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Thanks for the Melodies

An innovative program uses traditional music to help Jewish seniors reconnect with their heritage.


"Go, cantor, go!" urged Beth Elliott. The traditional Jewish wedding song she was playing on her viola had struck a chord with the white-haired Alzheimer's patient. A smile creased his face, and in a clear, steady voice, he began to sing. Elliott extended her hand, he took it, they danced.

Former cantor William Nussen, 79, was among about 35 residents in varying stages of Alzheimer's disease gathered for a workshop in a dining room at the Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda.

The first-time project was presented by the 7-year-old Los Angeles Jewish Symphony, which is dedicated to exploring Jewish culture through music by Jewish composers. Here, the group used music as a tool to awaken the memories of the home's residents. Memories long repressed, memories of childhood, weddings, bar mitzvahs and holidays.

At the home's two Reseda campuses--Eisenberg Village and Grancell Village--where the average age is 91--about 240 seniors participated in the program, funded by the Jewish Community Foundation and culminating Monday with an enthusiastically received standing-room-only concert at Eisenberg by the orchestra.

At the session's end, resident Florence Alexander, a sprightly 88, was asked what she got out of the program. She replied simply, "Pleasure." The life she'd been reviewing has dealt her some blows, including the murder of a son 11 years ago in an ATM holdup, but she chooses to focus on the positive and was quick to mention, "I have a gentleman friend," also an Eisenberg resident.

For violist Elliott, 40, and bassoonist Leslie Lashinsky, 48, the teaching artists who conducted classes at Eisenberg, it was a case of getting more than they gave. At the final meeting, Elliott told her Alzheimer's group, "Thank you so much. You've changed my life."

It was a tough audience. Persuading three or four of the Alzheimer's group to clap and sing at any one time was a victory. One woman circled the room repeatedly, silently clutching a teddy bear. Several dozed, heads on the table.

Not all who took part in the project, called "Linking Our Heritage: Sephardic and Ashkenazic Music in Life Cycle Events," suffer from dementia. There were groups for the alert and independent and for the physically, mentally or emotionally fragile. Everyone took part on their own terms. As Alexander said, "What I don't like, I discard."

Some just walked out if they felt like it, others interrupted the music with loud outbursts ("This cranberry is a good drink!"). Minor territorial squabbles erupted over things such as chairs.

The majority of residents are Ashkenazic Jews, with roots among the Yiddish-speaking Eastern Europeans, but some are Sephardic, descendants of Jews originally from Spain and Portugal. Although they share the bond of Judaism, their music and customs differ. Sephardic Jews related to the soulful melodies sung in Ladino, a blend of Spanish, Hebrew and Middle Eastern languages. "Everything has a little cry in it," as one resident put it. The Ashkenazics related to the sweeter Yiddish tunes.

Although many said the Jewish holidays weren't as important to them once they'd left their parents' homes, the music and the mention of Hanukkah and Passover Seder meals shared with loved ones now gone brought both smiles and tears.

Nothing evoked more response than discussion of food--gefilte fish, matzo ball soup, beef brisket, all traditional Seder fare. In Lashinsky's group, Jules Berlinsky, 89, whose parents were born in Poland, eagerly talked about bubulah, "a large pancake" made with matzo meal and "lots of wine. It's delicious."

Even when tinged with sadness, these memories are "a healthy thing," said Annette Brinnon, corporate director of operations for the home. "They could not have gotten to where they are without all of those memories being a part."

This program, similar to one the orchestra has in place in Jewish day schools, was "tweaked" by symphony education director Ilizabeth Gilbert for seniors. She calls it "an aesthetic approach to learning about music. You're learning about the music, but you're also learning a lot about yourself. We wanted to really connect them to parts of their lives they hadn't lived for a long time."

Because those with Alzheimer's frequently have access to long-term memory, Gilbert added, it is important to "bring them back to their roots, their heritage, life before the retirement facility. It reminds them that they've done things that were very worthwhile, they've brought a lot to the world. Even a sad memory might trigger something that isn't sad. Even [with] a bad memory, there's goodness surrounding it a lot of times."

Music With Rich Associations

Clare Bonomo, 83, loved "the music, the cheerfulness, the gaiety--and they tell you the history with the music." Taking a nibble of a pastry from the refreshment table, she added, "And of course the goodies are excellent."

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