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Brighton & Hove Chutzpah Choir

It was about 10 years ago that Polina Shepherd, having recently moved to Brighton from the former Soviet Union, decided to start a Yiddish choir here, as this was something she had experience of back home. She was keen to promote knowledge of Yiddish music in the UK as part of Ashkenazi culture, which had become forgotten after the end of World War II. Not knowing quite how to go about it, she was eventually introduced to Ralli Hall, whose management agreed to help her start the choir as one of their community activities – and the choir took off from there.

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It was about 10 years ago that Polina Shepherd, having recently moved to Brighton from the former Soviet Union, decided to start a Yiddish choir here, as this was something she had experience of back home.  She was keen to promote knowledge of Yiddish music in the UK as part of Ashkenazi culture, which had become forgotten after the end of World War II. Not knowing quite how to go about it, she was eventually introduced to Ralli Hall, whose management agreed to help her start the choir as one of their community activities – and the choir took off from there.

The first few sessions were attended by about 25 people, in most cases being introduced to Yiddish singing for the first time and in some cases to any kind of singing. They grappled with the pronunciation of the language, but gradually got the hang of it. They also learnt to sing their hearts out with nigunim (wordless songs), where improvisation using the Jewish modal scale was encouraged and where there is no formal sheet music to follow.

For some reason it proved difficult to build up a men’s section, but the women’s section had greater success with the soprano and alto sections becoming quite strong and including some members who could sing a solo verse or line – or even a full song.

Over time the choir added a few songs in other languages to its repertoire, including some in Ladino and Hebrew, even though the bulk of the repertoire remained Yiddish. But this meant that the choir needed to find a new name as it could no longer be called the Yiddish Choir. It didn’t take too long to decide that Chutzpah Choir was the best name to choose, as the choir felt it certainly had ‘chutzpah’ to sing in Yiddish, which none of the members actually spoke, and ‘chutzpah’ is a word that many non-Jewish people are familiar with too. The choir was still seen as part of the Yiddish music revival, which has now become part of the world music scene.

The choir’s first ‘public’ performance was for the Chanukah party of the Hyman Fine retirement home in 2006 but after that it was invited to sing at various local events – for Yom Ha’atzmaut at Ralli Hall, concerts for the Brighton & Hove Reform Synagogue in 2007 and 2008 for their Sunday afternoon tea parties as well as a full evening concert in 2011; for the Brighton & Hove Progressive Synagogue in 2007 sharing the line-up with Oxford Shir and in 2009 a full Chanukah concert of its own; and also for the Eastbourne Jewish communities in 2011. In addition the choir was pleased to sing in the closing concert for Sussex Day Limmud at the University of Sussex in 2011.

However, it was always felt important to take the wonderful Jewish musical tradition out into the wider community as well, so the choir sang for Age Concern and a charity event Dance for Life both in 2007, for the World Sacred Music Festival at the Friends Meeting House (Brighton) in 2008, and for Brighton & Hove People’s Day at Hove Town Hall in the same year.

The choir also performed at a concert at St Andrew’s Church in Waterloo Street entitled ‘World in Harmony’, which featured  performers from different religious and cultural traditions, and a similar concert at Hastings White Rock Theatre entitled ‘Musica Sacra’ (2010). The choir gave many other performances at concerts where it shared the programme with other musicians and performers, such as The Sanctuary in Hove (2010), an open air concert at Brighton Bandstand, and numerous other joint concerts and events.

It was sad when eventually a significant number of choir members could no longer attend because of work changes including relocation out of the Brighton and  Hove area, but the core members kept in touch and came together to support each other at concerts and events. So after a very successful five years the Chutzpah Choir was unable to continue actively…

…until now!  In November 2015 a small group of former Chutzpah Choir members decided to reform, meeting in a member’s house in Hove on a weekday morning (instead of an evening). Polina agreed to give it a go. The reincarnated Chutzpah Choir met for five weeks at the end of 2015 and already has 18 people on the list, some being former choir members and some coming along for the first time.

This time there are already several men, and the choir performed at a four-choirs concert at Brighton’s Unitarian Church in February 2016 (‘A Bublichki Evening’) and performed in the mixed ages choirs section of the local Springboard Festival, The Chutzpah Choir was awarded 90 marks with an Honours First. So who would have predicted that in 2012?

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