My first formal introduction to Jewish music took place in my Rabbi’s kitchen when I was just a young girl. I must have been about nine years old when Rabbi Schick would stop our Hebrew class about fifteen minutes before it was over, point to me, address me by my Hebrew name and say, “Chanala, go upstairs to the Rebbetzin (the Rabbi’s wife), she is going to teach you some songs.”
‘Upstairs’ was a rather large apartment where Rabbi Schick lived with his wife and two daughters; nine year old Lissy and fifteen year old Sylvia. Lissy and I were childhood friends, but her sister Sylvia had been sent off to a Yeshiva (Jewish school) in Harrisburg, PA and I rarely saw her. It was there sitting on a stool in the Rebbetzin’s kitchen, listening to her sing songs in Hebrew and then repeating back what she sang, that was my first formal introduction to Jewish music.
Twenty years passed and I was living in Los Angeles. A friend happened to invite me to a lecture on the benefits of going to the Mikvah (a ritual bath for Jewish women). I arrived a few minutes late and did not catch the name of the presenter but gathered from her stories that she was a married and observant Jewish woman. In one of her stories she shared about her time as a social worker prior to being married. While working in a women’s prison she said that the women would sometimes call her ‘Schicky baby’; and later in her talk she mentioned that her father had been the Rabbi of a synagogue in a small coal mining town in central Pennsylvania.
Putting the pieces together in my head I tentatively approached the woman after the talk and asked, “Did your father happen to be the Rabbi at a synagogue in Shamokin, PA.?” The woman looked shocked that I would know the name of the town where her father had been a Rabbi. Then bursting with enthusiasm, she became extremely excited and answered with a resounding, “Yes!” Stating my maiden name, I said, “I am Harriet Winnick”. The woman’s face lit up with excitement and with a radiant smile placed her hands on my shoulders, looked deeply into my eyes, and exclaimed, “You are the little girl with the beautiful voice!” She of course turned out to be Sylvia, Rabbi Schick’s daughter from the synagogue in my hometown of Shamokin, PA.
My brother recently sent me a 1956 newspaper photo of the ‘Cheder (Hebrew school) of B’nai Israel Synagogue. (See photo) This was four years before my ‘formal introduction to Jewish music’. I am five years old, the youngest child in the picture and looking exceedingly small standing next to two older girls. As I searched for the other children that I remembered from my class, I finally realized they were not in the photo. Before Rabbi Schick, the rabbi was Rabbi Pickholtz who, according to this photograph had invited me, at five years old, to sing with the older children because he too recognized ‘the little girl with the beautiful voice’.