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Singer stirs cross-cultural bonds

By Mary Stamp

By singing Jewish songs she learned as a child at Temple Beth Shalom’s annual Kosher Dinner and by teaching preschoolers musical basics in Kindermusik, Shirley Grossman has sought to foster understanding to break cultural and religious assumptions.

Shirley Grossman

Shirley Grossman

Having grown up singing, she now shares traditional Jewish songs as part of the entertainment provided while guests wait to enter the dining hall.  Shirley sings such songs as “Hevenu Shalom Aleicham,” a blessing of peace, and “Bashana Habaa,” a Hebrew song which imagines a world in which everyone cares and shares and in which everyone lives together without fear.

For Shirley, that song also sums up both the philosophy of the Kosher Dinner and her work teaching Kindermusik to thousands of children for more than 20 years in Spokane.

Both are about sharing, caring and connecting to create understanding about another culture as a way to make the world better, she said.

“Tikkun olam—to make the world better—is our job as Jews,” she added, noting that most who come to the dinner and to the Kindermusik classes dream of a world of love, tolerance and acceptance.

In her childhood as the daughter of a Russian-Jewish immigrant family who settled in Canada, she knew of the persecution of previous generations.

Her mother came from Russia at 13.  Having seen Cossacks kill Jews, her mother believed there could be no God if that could happen, Shirley said.

Her father, who was second generation, taught high school physics and math in Herbert, Saskatchewan; Winnipeg, Manitoba; and Trail and Victoria, B.C. 

He kept the minutes of a town meeting in Saskatchewan that showed the anti-Semitism of the 1930s.  At that meeting, the people decided they did not want their children taught by a Jew, and her father was not hired.

Despite knowing the pitfalls of teaching as the child of a teacher, Shirley decided to study education, completing studies in 1966 at the University of British Columbia.  The university accepted credits from  courses she took at Eastern Washington University after she married and moved to Spokane with her husband, Larry, in 1965.  In 1968, she earned a master’s degree in teaching music at Whitworth College. 

She taught a year in the Central Valley School District before the first of two children was born.  In 1985 when her children were older, she opened Shirley Grossman’s Music School for preschoolers in her basement.

Eventually, Robin Amend of Amend’s Music at 14th and Adams built a school behind the store.  It houses several music studios, as well as Shirley’s Kindermusik School.

Last year, Shirley sold the school, which has about 300 students, to Teresa Birch, and continues teaching three classes of the older children.

Kindermusik is a curriculum taught worldwide

It introduces children from infancy to seven to movement, singing, dance and instruments of classical European culture, American folk songs and many cultures around the globe. 

Mothers attend with the youngest children, learning how to work with their children musically as part of their overall development.

Infants come with their mothers for 45-minute sessions.  Toddlers from 18-months to three years old also come for 45 minutes, with their caregivers.  Three- and four-year-olds come for an hour without their parents.

Five and six-year-olds come for an hour and a quarter, learning notes and how to read music and match it with pitch, Shirley said. 

The “graduate” students also come an hour and a quarter, learning music from around the world through storytelling, movement and dance.  They learn African dances and Austrian polkas, hear Japanese stories and play different instruments.

“The program opens the world to children.  We actually follow a map and talk of taking a trip to different countries,” said Shirley.

While a number of the students have gone on to professions in music, the goal is simply to encourage a passion for and understanding of music. 

The orchestra teacher at Ferris High School told her he could tell which students went to her school by their passion for music.

“What children learn early has an impact on them forever,” said Shirley, who studied piano and sang from childhood.

Many Jewish parents want their children to learn music and culture,” she said.  “My family did not have much money, but my two siblings and I took piano lessons, and I loved to sing.”

“Songs are part of me and part of my love for being Jewish,” she said.

Soon after Shirley came to Spokane, her brother-in-law, Nate, who was the temple’s choir director, invited her to join the choir. 

Shirley considers the Kosher Dinner an opportunity to “invite our neighbors into our home” and welcome them with food, entertainment and hospitality.

“We need to connect with our community,” she said, noting that the dinner is about forging relationships and understanding.

By connecting with people as people, Shirley said the Jewish community hopes to counteract any latent anti-Semitism or stereotypes of Jews.

“Each one of us represents our people,” said Shirley.

“Because of my parents’ suffering, I’m committed to being an ambassador of the Jewish people,” she said.  “I sing our Jewish melodies to build a bridge of understanding.”

Another part of her hoping for and working towards that vision, “one toe at a time,” has been her recent involvement with Temple Beth Shalom’s new Mitzva Corps, a group reaching out to members when they or a family member are ill, hospitalized or experiencing a death, by offering a phone call, a card, a visit or a meal.

A mitzvah is a good deed or charitable act, she said.

“It’s where my heart is,” she said of her desire to visit and help people who have needs, especially older people who are housebound or sick. 

When she was a girl, she remembers that her parents took her with them when they visited hospitals and sick people at home.  Similarly, she took her children with her to visit people.

Shirley said that Jews are expected to do these mitzvahs.

One song she sings at the Kosher Dinner expresses that commitment:  “Wait and see...what a world it could be....if we share, if we care, you and me.”

For information, call 747-3304.

Copyright © March 2008 - The Fig Tree