For Ben Gelber, making music with his ensemble Friday Night Live has always been about tradition.
And not just the song “Tradition” from the Broadway play “Fiddler on the Roof,” although the set list for his musical ensemble does include selections from the Jewish-American songbook. Instead, the heart of the band’s set is traditional Shabbat music. Gelber said focusing on such music is important to not only connect younger generations to their traditions, but to offer a link to the past for the city’s Jewish seniors, including many Holocaust survivors.
Gelber’s music is also inspired by the Jewish traditions he experienced through the years, he said. This included his memories of attending Shabbat services as a child in Stroudsburg, Pa., and a violinist playing traditional Shabbat service music 15 years ago at a program at Trinity Lutheran Seminary at Capital University in Bexley.
“I was reminded of the beauty inherent in the service music, in those older melodies that I remembered,” Gelber told the Columbus Jewish News.
He played that music at the Hillel while he was a student at Penn State University in State College, Pa. and later did the same at the Hillel at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Gelber said. He came to Columbus when he began his career as a meteorologist at WCMH-TV Channel 4, where he has worked for more than 40 years.
Gelber said Something about his reaction to those melodies led him to believe others might be served by having those same memories reawakened.
“I wasn’t sure exactly what to do with the idea,” Gelber said. “I began putting some music together, thinking about what it would sound like with more instrumentation, and started looking for other musicians in town. It took a couple years, but we did our first concert of about a dozen melodies, focusing on traditional services music and folks songs, at OSU Hillel in May of 2010. It went reasonably well.”
A full-length concert followed later that same month at Wexner Heritage Village in Columbus and Friday Night Live Music was born.
Over the years, the band’s repertoire has grown as its membership has grown, he said. Gelber said new members – the band numbers between 10 to 15 for most concerts – bring their own particular musical backgrounds to the group and he incorporates some of that into the group’s concerts.
Friday Night Live Music performs for organizations such as the Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus and Jewish Family Services in Columbus, the Jewish senior living facilities of Wexner Heritage Village, libraries and local synagogues and churches, he said. The program varies to serve the setting, such as including a set of Hanukkah songs in a Bexley Public Library program last December, Gelber said.
“As I grow older, there’s even more nostalgia for me and a desire to honor our past heritage,” he said. “I’ve always enjoyed playing the music, and have learned so many more melodies taught to me by our musicians. It also happens to be a lot of fun.”
Vocalist John Stefano said he was an early advocate for Gelber to start the band, which he himself joined a few years later after retiring as chair of the theater department at Otterbein University in Westerville. Gelber said Stefano helped add pieces from Jewish theater, notably, selections from “Fiddler on the Roof,” but also tunes like “Bei Mier Bist Du Schön,” popularized by the Andrews Sisters but originally from a Yiddish language musical titled “I Would If I Could.”
At the same time, Stefano has learned some of the more traditional Shabbat melodies he said were not part of his upbringing. Stefano and his wife converted to Judaism in the 1990s and he now serves as a cantorial soloist at his Congregation Beth Tikvah in Worthington, where he also belongs.
“The great joy of being in this group is doing a concert for an older audience,” Stefano said. “They know all of it and are singing along to everything from ‘Sunrise, Sunset’ to ‘Ale Brider’ and ‘Tumbalalaika’ to settings of ‘Shalom Aleichem’ and ‘Avinu Malkeinu.’”
Rabbi Debbie Lefton, director of spiritual care at Wexner Heritage Village, said the band’s concerts mean a lot to residents.
“Ben’s group provides such an important connection to the native Yiddish for many of our residents,” she said. “They love the old-time songs and particularly our Holocaust survivors are tapping into their history and their emotions through this music. You can tell Ben has a special place in his heart for these people in his audience.”
Gelber said he hopes his music resonates for all audiences.
“I’ve always intended that we would play for both Jewish and non-Jewish audiences,” he said. “The band and our program is meant to expand the culture and provide a kind of Jewish experience for everyone. But of course it’s especially touching to have maybe 80-something or 90-something-year-old audience members singing along with music that they remember. That’s pretty special, considering I’m just a meteorologist who plays piano.”
For more information on Friday Night Live, visit facebook.com/FridayNightLiveMusicEnsemble.
Jim Fischer is a freelance journalist.