter and spring concerts. Now the Silver Spring yoga teacher with a toddler son keeps her Wednesday nights open for rehearsal. Fishman sang in choruses and with friends in high school and majored in musical theater in college. She says Zemer Chai has been a way to connect her two worlds: music and Judaism. “I always associated Judaism with music and singing; the two are inseparable for me,” she says.
Some of Fishman’s most moving moments have been when the choir has been invited to a synagogue to sing at a Shabbat weekend. “I’m not an observant Jew, but getting to pray with Zemer Chai really evokes something for me. There’s something special about all of us joining our voices and our heartbeats and our intentions,” she says.
Both Perlmutter and Fishman note Epstein’s penchant for delving deeply into the texts of songs she chooses, often stopping rehearsal to explain a song’s origins, meaning and connections to today’s society.
“The reason I do this work is because I love the words as much as the music,” Epstein says. “I’m happy to teach the words alone, the prayers and Torah and I did that for many years … but I’m happiest when I’m able to work with both the words and the music leading the choral.”
If it’s any indication of the regard they have for Epstein and her work, about half the group took time off from work and traveled at their own expense to New York to see her receive her award and sing selections from their most recent June concert, “Home.”
“Maybe partly because so many people in the D.C. area come from elsewhere, the choir creates a family,” Epstein says. “It’s like nothing else. You’re with people who love to do what you love to do and without them you wouldn’t be able to do it. When you love choral singing, you need other people. You cannot harmonize with yourself.”