Last night’s show at Roy Thomson Hall, in support of Chai Lifeline, brought together three Jewish superstars performing music that reflects their diverse backgrounds.
Yiddish singer Mike Burstyn, Cantor Itzhak Meir Helfgot and Cantor Simon Spiro shared a stage for the first time in British, Yiddish & Kiddush, for what was certainly a historic show in the world of Jewish music.
A Yiddish entertainer who cuts across musical genres, Burstyn has garnered rave reviews for his portrayal of Al Jolson on Broadway. Helfgot is the Pavarotti of the cantorial world, with a voice to rival that of any world-class opera singer and Spiro is a world-renowned cantor who’s also made his mark in the pop world, singing with Elton John, Shania Twain and Phil Collins.
Accompanying the singers was the 50-piece Sing-for-the-Children Symphony Orchestra, which includes members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and other local ensembles. Australian Russell Ger, an internationally renowned conductor from New York City who works closely with Helfgot, lead the orchestra.
Israel (Yummy) Schachter launched the Roy Thomson Hall concerts in support of Chai Lifeline nine years ago, after the organization, new to Canada at the time, asked him to help with its fundraising events. Over the years, the concerts have featured popular Jewish performers, including Marvin Hamlisch, Itzhak Perlman, Neil Sedaka and Art Garfunkel.
One problem, though, is that they were running out of big-name Jewish stars who could sell out a hall. So Schachter started looking around for a new concept for the annual event. When Schachter watched the 2014 show The Kids From Brooklyn, which featured the music of 1960s Jewish singers and a narrative written by Aliza Spiro, the founder of Toronto’s Jewish Music Week, Schachter saw a new direction for the Chai Lifeline concerts.
He collaborated with Spiro, who’s married to Cantor Spiro, and she ended up penning a narrative for British, Yiddish & Kiddush. Cantor Spiro said the audience was exposed “not just to the cantorial side of things, not just the classical style of singing, not just the operatic style of singing, not just Broadway, but to all genres. It’s for everybody.”
He added that his wife has written a “beautiful narrative that weaves all the different genres of music together at different times during the show. So everyone is going to be taken on this beautiful, fun musical journey.”
Chai Lifeline helps children who are suffering with serious illnesses and their families and also helps children with a seriously ill parent. Although many of Chai Lifeline’s services are geared to the Jewish community, the organization “helps everybody who reaches out,” Schachter said.
Although about 250 Chai Lifeline volunteers are currently assisting some 400 families, the organization has a low profile in the community as families with sick children tend to guard their privacy.
“Unless you actually know that child or that family, you’ll never really know how much Chai Lifeline is doing behind the scenes to hold that family together,” he said.
While Chai Lifeline does promote its services, “you don’t really get a good sense of what they do,” he added. He said people who attend the annual show get a better sense of what Chai Lifeline does through the videos it shows and through speakers who deliver first-person accounts.
“Families begin to crumble and fall apart as soon as they have a child who’s been diagnosed with something. They simply don’t know how to handle it,” Schachter said. “The marriage starts to fall apart, their income is at risk. I’ve seen Chai Lifeline save hundreds of families over the years.”
British, Yiddish and Kiddush took place on April 11 at Roy Thomson Hall.