By Alex Cornacchia, Contributing Writer
Westborough – About an hour north of Prague there’s a town called Terezín. It’s small, just over five square miles, and the population numbers a little over 3,000. In the midst of World War II, however, those five square miles held, at any given time, around 60,000 Jewish people, mostly from Czechoslovakia, Germany and Austria. Terezín or Theresienstadt, as the Germans called it was a concentration camp, a holding place for Jews before they were sent to Auschwitz or other extermination camps.
Terezín would hardly seem to have the right conditions to harbor an artistic community. It was frightening, overcrowded and riddled with hunger and disease; over 30,000 people died there. And yet, against all odds, the arts flourished there. Theater and opera, jazz and cabaret culture was vibrant and alive despite the despair that surrounded it.
Four years ago, Shir Joy Chorus, a central Massachusetts chorus that sings exclusively “Jewish-associated music,” was born. Forming such a niche group might seem like an odd choice, evening a limiting one: how much Jewish music could there possibly be? But the five original members were passionate about their decision. And when you think about the rich culture and history they’re drawing from, a history that includes stories like Terezín’s, it’s easy to see why.
The group, around 30 members strong, consists of a main chorus (comprised of all members and open to singers of any musical ability), as well as a 16-member Select Chorus (made up of vocalists who are able to take on more challenging repertoire). For their twice-yearly concerts, Director Wendy Damoulakis tries to put together programs that involve some sort of unifying characteristics. Once, for example, the group did a “Jews in Broadway” concert.
“Which isn’t too hard to populate,” she laughed.
But the nature of the group also means that commonalities often arise even when it’s not intended. Their most recent concert in June, titled “Bissel Foon Dum Oon a Bissel Foon Uz” (or “a little of this, a little of that”), was a self-proclaimed eclectic mix of songs. Even so, certain themes survival, overcoming oppression, looking to the future, finding peace were repeated throughout the program. The chorus performed two Czech folk songs at the June concert, arranged by composer Gideon Klein while he was in the concentration camp. It’s about finding strength and solace and happiness in music, even in the worst of circumstances.
The name Shir Joy is fitting. Shir means “song” in Hebrew, making the group’s name “finding joy in song.”
Shir Joy’s goal is to celebrate “the breadth and beauty of Jewish culture” through performance, according to Damoulakis. She acknowledged that it can be tricky finding audiences who are willing to listen, given the specificity of their musical focus. Though the chorus welcomes members of any faith, the group is still entirely Jewish. But they’re figuring it out. For their last song at the June concert, Damoulakis invited the audience to stand with the chorus in a giant circle. The evening came to a close with everyone singing Linda Hirschhorn’s “Circle Chant.” The simple melody, with lyrics about finding freedom and peace, was amplified by over 100 voices raised in unison.