Photograph by Melinda Finn
Ruth Webber, conductor of the San Diego Jewish Men’s Choir: “They like doing the dance moves and adding schmaltz to the show.”
The San Diego Jewish Men’s Choir managed to release their third album in December of 2020. Quite an achievement, one would think, given the circumstances of Covid-19. But, says conductor Ruth Webber, “Had it not been for the pandemic, I actually don’t think we would have released the album at this time! We most likely would have collected a few more songs. When the pandemic started, we began holding virtual rehearsals on Zoom. Those were very frustrating since the technology causes a time lag and an inability for the singers to hear each other clearly. Since we had to cancel our entire concert season, the choir decided it would be the best use of our energies and funds to finish our album at this time. We wanted to finish it in time for Chanukah so we could have a new product for our families and fans to enjoy the holiday season. The upside of the pandemic was that we were able to find top-level musicians who were available at reasonable rates to record on our album remotely. We have tracks from musicians from all over the U.S. that we added to our vocal tracks.”
The Billboard-charting choir has been operating for more than 20 years, and the group bills itself as “25 good looking guys who can also sing and dance,” according to a promotional flyer. Weber came on board nine years ago. Choir members range in age from early 20s to late 80s and they hail from several different countries. The mission statement is to preserve and promote the rich heritage of historically relevant Jewish music, and they sing in a variety of languages including Yiddish, Ladino (also known as Judeo-Spanish,) Hebrew, and English. They began recording tracks for the new album Legacy five years ago, and they used the large room at Studio West in Rancho Bernardo.
I wondered about the logistical challenge of managing a group of 25-30 male egos.
“Haha, yes! That was my big fear when I accepted this position. I thought no one would actually listen to what I had to say since I was the only woman in the group,” says Weber. “Actually though they are so supportive and they really try their best to make the group a high level choir… our group uses “choral-ography” in their performances and many of our numbers are semi-staged. The guys had never done this with their previous director, because originally the group performed mostly liturgical music. The men do seem to like performing a variety of different styles of music and they take stage direction really well. They like doing the dance moves and adding schmaltz to the show.”
How does the group get together now? Some sort of massive Zoom conference?
“We are on a brief hiatus now,” says Weber. “And we are concentrating on promoting our album to radio stations, newspapers etc. We are investigating some new ways of rehearsing together safely. For example, there is a unique way some choirs have been trying where each member sings into a mic in their car. All the mics are linked to an empty FM frequency so that everyone can hear each other. We hope to try this out soon. In the meantime, many of our members are getting their vaccines, so we hope that maybe by the summer things will be looking up for some outdoor rehearsals with masks on or something like that.”
How has the recording experience evolved for the choir?
“We’ve come a long way. We did our first album at a home studio in Escondido. The studio’s room was not big enough to hold all the members, so we went in one section at a time to record. The air-conditioning didn’t work so well so the other members waited outside by the chicken coop!”