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New Student Collective, with SF Hillel, Brings Jewish Culture to SFCM

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The Collective's leaders are interested in working more with the Jewish community in San Francisco and at the Conservatory to highlight works by Jewish musicians.

May 30, 2023 by Alex Heigl

It started with bagels. Alex Malinas of SFCM's Jewish Student Collective explains that the new club sprung out of visits to the school by the SF Hillel for bagel breakfasts, which evolved into a conversation with Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Jason Hainsworth (Hainsworth is also Director of SFCM's Roots, Jazz, and American Music program) and the Hillel about putting on a concert of Jewish music at SFCM.

"I kind of stepped in and was like, 'Hey, well, I'm actually pretty interested in this. I'm a composition major and a big part of my composing is Jewish inspiration, from klezmer music and other folk traditions."

a student looks back at the camera while leaning on the piano casually

Alex Malinas

Between Malinas' composition connections and his co-leader in the Collective, soprano Alissa Goretsky, they were able to round up a diverse slate of performances that ranged from Yiddish folk songs to works by Philip Glass and selections from operas and musicals like Candide and Wicked

"It all happened pretty fast, the actual getting together and programming. We didn't have a name for our group until about a week before the concert," Malinas says. 

a student sings in front of a statue

Alissa Goretsky

As the Collective evolves, its leaders are interested in building community at SFCM, and not just musically. "I don't have the emotional capacity to really educate people on how to not be anti-Semitic," Goretsky says, "but I do want to educate them about great composers that may have been overlooked," she continued, citing Giacomo Meyerbeer, a Jewish opera composer described as "the most frequently performed opera composer during the 19th century" who was subsequently written out of history by the tide of anti-Semitism from German composers (and the Nazis). 

"I think education, in general, is the purpose of us being on campus," Goretsky added, "as well as to provide a safe space for students who genuinely have questions or are Jewish and in need of assistance. They can get that either through the school or through SF Hillel, and we can be that gateway for them."

But, Malinas says, "We want to be able to educate on the history of our Jewish music, but not necessarily educate about the anti-Semitism, because it's supposed to be a celebration of Judaism. There is some great music that is not being performed: There are Israeli composers, Sephardic Jewish composers, Ethiopian Jewish composers; there's a composer I really love, Osvaldo Golijov, who's Argentinian Jewish. So we want to talk about that."

Another point of debate that occurs, even during the interview process, is how Jewish musicians navigate the music of composers, like Wagner, who were avowed anti-Semites. For Goretsky, whose voice sits in a range favored by German composers, she concedes she has to sing "beautiful music written by a terrible person." But, she says, "Sometimes it's actually kind of empowering to kind of take that music and make it your own: 'I'm gonna take this and kind of claim it for what it was, but I'm also gonna make it mine.'"

Malinas differs. "I choose not to listen to Wagner but also Orff and Strauss—just because of his contributions to German nationalism. It's whether you believe in separating the art from the artist, and it's all a personal choice. If someone wants to listen to Wagner, I don't care; if a Jew wants to listen to Wagner, I don't really care; but for me, I'm not gonna do it."  

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