History of The Zemel Choir

A detailed personal history of the Zemel Choir has been compiled by one of the Choir’s most experienced tenors, Peter Pollak.

Peter, who has been a member of the Zemel Choir for over 33 years and held the position of the Zemel Choir’s Concert Manager for over 10 years,  has maintained a written archive of the Choir’s activities throughout this period. Peter updated the history in June 2012.

In early 2009, the choir was preparing for it's first tour to Israel since August 1966. Three concerts in March took place in Ra’anana, Karmiel and Rishon Lezion, plus an informal performance to entertain the residents of Beit Protea, near Herzlia. That tour was successfully arranged and organised by Stanley Davis; our party included 38 choristers with Robert Brody, Maureen Creese and, of course, Ben Wolf, besides a good number of ‘nochschleppers’.

The CWS (Celebrate with Song) series of concerts first began in 2006: the third event on June 19th 2009 was an ambitious programme at St John’s Smith Square that featured a broad and varied repertoire of Jewish music from USA and Canada, concluding with Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms.

The next highlight of that season was the November concert at Belsize Square Synagogue – the choir sang no less than 10 different settings of Adon Olam! Besides the three featured soloists – Eliot Alderman, Marc Finer and Benjamin Cahn – a young newcomer to Zemel, Richard Newman, sang his first solo with the choir. This concert included “Shema” by Itai Daniel (this had required weeks of careful rehearsal and a practice tape) several compositions by Heinrich Shalit and Isadore Freed (names not previously known to us), plus a new work “How Goodly Are Thy Tents” by Jaques Cohen, son of Zemel’s founder Dudley Cohen. Also, for the first time, a close harmony quartet ‘Boybershop’, that is Ben and the three soloists, entertained the audience with three rousing arrangements of popular songs.

In the course of this busy season the choir also performed in Harrow (January 2010), Oxford (February 2010), with a grand end-of season ‘Showtime’ concert in the CWS series in June at J.F.S. For this event, Zemel was joined by Viv Bellos’ Alyth Youth Singers. The repertoire ranged from Offenbach and Verdi to Gershwin, Bernstein and Lionel Bart, including Yiddish and Pop favourites by Bacharach, Leonard Cohen and others.

The 2009-10 season ended with an informal concert for the residents of Harmony Close Housing. Regular programmes at Jewish residential and day care venues continue to be a proud and important part of Zemel’s commitment to the Jewish community.  In recent years we have entertained at the Brenner (Stamford Hill) Centre, Ravenswood Village (Crowthorne), Woodford Liberal Friendship Club, and three old age homes – Hammerson, Nightingale and Princess Alexandra (Bushey).

From time to time our additional rehearsals take place at Jewish Care in Golders Green, otherwise the regular rehearsals continue to be held in Whetstone – special thanks to Stephen Rabin for his liaison work.

Zemel’s first concert in its 56th season (2010-11) proved to be a very ambitious venture at Belsize Square Synagogue (now refurbished) in November 2010. Opening the programme was the first performance of Ben’s unique work ‘Procession to Prayer’ for double choir, followed by Chonon Lewis’ ‘Nachamu’; the first half ended with ‘Eitz Chayim’, Ben’s cello concerto performed by the Wallace Ensemble with soloist Gemma Rosefield. The second half opened with Chichester Psalms, introducing boy soloist Noah, son of Zemel’s former conductor Robert Max (very nice to see Robert and Zoe again!). Then came Chonon’s orchestral/choral oratorio ‘Esa Einai’, Richard Newman soloist; Part 1 of Bloch’s ‘Sacred Service’ and finally Handel’s beloved ‘Zadok the Priest’.

January 2011 proved to be a very busy month (after the loss of two rehearsals in December due to snow!). On January 23rd we held our annual music soirée at Blanche Eckman’s home – in previous years the soirée took place at the Berzons’ home and at Ralph and Irene May. Our soirées include recitals, cabaret and operatic pieces, instrumental solos and duets: following the music the audience is served refreshments and there is time to socialise – these evenings often attract past members and old friends. Zemel is fortunate to have genuine talent to call upon – Sharon Eckman, Robert Brody, Danny Tunkel, Danielle Phillips, Angie Lawrence, Richard Newman, Ann Sadan and Ben Wolf, and others such as Gary Tucker and Laura Brody (recorders), Deborah Cooper (clarinet), Tanya Sweiry (violin), Shirley Lishak and Harry Eckman. Ben accompanies most of the performers as well as organising the events – previously Maureen (Creese) has been involved in accompanying the performers.

