The Ramatayim choir celebrates its 20th birthday

When traveling abroad, Ramatayim does not perform only in English-speaking countries.

Ramatayim Choir’s 20th anniversary concert, with (far left) Shlomo Gronich (photo credit: CHAIM MEIRSDORF)
Ramatayim Choir’s 20th anniversary concert, with (far left) Shlomo Gronich
(photo credit: CHAIM MEIRSDORF)
Many congregations in Israel are egalitarian in that they have few set traditions. They lack a permanent leader of the Shabbat service and a Torah reader. The result is many different styles and tunes, some of which are familiar to the congregants and others that are not.
Unless the names of the leader of the service and the Torah reader are announced in advance, regulars in such congregations don’t know what to expect. Sometimes it’s a pleasant surprise; sometimes it’s just the way it was back home; sometimes the leader is a Carlebach enthusiast; and sometimes the service is jarring because the leader exudes no joy.
In August 1995, four singing enthusiasts got together in Ramot to wax lyrical about nostalgia. They missed the melodies of the synagogue services of their youth and wanted to recapture something of the past. They sang almost all the liturgical choral pieces they knew and discovered that many were familiar to all four of them. That tuneful stroll down memory lane proved to be the nucleus of the Ramatayim Choir, which is now celebrating its 20th birthday.
Word spread that the quartet was willing to appear gratis for various charities, and a few months after their first get-together they were invited to perform.
They couldn’t sing anonymously, so they had to come up with a name. As they were all residents of Ramot and their repertoire was largely liturgical, they chose a name that was partially biblical and partially related to their neighborhood.
Their name Ramatayim is derived from Ramatayim Tzofim – the hill country of Ephraim, the birthplace of Samuel the prophet.
After their first gig, the quartet received several more invitations to perform, as well as requests from other amateur singers who wanted to join them. Today, 20 years later, the choir consists of 45 male choristers, both native-born Israelis and olim from different parts of the world.
Most live in Jerusalem, but there is a sizable contingent from Gush Etzion.
The choir includes Bernard San, who for 40 years was chief cantor of Zurich.
He started singing in a choir at 15 and became a cantor at 25. Following his retirement last year, he settled in Jerusalem and joined Ramatayim.
Of the original four choristers, two are still members of the choir. Richard Shavei Tzion and Rafi Barnett are originally from South Africa. Shavei Tzion, who is Ramatayim’s director, conductor and musical arranger, sang as a 10-year-old in the choir of the Cape Town Gardens Shul. Founded in 1841, it is the oldest Jewish congregation in South Africa and one of the oldest in the Southern Hemisphere.
An accountant by profession, who manages a property development and management company, Shavei Tzion has no formal musical training. An autodidact, he taught himself to read, write and arrange music, as well as compose.
The greatest challenge in directing the choir was to ensure that all the choristers used Sephardi pronunciation. That was not easy because many of them had grown up in congregations where the liturgical lingua franca was not only Ashkenazi, but Ashkenazi German, Ashkenazi Polish, Ashkenazi Hungarian, Ashkenazi Russian, Ashkenazi British, Ashkenazi American and Ashkenazi South African.
They all differ from each other not just in terms of accent but also in pronunciation.
With rehearsals only once a week, getting the pronunciation uniform was a difficult task, but it was accomplished.
Shavei Tzion estimates that over the years, the choir has performed for more than 20 charitable causes, some on an annual basis. These include Beit Issie Shapiro, OneFamily, Keren Malki and Melabev. In addition, the choir appears regularly in concert halls and synagogues throughout Israel, with more than 250 performances ranging from gala concerts to flash mobs. The choir has also broadened its repertoire to include hassidic music, Broadway, pop and opera.
Despite the fact that it’s an amateur choir, Ramatayim has appeared with top professionals in the spheres of cantorial music, opera and other genres. These include world-renowned personalities such as Yitzchak Meir Helfgot, Yaakov Motzen, Naftali Herstik, Chaim Adler, Simon Cohen, Colin Schachat, Yonatan Razel, Shlomo Gronich, Rami Kleinstein, Dudu Fisher and Guy Mannheim. The choir has sung in concert with symphony orchestras and in mixed choir performances and has been featured on national TV and radio and the BBC. It has also performed at the official residence of the president of Israel.
Shavei Tzion tells a delightful story about the choir’s ongoing collaboration with Shlomo Gronich, whose instrumental talents include playing melodies on a shofar. On one occasion when the choir was performing with Gronich in Jerusalem, he forgot to bring his shofar, and there was no way he could make it back in time for the concert if he returned to Netanya to get it. The problem was easily solved. Nearly every man in the choir owned a shofar, so they called their wives and asked them to bring their shofarot to the hall, where Gronich could choose the shofar best suited to him.
On another occasion, when the choir was singing in Liverpool at a concert attended by the lord mayor, they sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from the musical Carousel, which is the anthem of the Liverpool soccer team. Their rendition received a thunderous ovation.
When the choir performed in Birmingham, the locals wanted to hear the South African national anthem, which has a beautiful, uplifting melody.
In July 2007, the Ramatayim choir appeared before 4,000 people in Wales.
That day, a terrorist attack was perpetrated in London, so the choir dedicated its performance to the victims. The spontaneous gesture was very well received.
The wives of the choir members sometimes travel abroad with them. Several of the wives were at the Choral Eisteddfod in Wales, waving small Israeli flags.
When traveling abroad, Ramatayim does not perform only in English-speaking countries. The choir was among many at the prestigious International Lewandowski Choral Festival in Berlin.
The choir members are always happy to learn a new tune. One of the choir members, Victor Schlesinger, is the grandson of a Manchester cantor who composed many of the melodies that he sang in his synagogue. The melody he wrote for “Etz Haim Hi” has been adopted by Ramatayim.
Another adopted melody for “Ata Ehad” was composed by choir member Shlomo Simkin.
Shavei Tzion says that for new immigrants, the choir provides an excellent means of absorption. The weekly rehearsals give them a certain discipline. They also form friendships within the choir, which aids their social integration; and some choir members can steer them in the direction of employment.
Ramatayim is just one of Shavei Tzion’s musical outlets. He has directed choral ensembles in South Africa and Israel, and for the past 35 years he has led High Holy Day services in South Africa, Israel, the US and Canada. He is often invited to lead communal events, singing and playing guitar. During the past 15 years he has produced and directed numerous musical and other social and cultural events. In addition