On Tower Lane, Kapelye Makes Hanukkah Burn Bright

Lucy Gellman | December 21st, 2022

On Tower Lane, Kapelye Makes Hanukkah Burn Bright

Culture & Community  |  Klezmer  |  Music  |  Nu Haven Kapelye  |  Arts & Culture  |  The Hill  |  Tower One/Tower East

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Top:  Top: Sylvia Rifkin, who is 101 years old, with Shelley and Rich Gans. Bottom: The Nu Haven Kapelye woodwinds in action. Lucy Gellman Photos.

Just off Tower Lane, the “606 Dance” had burst into bloom. Saxophones shrieked, and flute responded in a trilling, high voice. Bass hummed and rumbled, cuing in the violins. In the front row, Fanya Mayzlina heard strains of her childhood in old Kyiv, before the second World War upended her entire life.

Mayzlina, whose story of survival spans three countries and almost nine decades, looked to music as a bridge Monday night, as members of the Nu Haven Kapelye arrived at The Towers at Tower Lane for their annual Hanukkah concert. For both residents and musicians, the concert has become tradition, bringing many in the retirement community back to their roots. 

“We lost our Jewish roots,” said Mayzlina, a Holocaust survivor who came to the U.S. with her mother in 1991. “We lost our culture, Jewish culture, in Russia. We were interrupted far away from our culture. And I am deeply grateful … we need to revive our culture. It’s necessary to be close to it.”

Monday, she pointed to the Kapelye as a powerful life force, reuniting many European Jews with a vital piece of their history. As the sky darkened outside, musicians opened on “Turetskaya,” horns wailing to life as Artistic Director David Chevan held it down on bass. All the way to the right, Eli Jackson, Steve Jacobs and Seth Rosenthal joined in on violin. Back in the woodwind section, the clarinet and saxophones were having a party. Jay Miles came in with a rolling drumbeat that took it back to 1912.  

“It’s time to celebrate Hanukkah, yes!?” Chevan said, his eyes darting around the room in search of a menorah. He spotted a tinsel-wrapped Christmas tree in the back of the room and kept looking. Off mic, Cynthia Astmann flipped off the flashlight on her phone and began to wave it. “We’re gonna have to have a menorah in our minds. Our imaginary menorahs.” 

Mayzlina was in her element. Born in Kyiv when it was still part of the Soviet Union in 1935, she fell in love with music as a little girl, inspired by a grandmother who sang opera before becoming a wife and mother. As a child, she rarely had the chance to play because her family lived in poverty, a war raging outside by the time she was five years old. 

As the daughter of an engineer and a pediatric nurse, Mayzlina didn’t often have access to music—but she wasn’t easily deterred either, she said. When she was finally able to take lessons at seven or eight, her teachers opened her eyes to a whole other universe. Years later, it would inspire her to squeeze a piano into her family’s tiny Moscow apartment, determined to keep that part of herself alive.  

“There were excellent teachers,” she said. “They gave me base of musical perception, and that’s why I understood music very well.”     

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Top: Artistic Director David Chevan, who is also.a professor at Southern Connecticut State University. Bottom: Flutist Anna Reisman. In the background are Hedda Rubenstein and Cynthia Astmann. 

It’s also why klezmer and klezmorim bring her back to her Jewish roots, she said. During her childhood, the Second World War tore her family apart, and interrupted European Jewish life as she knew it. Two of Mayzlina’s grandparents died in the Holocaust; another was paralyzed after being brutally attacked by dogs, she said.

As Europe reeled from the war, her immediate family relocated to Moscow, where she found little reprieve from the antisemitism she had experienced as a child. It hardened her to Russia, where for years she worked as a teacher of English and history.     

“Nobody knew about this,” she said of the antisemitism and violence she and her family experienced. “It’s necessary to tell about this.”

Three decades ago, she and her mother moved to the U.S. as her mother’s health began to fail. For years, Mayzlina worked as a substitute teacher in the New Haven Public Schools—Wilbur Cross High School still holds some of her fondest memories—then retired and went back to school herself. She met Chevan in her music history classes at Southern Connecticut State University, where she has been a nontraditional student for years.  

She stressed that live music—more than music history, more than storytelling, even more than her weekly Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Shalom in Hamden—ties her to a moment in her young life when the world still made sense, when it was acceptable to practice Jewish ritual without fearing for your life. As far as she is convinced, she said, that version of Ukraine and Russia no longer exist. 

As members of the Kapelye dove into their set, they conjured an earlier time, putting their own contemporary spin on a set that jumped from English to Yiddish to Ladino and back. Early in the evening, they opened a portal to the old world as they turned “Oh Hanukkah” into "Oy Chanukah," the words rising through the room like old friends. They did not close it back up until applause had faded an hour later, and they had packed up their instruments and left the dining room one by one.    

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Top: Fanya Mayzlina. Bottom: The audience was rarely quiet, clapping and dancing along. 

Instead, it grew broad and deep as they dipped into “Ocho Kandelikas,” a Ladino folk melody that Flory Jagoda wrote in 1983. When 101-year-old Silvia Rifkin heard the first notes, set to a tango, she stood quietly and wheeled her walker to the end of the row. She joined hands with Shelley and Rich Gans, and began to move. As they danced, their daughter Sarah Gans Friedland caught their eye, and smiled as she brought her trumpet to her mouth. 