The day after the 2011 soiree, Zemel took part in a youth CWS at Yavneh College, Borehamwood. Yavneh and Immanuel College (Bushey) were the two schools involved together with the Zemel Choir. Three workshop ensemble pieces – Oseh Shalom, Adon Olam and When I’m 64 – were enthusiastically received by an audience of parents, grandparents, etc!!

The following day, 25th January, Holocaust Memorial Day, saw Zemel participating in a multi-faith event at City Hall (London Assembly) with music, readings and testimonies from a variety of celebrities and students. Our choir was greatly honoured to take part and sang three pieces – Shuvi Nafshi, Eli Eli and Dolyeh. After the formal proceedings everyone enjoyed an amazing buffet lunch in the reception suite (9th floor) overlooking Tower Bridge and the Thames. With Boris Johnson hosting the occasion, Zemel felt very proud of itself!

A few weeks later, 35 members of the choir set off to Paris and Strasbourg for a short concert tour. The first concert in Paris was at the Rue Copernic Synagogue – Itai Daniel was in the audience. In Haguenau, which is near Strasbourg, Zemel shared the stage with Les Polyphonies Hebraiques de Strasbourg, putting on an exciting concert for the enthusiastic local audience. A most generous and friendly reception was laid on immediately afterwards before we eventually returned by coach to our hotel in Strasbourg – early next morning our group set of for the return journey, via Paris, back to London.

The summer CWS concert in June 2011, again at JFS Kenton, was preceded by a full day’s workshop with lectures. The concert itself featured Sephardi music, both choral and instrumental, familiar and less well known.

For the November concert at Belsize Square, Ben had been in touch with Dudley Cohen, ahead of his 80thbirthday, in planning this event. The format Ben devised involved the screening of a silent film, made in 1936 by a German Zionist organisation, which depicted the challenges and difficulties facing the early pioneers arriving in Palestine, and some of their incredible achievements; most skilfully Ben worked out a diverse programme of live choral and orchestral items to be performed as background (as a complement) to the film: many of the audience found this all quite moving and poignant.

For the second half of the evening, Dudley shared the platform with Ben in a programme celebrating Dudley’s immense contribution as composer/arranger during Zemel’s earlier years, which also included a number of his more recent and contemporary settings: Dudley’s vigour and enthusiasm was quite extraordinary. As well as his wife Joan, who rejoined the choir for this occasion, two ‘old timers’ of Dudley’s era, Sandra Lee and Robert Brody, contributed to the concert. This memorable evening concluded with tributes both from and to Dudley who then presented the choir with CD’s of his past concert recordings from the 60’s and 70’s.

Our major commitment in December 2012 was the 4 day first Lewandowski Festival in Berlin to which we were invited along with choirs from Toronto, Jerusalem, Zurich and Johannesburg (male choirs) and Boston Zamir, Strasbourg Les Polyphonies (mixed choirs) to join the resident professional (mixed voice) ensemble at Pestalozzi Strasse Synagogue where the opening ceremony of the Festival took place.

The organisers invested huge resources of time, effort and money to make this a musical, cultural and social success which undoubtedly it was. Events took place at the Crowne Plaza hotel and in the two largest Berlin synagogues. We were all taken to the Weissensee Jewish Cemetery (in former East Berlin) to visit Louis Lewandowski’s grave – en route we were given a guided tour around the city. There were lectures and presentations in the Music Academy by a number of international musicians on the Sunday morning and a very thrilling Saturday night event in the huge TV Tower Building on Alexander Platz, with plentiful amounts of food, drink and pleasant camaraderie.

For our individual concert performance Zemel was asked to sing at the Luther Church in Mariendorff: this church, we later discovered, was one closely identified with Adolf Hitler! We performed to an enthusiastic audience of some 80 locals…. The programme Ben had carefully selected and rehearsed was well received, and to our delight this spawned a (rare) Jewish Chronicle article and photograph of the choir later in the month.

