Yehuda Gilden, a much-loved music teacher in Toronto-area Jewish day schools who taught a generation of students to appreciate the deep connections between Judaism and music, died in Toronto on Dec. 15, of complications related to Parkinson’s disease and dementia. He was 65.
Apart from imparting the joys of music and song to thousands of students, he was also a pianist, composer, arranger, vocalist, choir director and multi-instrumentalist.
Gilden was perhaps best known as the music director at all four branches of Associated Hebrew Schools, a position he held until 2001, when his Parkinson’s began taking a toll on him.
He was “an incredible teacher who instilled a love of music and Yiddishkeit in thousands of our students,” related Chaim Cutler, executive director of Associated Hebrew Schools. “He will be sorely missed.”
Roughly during the same period, he was the choir director at Eitz Chaim Schools. Rehearsals were held Sunday mornings, and he led the choir in recitals and at events throughout the city, including at Zimriyah, the annual Toronto Jewish schools’ choral festival, Canada’s Wonderland and at residences for senior citizens. He also briefly taught at Netivot HaTorah Day School.
For years, he played keyboards and was the lead singer of the Nafshenu Orchestra, which provides live music for simchot and other events in Toronto and New York City.
In addition to piano, he played the French horn, accordion and several wind instruments.
Recalled as a soft-spoken, gentle man, he taught students to love music “and to love Judaism,” said his wife, Tammy Gilden. “He taught kids to love Judaism through music and to really value their heritage. That’s what he was really all about: making Judaism more approachable and appealing through music.”
Gilden was “an extremely talented composer, vocalist and pianist,” wrote Toronto musician and entertainer Abie Rotenberg in a tribute on Facebook. “But most of all, he was an emes’e Yid (authentic Jew) who loved ha-Shem and did so much to promote His honour.”
Gilden was born on Sept. 5, 1952, in Champaign-Urbana, Ill. His father, Meyer Gilden, was a research engineer for the U.S. government, while his mother, Sarah Gilden (formerly Luboff), was a physical education teacher and a musician.
Tammy Gilden said that when Sarah Gilden gave her children piano lessons, it was a very young Yehuda who responded and could play the instrument by ear.
He studied architecture briefly at the University of Kansas, before transferring to the Hartt School of music, which is affiliated with the University of Hartford in Connecticut, where he studied opera and piano.
He will be sorely missed.
– Chaim Cutler
It was there that he became interested in liturgical music and he began singing at a local synagogue, in his distinctive baritone-tenor voice.
In the mid-1970s, he moved to Israel to attend Ohr Somayach yeshiva in Jerusalem and he also taught music in religious public schools and in haredi communities.
Gilden was recruited by Associated Hebrew Schools while he was in Israel. He and his new wife were further persuaded to come to Canada by an architect friend who helped design the Spring Farm community in Thornhill, Ont.
The couple arrived in 1986, just as the neighbourhood was getting established.
One of his proudest achievements was leading a choir at a Siyum HaShas event in Toronto, which celebrates the end of the seven-and-a-half-year cycle of reading a page of the Talmud a day. The choir was composed of boys from several Jewish day schools.
“Yehuda unified people,” his wife said. “It didn’t matter how religious or not you were. He managed somehow to get everybody together through music so you all found your Jewish commonality.”
In addition to his teachings and choral duties, Gilden gave private music lessons.
He managed somehow to get everybody together through music.
– Tammy Gilden
When it was apparent that his condition could not allow him to work, the Jewish musical fraternity came together to record an album of original songs by Gilden, sung by adults and children. Some of North America’s most prominent Jewish musical talents assembled for the project.
The 2008 album was titled, Harei Yehudah, and the proceeds from it went to Gilden’s family.
But in the end, it was all about children.
“It was more important for him that a child have a good time being in choir,” said Tammy Gilden. “He didn’t go in for complicated arrangements the kids would have trouble learning. Instead, he went in for more simple things.”
“Kids had a joyous time in choir and singing and performing,” she said. “Whether in the classroom or choir, he really was very committed to building children into confident human beings.”
He is survived by his wife, 11 children, many grandchildren and three siblings.