Last week, the fifth grade boys of Barkai Yeshivah in Brooklyn performed for “The Golden Girls,” a group of senior women who meet once a month under the auspices of the Sephardic Bikur Holim, a non-profit organization of the Syrian-Jewish community established to help the less fortunate. Since their inception in 1974, they have branched out not only to provide food, housing, mental and medical health care service but to provide programs for seniors.
The boys sang Chanukah classics like Maoz Tzur and the Dreidel song but the striking part of their performance was their ability to master an ensemble of more than ten Pizmonim, liturgy of the Syrian Sephardic Jewish community in Aleppo written by their rabbis and cantors. The songs contain lyrics from Piyutim, compositions composed in of Hebrew liturgical poetry from the first centuries of the Common Era until the beginning of the Haskalah. These ballads are paired with Arabic melodies, some even to American ones like Row Your Boat, which the boys sang, as well. Barkai prides itself with transmitting Syrian traditions and liturgy to the next generation.
The room was adorned with ten round tables set with Hanukkah placemats and cutlery wrapped in Chanukkah napkins. The buffet tables included a rich menu of pastas, three types of salads, fancy string beans, potato latkes and Syrian delicacies like samboosak (cheese pastries) and sugar kaak (sugar breadsticks). Across the room, a table a dessert table was set with cakes, cookies, a fruit platter, sufganiyot (jelly donuts) and latkes for everyone.
The ten-year old boys asked women to dance and had them in the center of the dance floor with their friends circling around the couples in song. The ladies were smiling and some were even giggling.
Ninety year-old Sylvia Erani said, “I love children. They were refreshing and I wish I could take everyone home with me and hug them!”
Susan Cohen, Co-Chair of the event, was the emcee providing information and comic relief to the audience of seniors, parents of Barkai boys and SBH volunteers. She began the Sharing and Caring segment of the program, when the women have an opportunity to express Arabic sayings and translate the words of wisdom with everybody.
Eighty-eight year-old Esther Cohen, a veteran attendee to SBH senior events and token dancer, was called to the microphone, “Sha’ate’ Hely Bit-Alam,” she said. “You’re efficient when you want to learn,” she explained. “I learned all my Arabic sayings of wisdom from my mother.”
Many women are dressed with full faces of make-up, pants and skirt suits with heels. There are few who need attendants.
Rabbi Charles Safdieh, age 33, led his fifth graders on stage to perform a concert and Mrs. Rachelle Sitt, Music Director, was on keyboard.
The rabbi was beaming. “The boys sang beautifully and uplifted the hearts of the seniors at the lunch. With their sweet voices they illuminated the spirit of every person in the room.”
These boys have been learning to sing Pizmonim since nursery. Rabbi Safdieh teaches his class a new Pizmon every week, but did not prep them to perform. He didn’t expect this turn-out. The rabbi said he was flabbergasted and filled with pride.
After the concert, Susan proceeded to invite each child to the microphone to introduce himself and say the name of his grandparents as a way for the seniors to play Jewish geography. Being the Syrian community is closely-knit and many are related either directly or through marriage, this was a sure way for each child to be identified.
Mrs. Cohen took the opportunity to announce engagements and marriages of grandchildren of audience members.
Rabbi Safdieh closed with a D’bar Torah (Biblical insights) tied into the Parasha of the Week,
By: Carol Shamula Golan
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