The finale of the Festival took place at the renowned Rykestrasse Synagogue, a grand concert for all choirs in this magnificent setting with an audience of over 1000. The programme opened and closed with two of Lewandowski’s best know works – Mah Tovu and Adon Olam – performed by the assembled choirs en masse. Each individual choir sang two items including at least one by Lewandowski: Zemel performed Sulzer’s setting of L’Cho Dodi and Ladoshem Ha’aretz by Lewandowski, receiving lengthy ovations from the large audience.

The Zemel group included 39 performers and several nochschleppers – everybody agreed that it was a stimulating and enjoyable experience …..the final news we heard was that a second Festival may be arranged in December 2012.

Zemel’s first concert of 2012 (March 4th) was in Maidenhead in the local Arts Centre. This venue was ideally suited for the event and we attracted an audience of over 120, 25 of whom took part in the pre-concert workshop and in fact joined Zemel for 3 items performed in the second half – they appeared to love the experience! The choir performed a mixed programme which was generously received – Ben complimented us afterwards, but did comment on a number of “buried heads” which affected the performance! Robert Brody’s chazanut was on top form – Richard Newman sang ‘Shomeir’ with great feeling – Natalie Gies’ solo in Ben’s ‘How Good Are Your Tents’ was very accomplished; all other soloists, instrumentalists and the quartet in Schubert’s ‘Tov L’Hoddos’ did well on the night. The choir numbered 37 with Michael Cayton as our accompanist – our impression was that the audience enjoyed our performance.


Notable Personalities

After over 9 years Ben Wolf continues to earn great respect and acclaim as music director. As a composer too he has provided a number of original, varied and sometimes complex choral settings such as ‘Procession to Prayer’ and ‘How Good are Your Tents, O Jacob’ that we have struggled to learn, but ultimately performed with reasonable confidence.

Maureen Creese, the choir’s ever-present and ever-reliable repetiteur, and sometime acting conductor, has been with us since 1976 (to watch her eyebrows in rehearsal continues to both delight and worry me!).

Recently Michael Cayton has assumed the role of accompanist at several concerts (first time at Belsize Square in November 2008). Michael and Ben are closely involved with the synagogue’s music – their collaboration works very well for Zemel.

Leslie Elstein completed 6 years as Zemel’s (longest serving) chairman in November 2011 – well done! The choir now has it’s fifth lady chair – Diane Sheer. It is clear that Diane will bring much effort, energy and perception to the task of maintaining and building on Zemel’s reputation and achievements.

Anthony Cohen , business manager, the driving force behind the choir’s marketing initiatives and architect of a much valued website (now including our rehearsal downloads, a ‘scorch’ facility and many other features), is to be commended for his tireless efforts on the choir’s behalf, even stepping into Stanley Davis’ shoes to manage the recent Berlin visit.

Zemel is very ably served by it’s active committee which includes Doreen Havardi (membership and rehearsals), Linda Brody (treasurer and chief percussionist), GaryTucker (concerts), Bobby Jacobs (secretary), Viv Beber (publicity) and Alan Koch (assistant business secretary). Besides the elected committee, we can count on significant inputs from Helen Stone (organising this summer’s major choral festival in London), David Martin (librarian and sometime soloist), Linda Chainey (socials),  Deborah Cooper, Stephen Rabin, Angie Lawrence, Danny Tunkel and Philip Roth.

The choir is also fortunate to have some talented soloists – Richard Newman, Angie Lawrence, Natalie Gies, Danny Tunkel, Diane Sheer and Anthony Cohen plus other occasional soloists.

Robert Brody remains the choir’s leading male soloist/chazzan; remarkably he still ‘wows’ our audiences with his beautiful and resonant tenor sound – his career in Zemel, as chorister and soloist, now spans almost 50 years, and no end in sight!

