Patients with early to mid-stage dementia at the Helen Bader Center of the Milwaukee Jewish Home & Care Center are delighted with monthly live Yiddish music.
So says singer and guitarist Adam Margolis, also a certified psychiatric nurse practitioner and acupuncturist. “This is better than any medicine I could prescribe; this is more valuable,” he said in a conversation on March 17.
“It’s one thing to do music or art for music’s sake or art’s sake,” said fellow musician Joshua Richman, executive director of RUACH, Inc., which helps sponsor this and other Jewish artistic endeavors.
“However, when it strikes a deeper chord and serves a higher purpose, it’s more meaningful, and that’s why we want to continue this program,” Richman said.
Sarah Cohen, a social worker for the Helen Bader Center, is an integral part of this endeavor. “This [music] is using more creative ways of reaching people and changing behaviors,” she said.
This monthly concert series is part of a larger-scoped program called the Rubin Sharpe Tribute Series. This was started by Richman and Elizabeth Behrendt, the JHCC Foundation development director, approximately one year ago as a joint JHCC/RUACH initiative.
Also helping create it were Arleen Peltz, chair of the Jewish Home and Care Center; Michael Sattell, JHCC chief executive officer; and Richman’s parents.
Richman wrote in an email to this writer, “The series is designed to deliver special, supplemental, high quality programs, including concerts and visual arts residencies, to residents of Chai Point, Sarah Chudnow Community, and the JHCC, as well as the broader community by extension.”
The series is named for Richman’s grandfather, who passed away in November 2011, leaving a bequest to the JHCC Foundation to fund a program partnership with RUACH.
The Yiddish music component of the series, started by Margolis, Cohen, and Richman, commenced in December 2012.
As Cohen wrote in an email, “The impetus for the concert series was when I was at the Margolis’ sukkah this year and he was playing Yiddish music and narrating a story that went along with it. I had been gathering a small group informally at Bader who loved to sing and remember Jewish music from their childhood.”
This inspired the idea for the program. When Richman heard about the idea, he understood it to be the perfect match for RUACH.
Cohen wrote, “As soon as a familiar Yiddish song is introduced the slumped bodies come to life and the unfocused eyes become bright and alive with feeling. As each individual begins to sing in animation they join together with one another, awakening not only a memory for themselves but a connection to others.
“For the duration of the singing they have become like old friends, each taking turns choosing their favorite song and singing together with a joy that had not seemed accessible just moments earlier.”
On March 17, this reporter saw Margolis and Richman in action. Margolis’ singing and spoken insights into each song, along with Richman playing the trombone, resonated with the residents, although one may have to search deeper for signs of resonance with patients.
As Margolis pointed out, patients with certain conditions may be less expressive than others, yet there are other indications that Yiddish music has a penetrating effect. “You have to look for smaller nuances, [showing] that they’re engaged.”
Richman added, “You see a lot of peaceful smiles. You can tell they’re in a good place.”
Furthermore, Cohen pointed out that she sees “A lot of feet and hand tapping. I am amazed.”
The first 45 minutes were dedicated to Yiddish music, the last 15 to Passover songs.
Another important component of the series is the inclusion of children — Margolis’, Cohen’s, and Richman’s children — whom the residents gravitate towards and find uplifting.
As Cohen said, “Kids bring a great energy,” adding, “Sometimes they are show stealers.”
After the performance, Bader Center resident, Miriam Siker, exclaimed, “What a good show! I loved it. That was the best concert ever. That one just tickled me. Terrific.”
Another resident, Sylvia Gindlin said, “I don’t miss this. This is my favorite.”
Gindlin also said, “It reminds me of songs my mother and father used to sing. It goes back to my childhood. I wish they [the musicians] would come more often.”
Cohen wrote how music has stimulated memory in meaningful ways for others as well. “Recently after a singing session one of the residents shared a memory from her past involving going to synagogue on her grandfather’s shoulders when she became too tired to walk. We now use this story as a way to bring her back to a happy place in time and watch her face light up as she discusses this memory.”
Margolis, Richman, Behrendt, and Cohen have many aspirations for the series. As Richman pointed out, Margolis is working to bring klezmer music. Also, the group wants to include guest musicians, as it has done in past performances.
To find out more, visit: www.jewishseniorliving.org and www.ruachmilwaukee.org.
Joshua Becker is a Spanish teacher for Shorewood Public Schools and a freelance writer.