“A lot of people are always asking me what my secret is, and I was a tap dancer for 20 years,” Rifkin said. Before she lived at the Towers, she belonged to the Blossom Tappers, a tap group for senior citizens. It kept her young—and primed her for the occasional tango, she said. “I’m pretty lucky, health-wise.”  

As Rifkin danced, other residents cheered her on; a few managed a shoulder shimmy and hip sway from their chairs. By then, the dining room had transformed, with a musical foot between worlds. On a makeshift stage at the front of the Towers’ dining room, musicians flowed from Ladino back to Yiddish, and attendees cheered. They had long shrugged off the lack of a physical menorah for a room that felt holy despite its absence.   

“This one requires no teaching, but I’m gonna teach it anyway because that’s what we do,” Chevan said, tapping into a sweet, quirky dad humor that felt like coming home to a favorite, long-missed childhood menorah. As the strains of “Patsh Tanz” filled the space, residents began to dance from their seats, lifting their arms above their heads and clapping in time with a ringing downbeat.  

When vocalist Hedda Rubenstein got to “Die Mezinke Oysgegeben,” some attendees responded to the song even before she began to sing. Written in Yiddish at the turn of the twentieth century, the work is sung from the perspective of a father who has married off his youngest daughter, and is thoroughly enjoying her wedding. Rubenstein joked that she finds the premise relatable, having attended the marriage of her youngest son last year.

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Top: Seth Rosenthal, Steve Jacobs, and Eli Jackson. Bottom: Hedda Rubenstein, who does both vocals and flute for the group.

“He’s elated, and they are having the best time,” she said. “The bubbe is there, and he yells to the band, ‘Are you sleeping or are you playing?’”

“Yeah!” cried resident Izzy Juda, a Holocaust survivor who turned 101 years old this year, from the back of the room. Gentle laughter filled the space. Moments later, three dozen residents were swaying along as Rubenstein lifted the story into song.

As they premiered new pieces (the group plays again Thursday and Sunday), many Kapelye members embodied the idea of L’Dor V’Dor—the passing of rites and rituals from generation to generation (Chevan, for instance, has often looped his sons in on recording projects). When the group began in the late 1990s, they played out a century that saw oppression, genocide, and diaspora all within decades. For survivors like Mayzlina, the sense of loss from that period will never not be an ache. 

And yet, groups like the Kapelye are part of the antidote. In the past 10 years, as the group has grown, a sort of Yiddish language Renaissance has begun to bloom across the country, re-knitting and renegotiating connections that have long been severed. Meanwhile, the Kapelye has become a rotating, intergenerational mix of musicians, some as young as middle and high school.

Monday, the ensemble included Eli Jackson, a high school student, and Friedland, who started playing with the group when she was just a kid. She’s now in the final months of medical school at the University of Connecticut. 

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Top: Ruth Frohman and Sylvia Rifkin. Bottom: Debora Brun.

A listener could hear that in the 1924 “O Ir Kleyne Likhtelekh,” as Rubenstein slowed it down, and lingered on the deep hope for a refuge for Jews. So too in “Arbeter Froyen,” a Yiddish power ballad and political statement for working women based on the 1891 poem of the same title.     

The impact of the show is profound, Mayzlina and fellow residents suggested after the performance. 

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Bette Kozak (pictured at left), who moved into the Towers six years ago, listened to the entire set from the doorway of the dining room, so her elderly dog Juno could also listen in. Born and raised in New York City, Kozak moved to Connecticut when she was 19 years old, living in Waterbury and Hamden with her husband and two young sons before her family made a home in New Haven. 

For years, she worked in senior services at the JCC of Greater New Haven, then still located on Chapel Street. Monday, she stressed the importance of culturally specific performances, which allow listeners to celebrate their history.

She added that was able to dance while holding her walker, portable oxygen and Juno’s leash, which she considered a small victory.

“I love it,” she said. “It’s our heritage. It’s like if you listen to a choir of soul music.” 

Milford-born Debora Brun, who has been a resident for two years, said she grew up “not really celebrating Hanukkah,” in part because her parents were divorced. When she became a mother 60 years ago, “I tried to make it special for my children,” she said. And yet, it’s been at the Towers that she has been able to connect with her Judaism, from an “Adopt A Bubbe” program to a Hanukkah party with a menorah and latkes.   

“It really feels good,” she said. 

Back in the dining room, Mayzlina was still sitting in the front row, her eyes sparkling and wet at the edges. She handed Chevan a heavy bag of candy, the sweets waiting eagerly inside. He balanced it with his bass, propping the door open as he headed back outside. A gust of wintry air blew into the room, then disappeared as the door clicked shut. 

“It’s tradition,” she said. 

The Nu Haven Kapelye plays again this Thursday at The State House in New Haven, and Sunday in its annual Hanukkah show at Congregation Mishkan Israel in Hamden. More information on those concerts is available here and here. Listen to more from Monday's performance above.