My favourite performances since 2009

  • 17 and 21 March 2009 - Ra'anana and Rishon (Israel)
  • 14 June 2009 - CWS, St John’s – some items in the concert
  • 8 November 2009 - Belsize Square (Shir L’Shabbat), some items
  • 14 November 2010 - Belsize Square – Ben’s and Chonon’s works
  • 24 January 2011 - City Hall; London – Holocaust Memorial Day
  • 28 March 2011 - Haguenau – the 2nd concert of the French tour
  • 26 June 2011 - JFS: A Sephardi Celebration, certain items
  • 13 November 2011 - Belsize Square – both halves of this concert
  • 17 December 2011 - Berlin Luther Church
  • 18 December 2011- Berlin Rykestrasse Synagogue our two items were well received by a critical audience
  • 4 March 2012 Maidenhead Arts Centre

Repertoire Browsing

Reflecting on our unique musical output it has been interesting to keep track of the additions to the repertoire during the past three years. Since March 2009 Ben has introduced some 50 choral pieces we have not previously performed, as well as reviving over 20 ‘old’ repertoire items. The sources of the ‘new’ items include familiar and adapted versions of stage and show songs, film music, compositions originating in France, Israel, USA, etc which Ben judged would suit the choir and our audiences, and/or fit a particular occasion; lastly, and significantly, among first performances in recent years have been new compositions and settings by ‘home based’ musicians –Dudley Cohen, Malcolm Singer, Danny Tunkel, Chonon Lewis, Anthony Saunders, Robert Max, Roddy Skeaping and, of course,Ben himself. Finally, one further name that comes to mind in the wider field of Jewish choral music, Josh Jacobson – a prolific and delightful arranger of much of the concert repertoire we perform year on year. We were most privileged, recently, to meet this man in Berlin, attend his lecture on Lewandoski and Salomon Sulzer, and, finally, listen to his excellent choir, Zamir Chorale of Boston, in concert. Josh provides the world of Jewish music with a wealth of choral repertoire, and for this we should acknowledge our sincere respect and gratitude.

Looking Ahead

Three years from now, 2015, will mark the choir’s Diamond Jubilee, 60 splendid years of music-making and concert-giving. What further changes and significant achievements will be possible? Will Ben Wolf still be Zemel’s M.D? Can the bar be raised even higher?

The choir’s continuing development and success rests crucially on our being able to attract and retain younger choristers and soloists. I sincerely hope that this will be an important goal in future years.

Malcolm Singer, after completing 10 successful years as Zemel’s musical director, and now one of our patrons, wrote in June 1993, “The myths and legends are now born and have taken root”. Our dream will be to add to this proud and glorious tradition through a continuing and wholehearted commitment, but at the same time ‘passing on the baton’ to a new Zemel generation.


March 2012
Peter Pollak
Former Concert Manager


My active association with the Choir dates back to 1972. I missed the 75/76 season when I sang with theDudley Cohen Singers, and also parts of the 85/87 seasons whilst living and working in Birmingham (and singing in the Zimriyah Choir), yet still occasionally commuting to rehearsals in Hendon-and even ‘lining up’ for concerts in London and Canterbury (Kaddish at Terezin, June ’86).

Only 4 current members of the Choir-Viv Beber (who first joined in 1959), Ruth Banin, Linda Chainey and Linda Brody-joined before 1972, whilst Robert Brody’s connections date back to the early 1960’s-by 1965 Robert had become Zemel’s principal soloist and resident cantor (in those days he also played an accordian in concerts). Other (present) members with lengthy careers are Rusty Davis, Blanche Eckman, Doreen Havardi, Geraldine Luder, Michael Morris, Philip Roth, Shirley Lishak, Danny Tunkel and Chaggai Weissler; all of them sang in the 1986 Choir for the 30th Anniversary Reunion Concert at West London Synagogue, Upper Berkeley Street, conducted by Malcolm Singer.

First, some facts and figures:

Ben Wolf, the Choir’s 8th Musical Director, was appointed in January 2003. Previous Directors were the founder Dudley Cohen(1955-75); Geoffrey Simon (September 75 to July 78); Antony Saunders (September 78-January 83); Malcolm Singer (March 83-July 93 and now one of our Patrons); Maureen Creese (Acting Director, September 93 - July 94); Robert Max (September 94 - July 98); Viv Bellos (Jan 99-December 02). Ben then took over.  Zemel’s 5 Assistant Directors-Michael Oppenheimer(1955-56); Victor Tunkel(1956-66); Gerald Knepler (1966-73); Gerald Kingsley (1973-79); and for a remarkable 30 years, Maureen Creese- Maureen was Zemel’s accompanist from 1976.

There have been 6 Concert Managers: Martyn Davis (1955-61); David H Cohen (1961-65); Sid Eckman(1965-90); Peter Pollak (1990-2000), David Craig/Mark Lansman(2000-01); Gary Tucker (now also Janet Rose) from 2001.

