My Musical Mama

by Beverley Fingerhut (Toronto, Canada)

In Memory of Sonya Chula (1910-1999)

Music was woven into my life from a very early age. My mother came from a family of cantors in Poland and she herself had a beautiful voice and sang in choirs.  At the dinner table, I grew up with traditional fare such as names of famous conductors like Antal Dorati and Arturo Toscanini, the cantor Moshe Koussevitzky, opera singers such as Jan Pearce and Jussi Bjorling, the pianist Arturo Rubenstein, the violinist Jascha Heifetz as well as arias from “Madame Butterfly” and “La Traviata”. My story is a letter to my mother filled with memories of her musical legacy and how she transmitted her love of music to her children.

Dear Mom,

There you are, proudly in the front row, your voice soaring above the heavenly choir. How rich my life has been because of your beautiful voice and love of music. 

As a child, money was scarce in our house, but music was never scarce.  You had been a Hebrew teacher in Poland and dad had trained as an accountant, but when you and dad came to Winnipeg from Poland in 1928 and 1930, at the ages of 18 and 20, unable to speak English, you became factory workers in sweatshops. Dad, because of the terrible working conditions in the factories, was instrumental in forming unions to fight for workers’ rights and consequently was fired from many of his jobs. Despite the lack of money, you could still whip up savoury and geshmak meals from very little food and you saved pennies to purchase concert tickets. Because there was not enough money for all three of your daughters to attend, we picked the stalks from brooms to see who had the longest and who was the chosen one to accompany you to a concert.   I was often the lucky one, picking the longest stalk.

One of my favorite childhood memories is going to see the beautiful Madame Guiomar Novaes, considered one of the greatest female pianists of the 20th century. After the concert, you intrepidly took me backstage to meet her, whereupon she presented this shy, eight-year-old with a rose from the bouquet given to her at the end of the concert. I savoured this rose as if the queen had given it to me.  That year at our annual essay contest, I wrote my essay on this momentous event and won first prize, a lovely bracelet.

You walked around the house with your beautiful curly hair that dad loved and sang arias from “Madame Butterfly”, your favorite opera, or the Yiddish songs “My Yiddishe Mama” and “Oifen Pripitchik”. At dinnertime, along with your geshmak food, there was talk of famous conductors, stories of operas and composers. Our substantial record collection consisted of the likes of Beethoven’s “Emperor Concerto”, Grieg’s “Concerto in A minor”, Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture”, Chopin nocturnes, and Rachmaninoff’s concertos, as well as cantorial music by Jan Pearce. 

You never had a cleaning lady but instead you made sure that we had private piano lessons, and to this day your youngest daughter Marleyne continues to practice and play the piano. She recently reminded me that when we had our music and theory exams at the Royal Conservatory you determinedly asked permission to sit outside the door of our examining room (though it was not permitted).  When we emerged, shaken from the frightening experience, you smiled and were able to tell us exactly how we did, note by note.  Sure enough when we got our marks in the weeks to come, they were exactly as you had foretold.

Much to my chagrin and I’m sure yours, I did not inherit your musical gene. Two incidents stand out in my mind.  Firstly, the Jewish socialist school I attended from Grades 1-7 had a choir with a wicked choirmaster, Chaver Brownstone. We were terrified of him and his stick. I was necessary for the last row of the choir because of my height, but my voice was silenced.  I was instructed in a menacing voice that I was not to open my mouth to sing, but to mouth the words and if I dared to sing, he would wave the stick in front of my face.  

Secondly, my secret endeavour was to get singing lessons. I grew up thinking how wonderful it would be to be an opera singer and how thrilling it would be to hear beautiful music emanate from my body.  So when I was in my 50s I researched and found the name of a voice teacher who had a great reputation in dealing with difficult voices. I nervously went to the teacher and after she gave me some pointers about breathing I stood in front of a microphone and belted out what I thought was a knockout version of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy”. Well, they say that everybody can draw or paint, but it is not true that everyone can sing. 

When my oldest daughter got married in Toronto, you wanted to sing at her wedding. You always carried your song sheets in a special embroidered bag, but my older sister forgot to pack the bag in your luggage and so our plan for you to sing at the party in the evening went astray.  But you were a very strong-willed woman and you were determined to sing.  It was during the wedding ceremony as your granddaughter Natalie came down the aisle, with her arm linked with mine that you, sitting in the front row burst into song.  There was not a dry eye in the crowd and 15 years later, friends still remind me of that magical moment.                                                           

To the end of your life you sang in the Winnipeg Jewish choir, you were short and so you prominently sat in the front row and I was honored to see you proudly singing. You travelled with the choir to many cities in Canada and you were asked to sing at important Jewish community events. I remember that once you wore a long black silk dress with a shocking pink rose painted on it.  You had a flair for colours as well as music. 

The day of your funeral in Winnipeg the temperatures went down to -40. Riding to the synagogue, my family dressed in long johns and layers of clothing, double rainbows shone in the icy blue sky. We knew it was you, Mom, watching us. And at the funeral service when your grandchildren sang “Jerusalem of Gold”, one of the songs you loved, they ended by saying, Baba we know you’re up there telling us we were off key.

How rich my life has been. Over the years, Mom, I have seen the famous Rampal dance with his flute, Rostorpovich with his cello at one with his body, your Perly (Itzhak Perlman) making  his violin sing, and  your Pinky (Pinchas Zuckerman) with his beautiful grey hair.  I have been to the Met in New York, where I walked up and down the aisles in wonderment and listened to “Aida”.  I listen to the classical music station and sometimes I too can identify the music or the composer and it feels so instinctive and intuitive, because music has been such an integral part of my life.

To this day, I still have the thrill and pangs in my heart when I hear the opening bars of the Emperor Concerto.  And when I hear Chopin’s nocturnes, it brings back memories of the concert we attended when I was young, and saw the great Arturo Rubenstein famously bouncing up and down on his chair as he played.  Today, when I hear opera singers like Luciano Pavarotti, Jessye Norman, Monseurrat Caballe, and the Cantor Yaakov Stark, I turn the radio to its highest volume, the music envelops me and my heart soars.

Today Mom, I sing proudly and loudly at synagogue, oblivious and uncaring what I sound like.   And I am blessed with three handsome grandsons who love to dance and a little granddaughter Olivia, who has curly red locks like you, has an uncanny resemblance to you, is stubborn and strong-willed like you and best of all, loves to sing like you. Mom, your wonderful legacy has been strong and will endure through the ages.  

Beverley Fingerhut is program director at the Centre of Excellence in Business Analysis at the Schulich Executive Education Centre, Schulich School of Business, York University, in Toronto. As an academic she has been the course director for Entrepreneur Business Development Skills for the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies as well as an adjunct professor in the Professional and Technical Writing Programme at York University. Beverley enjoys painting, reading, art history (in the past she was a part-time docent at the Art Gallery of Ontario), knitting, and spending time with her grandchildren.

“My Musical Mama” was published in Living Legacies – Volume IV: A Collection of Writing by Contemporary Canadian Jewish Women, edited by Liz Pearl (PK Press, 2014), and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author and publisher. You can read more about the collection here:


1 Comment

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One response to “My Musical Mama

  1. Sarah Lamstein

    Thank you, Beverley. I loved the story of your mom singing at your daughter’s wedding.

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