Most people pay rent in dollars and cents; Vermont’s Counterpoint chorus pays its rent in song. For the last two years, Montpelier’s T.W. Wood Gallery & Arts Center has given the singers rehearsal space in exchange for an annual benefit concert there. This year, the chorus teams up with Tim Tavcar, director of WordStage, a Chamber Music Theater, to celebrate Jewish American Heritage Month with an evening of Yiddish and Hebrew folk songs and stories.
The songs, many of which emerged from the villages and shtetls of Eastern Europe and America from the mid-19th through mid-20th centuries, celebrate everyday village life — work, love, children and Jewish holidays — as well as the Jewish people’s resistance and perseverance in the face of persecution. Counterpoint released a recording of the songs in 2004 called When the Rabbi Danced, and performed many of them earlier this month at the Rutland Jewish Center in honor of the center’s 100th anniversary.
The Wood show will feature solely a cappella arrangements. “We’re not doing the stuff where people get up and dance the hora,” says Counterpoint director Nathaniel Lew. The songs cover about a century of Jewish life in Eastern Europe, ranging from folk songs poking fun at girls who are desperate to get married to bleak songs from the shtetls. Many are well known, including “Hatikva,” the Zionist song that became Israel’s national anthem. “It’s a fervent kind of song, full of longing to return [to Israel],” says Lew.
The program concludes with the emotional “Zog Nit Keynmol,” which was written in Poland’s Vilna Ghetto during the Holocaust and became the unofficial anthem of survivors.
Between musical acts, Tavcar, a former publicity director for the Wood (he lives part of the year in Cleveland but still coordinates special events for the gallery), will bring to life Tevye the dairyman, the jovial father figure most people know from the musical Fiddler on the Roof. Tavcar’s Tevye, however, comes straight from Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye and His Daughters, the 1894 fictional memoir that inspired the musical.
Tavcar will perform two stories, which take the form of letters from Tevye to Aleichem. The first recounts Jewish village life at the turn of the century: Tevye struggles to sell his butter and cheese and to marry off his seven daughters to reliable husbands. The stories showcase Tevye’s sense of humor, Tavcar says, “not laugh-out-loud, screamingly funny, but very gentle, philosophical humor.”
The second piece was written later, after the Russian pogroms and World War I. “It’s a paean to the indomitable Jewish spirit in the face of adversity,” says Tavcar.