The Chairman’s position has been occupied by 14 people (4 of whom have served 2 terms), each term averaging 3 years. Meanwhile Linda Brody (treasurer) and Doreen Havardi (membership) have, I believe, achieved the longest continuous periods on committee.

I have kept archive data of all the Choir’s 13 commercial recordings (vinyl, cassette, CD) 4 Videos (York, 1990;  Poland and Russia, 1993;  Brussels/Strasbourg/Luxembourg, 2007; BBC Songs of Praise, 2005) and between 1977 and 2001, no less than 31 (private) cassette recordings of our concerts in the UK and abroad.

There have been 13 TV and Radio performances between 1965 and 2005. The Choir has toured Israel 8 times, given 8 concerts in Western Europe on 2 tours, (in 1984 and 2007), and 3 in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust Commemoration visit of 1993. There have been 2 tours to the USA and Canada in 1981 and 1987. Domestic concerts (in the UK) have included 6 visits to Llangollen between 1960 and 1984 (twice in my time) for the International Eisteddfod, and numerous memorable visits to the provinces from the 1970’s onwards around the south, south east, midlands and north of England, and one to Cardiff.

I have also kelp track of the membership numbers-up to about 1967 there were over 90 voices in the Choir, but that figure fell to around 60 by 1969. By 1978 under Geoffrey Simon the membership had risen to 65, but 3 years later had dropped to 55. During the 90’s the figure fluctuated between the mid 50’s and low 60’s, falling still further to under 40 by 2002. Under Ben, the Choir has been growing - currently we have 52 members -19 Sopranos, 14 Altos, 8 Tenors and 11 Basses.

Over the past 37 years, I have been conscious of the changing fashions and emphases in repertoire and musical styles we perform, reflecting Hebrew (Ashkenazi and Sephardi), Liturgical, Folk, Pop, Renaissance and Antiqua, Yiddish and Israeli Works, as well as several larger scale compositions with orchestral or instrumental support- ie Bloch’s ‘Sacred Service’; Bernstein’s ‘Chichester Psalms’ (for the seventh time); Copland’s ‘In the Beginning’; Castelnuovo-Tedesco ‘Sacred Service’; Senators ‘Kaddish for Terezin’; Cormac O’Duffy, ‘Hear O Israel’;  Braun, ‘The Night of No-Amon’; Neil Levin, ‘Vanished Voices’,  Alman, ‘King Ahaz’.

Our conductors have endeavoured to pursue fully these different goals (even two demanding Bach Motets) while the members have to invariably rise to the challenges they set and the demands of the music itself.  Having kept track of the choir’s “first performances” from 1977, I have listed well over 200, and the number continues to grow, year by year.     

Zemel’s first rehearsal “home” was Hendon Synagogue at Raleigh Close, from June 1955 to July 1991.  For the past 18 seasons the choir has rehearsed at Finchley (Kinloss), Golders Green, Pinner, Hendon (Reform), and since september 2007 at Southgate and District Reform (Whetstone), as well as using Harrow Arts Centre for some Sunday rehearsals. 

Finally, the name ‘Zemel’ : whereas Dudley had formed a successful youth choir by this name in NW london in 1948, by 1955 he established ZML, standing for Tsaphon Ma’arav London, the Zemel choral society, an adult choir – renamed the Zemel Choir in December 1961. 

In its 17th season, in her Jewish Chronicle article, writer Pamela Melnikoff characterised the choir as “more intimate than many other choral ensembles”, the music performed as “more varied and fascinating”.  “While other choirs are far more disciplined, Zemel is like a bunch of individuals who cohere terribly well…. There is a verve and vitality in Zemel that you don’t find in other choirs”.  (Her words were written 37 years ago, and I admit to still sensing that freshness, interest and excitement on Monday nights).

The article referred to the commitment and dedication of individual choristers, the social camaraderie within the choir, half a dozen marriages have taken place within Zemel.  People spoke of their enjoyment - comments like “it is refreshing to switch to being a pupil on rehearsal night”, “after a hard day at work, music makes me forget all my troubles”.

