Joshua Jacobson has been on a lifelong mission to rescue and share Jewish choral music. Jacobson, the indomitable founder and artistic director of the Zamir Chorale of Boston, will be celebrated at the organization’s Gala Golden Anniversary Concert on Tuesday, June 4. The event, which will be at the Sanders Theatre at Harvard University, will bring together the 60-member chorale with the choir’s alumni from around the world.

Jacobson recently spoke to JewishBoston about his distinguished musical career and the Zamir Chorale’s illustrious history. Jacobson, then 21 years old, started the choral in 1969 as a graduate student. His initial introduction to choral music was at Camp Yavneh. He recalled he was immediately “hooked on singing four-part choral music with Jewish text.” A few years later his musical mentor, Stanley Sperber, asked if Jacobson was interested in starting a Zamir Chorale in Boston. That was in October 1969.

“Zamir in Boston happened at a time when there was a lot of enthusiasm for Jewish renewal in the city,” Jacobson observed. “For example, the first havurah [prayer group] was started by Art Green in Somerville, and we thought of ourselves as part of that wave. We were a forerunner of college a cappella groups, and initially, anyone who wanted to sing with us was admitted to the group until we auditioned people the next year. Almost everybody at the time was a college or graduate student. But our members have always come from all walks of Jewish life. Many have gone on to be cantors and rabbis.”

As the chorale’s 50th anniversary was approaching, Jacobson and Zamir’s managing director, Barbara Gaffin, strategized about celebrating the milestone. The Golden Gala program book will feature 25 unique responses from alumni answering the question: How did Zamir change your life?

Except for occasional sabbaticals, Jacobson has been Zamir’s first and only conductor. “It was apparent,” Gaffin told JewishBoston, “that the celebration had to also be a tribute to Josh, who is an ambassador for this kind of music. His goal is to share the beauty and the depth of [Jewish] choral music with the world, which most people in the Jewish world don’t know about. It is present all over the world from places such as France, Germany and Morocco. We try to give people a feeling for that in our concerts.”


The Golden Gala will highlight the diversity and richness of Jewish choral music by premiering six compositions commissioned for the concert. Jacobson noted that the composers—Jeremiah Klarman, Ken Lampl, Jonathan Leshnoff, Charles Osborne, Nick Page and Benjie Ellen Schiller—have written music based on Hebrew and Jewish texts. Jacobson is “enthusiastic about the match with Leshnoff, who has also been commissioned to write music for the Atlanta and Baltimore symphony orchestras.”

Additionally, the chorale will perform favorites that include “Hallelujah” by Salomone Rossi, a 17th-century Italian Jewish composer of early baroque music, “Sim Shalom” by Max Jankowski, a 20th-century German composer who wrote liturgical pieces, and “The Geographical Fugue” written by Ernst Toch, a Jewish composer who fled the Nazis for America and won a Pulitzer Prize for music in 1956. Toch wrote the piece as part of an experimental modern music concert while he was still in Germany. “The Geographical Fugue,” a completely spoken composition, has become popular among modern choral societies. In the 1970s, Jacobson and Sperber created a Hebrew version of the fugue, complete with Hebrew words and references to places in Israel.

Yehezkel Braun’s “Hayah Ish”—a memorial piece based on Hayim Nahman Bialik’s poetry—will also be featured. Zamir commissioned it from Braun in 1996 shortly after Jacobson’s father died, and it will be sung in memory of Zamir Boston alumni who have died. The chorale will also sing its anthem, “Hazamir,” which was written in the early 20th century by Leo Low for the first Zamir choir in Lodz, Poland.

A Zamir Chorale of Boston celebration would not be complete without honoring Jacobson’s wife, Ronda. Ronda Jacobson will be fêted at a luncheon on Sunday, June 2. Both Jacobson and Gaffin said that Ronda’s role as the de facto “First Lady of Zamir” has been integral to the chorale’s success. “She has served all these years as emotional support for the chorus,” said Gaffin.

There are two notable projects that have been in the works during Zamir’s golden anniversary year. Inspired by conductor Eric Whitacre’s virtual choir project, Jacobson created a version of the ambitious undertaking for Zamir. A decade ago, Whitacre invited singers from around the world to submit videos of themselves singing individual parts of a piece he had written. He and his engineers received over 100 videos, from which they made a composite video of people who were singing together for the first time in a virtual space.

Jacobson selected 19th-century composer Lewis Lewandowski’s “Halleluyoh,” which sets music to Psalm 150. “Many Jewish choruses have sung that piece,” Jacobson said. “So we sent notices to primarily Jewish choirs around the world and received 150 recordings of people singing their parts from Australia, Germany, Canada, the United States, Israel and Poland. The engineer we worked with spent many hours so that you focus on one or two faces or sometimes you see all 150 faces. Interspersed throughout the performance is a profile of me conducting this virtual performance.”

The Zamir Chorale of Boston has also launched, a new website to spread the word about Jewish music. “Many conductors don’t know the great 19th-century synagogue classics,” said Jacobson. “Jewish choral literature is for the most part not taught at conservatories. If you look at an anthology of choral music, you’ll see Jewish pieces are missing. We break that cycle with a searchable database of Jewish choral music, as well as links to articles and PDFs of the scores, recordings and YouTube videos. We’re also planning on producing a podcast series on the history of Jewish choral music.”

Next month Chorus America, an organization of professional choral conductors, will honor Jacobson for his steadfast contribution to the field. For the occasion, Jacobson will conduct a piece of Israeli music. “Anything that can bring people together is important in this environment,” Jacobson said. “Israel gets a lot of bad publicity, but we’ve been putting forward the sweet face of Israel.”

Find more information about the Zamir Chorale Gala Golden Anniversary Concert here.