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The Sarah Sommer Chai Folk Ensemble whisked a sold out audience down ancient roads when it offered its latest production celebrating life, Wednesday, June 7th at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre.

The evening notably honoured esteemed Winnipeg philanthropists and community leaders, wife and husband Ahava Halpern and Frank Lavitt, with the diverse program’s melting pot of Israeli, North African, and Eastern European song and dance commemorating the 50th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem.
Ahava Frank“Everyone who knows Ahava and Frank well knows that giving back to the community is a huge part of who they are, and their generosity, both individually and as a couple is perhaps their most marked characteristic,” staid Chai president Sadira Garfinkel, following a video tribute featuring the couple’s friends, family and community members, who also spoke of their “kind and generous souls, dedication and passion for Israeli dance,”  “incredible commitment to the Jewish community, and much larger communities of this city, province and country.” Garfinkel also noted that this year’s fundraising campaign successfully raised an unprecedented $300,000.
A clearly moved Halpern, a Chai alumna who performed with the group during the early 1980s as well as its 50th Anniversary Reunion Concert in June 2014, responded in kind: “Chai is one of the voices of our Jewish community, and a part of Winnipeg’s artistic cultural community. Chai is a voice of our Jewish culture, past, present and future. Chai has matured over time in my era, and I can honestly say that the Chai of today is the Chai that we aspired it to be. It is like we have watched a child grow.”
The show kicked off with a bang - as well as electrifying strobe lights – with audience favourite “Heyaw” inspired by the “spirit of faraway villages” in Morocco and Yemen. One never tires of this rousing number, performed with gusto every summer at Folklorama’s Israeli Pavilion “Shalom Square.” A few minor balance issues between the Chai’s renowned five-piece live orchestra and ten vocalists (including Chai artistic director/music director David Vamos and bass player Braden Ganetsky) quickly resolved. Ringer David Greaves also stepped in for the first piece.
This year’s production, directed by John Loewen with co-dance directors Illana Minuk and Hadera Short, featured three world premieres by a total of four guest choreographers. Chai’s inaugural original musical commission, “The Wisdom Bird” composed by assistant music director/guitarist Jesse Popeski was inspired by a short story by the late Sheldon “Obie” Oberman, telling the tale of Solomon, Sheba and the hoopae bird that teaches them wisdom. The highly imagistic work, choreographed by Madeleine Kettner Baisburd, featured storms of “birds,” fueled by thundering drums, with magical lighting effects evoking shifting desert sands. The piece finally erupted into a hora, including Vamos’ compelling vocal solo.
A second premiere, “The Space Between Us”, choreographed by Elan Marchinko, easily became the most dramatic work of the night. It also included a live string quartet with added percussion. Its dreamlike atmosphere spoke to memory, love and loss as a tribute to those who have gone before, with Marchinko’s eloquent movement vocabulary capped with an ambiguous open ending.
“Ode Le”eli: A Tribute to Ofra Haza”, by Mexican-born dance artist Rebeca Shamah, paid homage to the beloved Israeli singer, a.k.a. the “Israeli Madonna”, who died tragically at age 42 in 2000. Inspired by ancient Yemenite songs, the evocative piece also gave a nod to the artist whose music has played a pivotal role in Chai’s repertoire since the 1990s, with Shamah’s percussive choreography accompanied by the troupe’s powerhouse female singers.
Another highlight was “Rejoice with Jerusalem!”, featuring a trio of beloved Israeli songs arranged by Vamos. The jubilant piece including: “Kol Ha’Olam,” “Bashanah HaBa’ah” and “Sisu Et Yerushalaim” depicted the “fragility of life” before building to a full-out celebration of Jerusalem’s spirit “passed down from generation to generation.”
This year also featured  Chai’s Yona Children’s Choir, which recently performed at the Jewish National Fund Manitoban/Saskatchewan Region Negev Gala. The chorus of 14 sweet-voiced children, led by the incomparable Lina Streltsov, performed “Ani Oleh Liyerushalim,” - a medley of songs dedicated to Jerusalem, including “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav”, that made more than a few eyes misty.
We were also taken back to our “Dreams of the Shtetl,” first making a stop along the way courtesy of Chai vocal sirector Sarah Sommer (namesake granddaughter of the troupe’s founder), joined by Ilana Shapera and Aleksandra Smolyaninov. The trio morphed into The Andrew Sisters to perform Yiddish songs “Bei Mir Bistu Shein” and “Chiribim Chiribom,” complete with nifty choreography and 1940s frocks. This led to a driving klezmer dance number, punctuated by plenty of shimmies and loud “hey’s!” A later performance of Sommer’s gorgeous a cappella “Erev Shel Shoshanim (Evening of Roses)”, sung with tightly knit harmonies proved her chops as a gifted arranger.
The concert also featured Chai dancer/musician Ariel Posen’s lovely, lilting arrangement of “Kama Kodosh (How Holy)” that gave the dancers a chance to breathe – literally. Projected video introductions provided effective “live” program notes for each selection, albeit background music behind each speaker became a distraction.
Finally, on our travels we encountered the Jews of Kurdistan, with the fiery number “Machol Kurdi (Kurdish Dance),” as well as sampling Mediterranean and Balkan traditions during “Rhythms of the Four Seas” by fourth guest choreographer Sam Manchulenko. “Chasidah (The Stork)” closed the program, chronicling the journey of Ethopian Jewry during Operation Solomon, which led that people’s returning back to the land of Israel.
In the Chai tradition, the nearly 150-minute production (including intermission) ended with “Hava Netseh B’machol” and “Heveinu Shalom Aleichem.” And, when two dancers pull out the Israeli flags during the final moments, 787 hearts in the house that night burst with pride. As expected, the crowd leapt to their feet with a rousing standing ovation at the end, clearly inspired for the new journeys that lie ahead.