Eight years later, at Zemel’s Silver Jubilee Renunion, Sid Eckman wrote “On behalf of the Choir, may I express my profound thanks to all those who have sung, helped and supported us these past 25 years.  During this time the choir has travelled extensively, bringing pleasure to many thousands of  people, and by doing so has proudly served the Jewish community… some 1000 people have given over 400 public appearances, helping fund-raising committees collect over £250,000 through promoted gala concerts… we are mindful of the devotion and dedication given by Dudley Cohen… having had the vision, imagination and energy that drove the Choir to achieve the very highest standards of choral peformance”.  (I should add, further, about Sid, having inherited his position in1990, that he was unquestionably the key motivator and organiser, the resourceful and tireless ‘fixer’, admired within the Zemel family and beyond, for his unparalleled  accomplishments during his 25 years at the helm).

Since 1980 many landmarks and milestones have come and gone, new generations of singers and leaders have arrived and departed, with each director imprinting his/her musical ideas, conducting skills and styles, and new repertoire upon the Choir.  Special events, wonderful collaborations with musical professionals, impressive and awsome concert venues, a commitment to the intensity of  recording sessions, experiencing the joy and approval of audiences, our nearest and dearest, and the comments of critics - all these are the stuff of the wider and deeper Zemel experience… so hard to give it up, so hard to define! 

To conclude, a number of lasting (and emotional) personal memories, drawn at random… moments of passion, pathos and pleasure that recall episodes and events going back over 32 years. 

January 1977, QEH,  My first of many memorable concerts here, this one to a full house and enthusiastic reception. The Jules Ruben Trio led Zemel into the finale.  Urged on by Geoff Simon, the Choir produced a sparkling performance of pop song standards. 

May 1981, Great Synagogue Montreal - Yom Ha’atzmaut – Antony Saunders inspired Zemel to an emotional performance in this huge setting – Asher Clayton last sang with the Choir.  We concluded this tour spending two unforgettable nights at the old Concorde Hotel (New York Catskills) as guests of a Cantor’s convention. 

December 1981  Antony Saunders storms out of a Baker Street recording studio, into a blizzard: we were singing so badly! 

March 1990,  York Minster…  Consuming Kosher food provisions in the crypt of this Anglican cathedral (Clifford’s Tower commemoration 1190 – 1990), and getting engaged!

April 1993, Treblinka Poland.  Moments of prayer and introspection ‘Enosh Kechatsir’, ‘Zog Mit Keynmol’: Treblinka, the site of the Nazi slaughter of our brethren in the Holocaust, 50 years ago.

April 1993, On a train from Warsaw to Vilnius (Lithuania): A Russian train with poor ‘facilities’ proved a memorable journey.  (Malcom Singer’s final season)

March 1994, Westminster Abbey,  Commonwealth Day Observance.  A proud occasion for the choir, broadcast on BBC World Service: afterwards Maureen Creese, our conductor, was presented to the H.M. The Queen and Prince Charles. (The Prince also spoke to me).

July 1995 (and July 1997) University College School Hampstead   - The Robert Max recording marathons… several days, many hours.  I recall that aeroplanes flew overhead and interrupted us!

November 1995, St Paul’s Cathedral.  Performing Bloch Sacred Service (a B’nai B’rith venture under Lord Menuhin.  Was Prince Philip actually awake or asleep during the concert?

January 2001, St Jude’s Hampstead,  Sunday Worship Radio 4.  Viv Bellos straining to get our best performance for this live broadcast on a very early Sunday morning.

February 2006, St Paul’s Church, New Southgate.   The Chonon Lewis recording, Ben Wolf conducting… a rather cold and bitter Sunday.  (Two years later, February/March 2008, on three successive Sundays at the JFS Theatre we recorded 20 tracks for a new CD ‘Celebrate With Song ’, released in June, again Ben directing (and featuring 5 soloists).

March 2009 Netanya, Israel.  A cliff top near the King Solomon Hotel, a photo shoot, somewhat disorganised, on the Choir’s final day of the (Stanley Davis) tour. 

Selecting these few snapshot memories has meant leaving out countless others that brought tears and laughter, sadness and joy, pride and disappointment… My 37 years with Zemel have indeed been an amazing journey, recorded more fully in the different sections of our web-site and in ‘The Zemel Choir History’, a continuing biography.

May 2009
Peter Pollak
Former Concert Manager

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