(photo credit: Courtesy)
Making aliya in 2009 was the second time around for 80-year-old cantor Shimon Gewirz, who settled in Kfar Saba with his wife of 55 years, Ilana, a little more than three and a half years ago.
“Israel was our home back in 1961,” says Gewirz, who grew up in New York’s Lower East Side, one of eight siblings who were all blessed with musical talent of some type.
Back in 1961 he started out life here as an English teacher and music counselor in the Hakfar Hayarok agricultural high school. But thanks to his older sister, Gladys, who was working as a producer at Kol Yisrael radio, he received an offer to work there too, as a producer of light music programs.
Gladys, who sadly died last year, was returning to America with her husband, Ezra Hedaya, who had been district attorney of Jerusalem, and suggested that her brother take her place.
He and Ilana settled in Jerusalem and joined Hagal Hakal, producing music and folk song programs. At about the same time, he and Ilana set up as a singing duo and produced a number of long-playing records as Shimon and Ilana. They both had strong music backgrounds – Shimon with piano and guitar and Ilana as an expert flute player – and they would perform in English, Hebrew and Yiddish.
The legendary impresario Pashanel (Avraham Deshe) took them under his wing and gave the duo a name: he called them “Tzemed Hamishotitim” (The Wanderers). “We used to perform for soldiers and as an opening act for the big stars of the day,” recalls Gewirz.
“The audience was amused by the fact that we were an off-beat act – a couple of Americans who came here and sang in Hebrew.”
He fondly recalls the two young men, just completing their army service, who used to act as comperes for their shows – Ehud Manor and Yaron London, both of whom would also work as news readers. “They used to correct my Hebrew,” recalls Gewirz, “and they said it was archaic and I used a lot of biblical words which no present-day Hebrew speaker would use.”
He even took the lead in a musical which was put on here in the early ’60s.
“They were doing an adaptation of an off-Broadway show – The Fantasticks, which had been translated by Dan Almagor – and I was the vocal coach for the cast,” recalls Gewirz. “One night at 11:30, the director knocked on my door and told me the leading actor was sick and I would have to play the part myself – and I did.”
In spite of being so busy, with shows and performances on a regular basis, it was hard to make a living. They had hoped to get in on the ground floor of Israel Television, but the beginning was delayed and they found life increasingly hard in Israel. While they both loved the show-business world and found it fun and interesting, it was very badly paid in those early days of the state.
With two small daughters, the Gewirzes decided they would have to return to New York.
The return journey was an experience in itself as they were booked to entertain on the maiden voyage of the SS Shalom, the first luxury liner ever owned by the Zim line.
“We sailed to New York and back to Israel, and then returned to New York to stay,” recalls Gewirz.
Once again following in the footsteps of his sister Gladys, who had been teaching music therapy at a psychiatric hospital, Gewirz also began working for them and in the end stayed for 18 years. He also worked as a music teacher in several Hebrew schools.
Later he became a full-time cantor working for two main congregations, one in Rhode Island and the other in Florida.
He and Ilana visited Israel every year and, as more and more siblings came here, they knew they would one day return – especially when two of their four daughters settled here.
They chose Kfar Saba, which they had often visited, as two sisters had lived there and found it “charming” and not as hectic as Tel Aviv.
Today they live very close to one of Gewirz’s sisters, Roz Grossman – the Scrabble Queen – and other family nearby.
They fell in love with “Hod VeHadar” – the splendid Conservative synagogue of Kfar Saba – and attend services there every Shabbat.
Although he no longer practices hazanut, Shimon can still lead services as a shaliah tzibur, and helps organize the choir. They love the atmosphere and the warm welcome the community gives all worshipers – including Ambassador Dan Shapiro, who is often seem among the congregation.
The rest of the week is taken up with many other activities. Both Shimon and Ilana volunteer, she in a kindergarten and he in an elementary school where he helps pupils brush up their English.
They still return to the United States during the High Holy Days as Shimon officiates at a synagogue in Florida, but they know it is a temporary arrangement and they will soon be back in their Israeli home. Unlike 50 years ago, for the Gewirz family, this time there is no going back.