Holly Harris has served as the Winnipeg Free Press’ classical music/dance/opera reviewer for 13 years. She also writes regularly for Dance International (Vancouver) and The Dance Current (Toronto). In her next lifetime, she will be a Chai dancer

Following is the tex of Ahava Halpern's speech, which was given at the concert:

Welcome Everyone! 

I want to thank each of you here and for all who made this evening a success for Chai. 

I want to also thank our Country of Canada who has made it possible for the Winnipeg community to live in peace and flourish. I also want to acknowledge my spiritual homeland the country of Israel.

Simply put, Chai is a voice. Chai is one of the voices of our Jewish community and a part of Winnipeg's artistic cultural community.  Chai is the voice of our Jewish culture of past, present and future.  

Chai's choreographies attempt to express all facets of Judaism  and connection with Israel. 

Chai gives opportunities for people inside and outside of our Jewish Community to experience being in a theatre ensemble. This could be through performance , costume , sound & lighting.

Chai started out with Sarah Sommer's vision and a small group of young women learning Israeli Folk Dance in the Sommer family Winnipeg home. The Chai Folk Ensemble added and continues to perform with live orchestra and vocalists. This is no small feat and with thanks to the contribution of Sarah Udow. 

Israeli Dance Class at the YMHA was my "sole passion" in my formative years.  I have to acknowledge my parents Sid & Esther Halpern for making this exposure possible.

I also thank my Israeli dance mentors - teachers Leah Chisvin-Braemar and Dinah Earn-Goldenberg 

During that time, I  could feel the heartbeat of Chai in our community. I could also see the heart and soul of the people that volunteered for Chai in whatever aspect. It was an exciting , exciting time.

Chai has matured over the years since my era. More training and commitment is involved. I can honestly say that the Chai of today, is the Chai that we aspired Chai to be.  It is like we have watched a child grow. 

There is always more work to do, more improvements, more direction and Chai is listening.  

Chai continues to grow in Canada's heartland and reaches beyond our borders.

I encourage all people including parents, children and young adults to become involved with Chai. Why? It is with volunteer participation that we have the ability to continue to aspire, collaborate and shape Chai's future and voice in our community and beyond. We are representatives of a nation (both Canadian and Jewish), a culture and the land of Israel.

I would like to thank the Ethiopian Society of Winnipeg  with their involvement and any future collaboration with Chai.  As well as the honorary co chairs of the evening: Carey & Bernie Simkin, Diane, Sandy & Robert Shindleman; Joe & Justin Bova, Gieselle MacDonald, Abe Anhang, Faith Kaplan & JP Parenty. 

Lastly, I could not be standing here without my partner in life and love, Frank Sholom Friedel Lavitt. 

Tonight, we are all fortunate to be the care takers of this voice.  Now, let's continue to celebrate Life- celebrate Chai and on with the show.....

To watch a video that tells the story of Ahava Halpern and Frank Lavitt's long-time connection to Chai, go to


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