Spreading the joy of Hanukkah: Mister G leads online concert aimed at Jewish community centers across North America 

  • Ben Gundersheimer, aka Mister G, tapes a segment for a Hanukkah show at the Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity in Florence in November. The concert will be shown online Dec. 6, the last night of Hanukkah. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Singing about latkes, Mitzvah buses and more: Ben Gundersheimer, aka Mister G, and friends tape a segment of a Hanukkah show that will be screened online. This sequence was filmed at the Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity in Florence. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Joining Mister G for this segment were, from left, Shahana Morris, Biba Nabut, Jerry Harvey, Noa Nabut, and “Missus G” (Katherine Jamieson). Partly visible behind her is Beatrix Parr. The concert will be shown online Dec. 6, the last night of Hanukkah. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Ben Gundersheimer, aka Mister G, is joined by a number of other musicians and special guests for the online Hanukkah show, including 93-year-old rabbi 93 year-old Rabbi Everett Gendler, a key supporter of Martin Luther King, Jr. during the civil rights movement. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Missus G (Katherine Jamieson) whoops it up during the filmming of the Hanukkah show alongside childen affililated with Beit Ahavah, the reform Jewish community that shares space in the Bombyx Center. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Singing about latkes, Mitzvah buses and more: Ben Gundersheimer, aka Mister G, tapes a segment for a Hanukkah show at the Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity in Florence in November. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Mister G and friends are joined at the Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity by, at left, Elise Barber, cantor of Temple Beth El in Springfield. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • The online Hanukkah concert featuring Mister G and his supporters and fellow musicians is designed to connect JCCs — Jewish community centers and camps — all across North America. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Image courtesy Ben Gundersheimer

  • Image courtesy Ben Gundersheimer

  • Image courtesy Ben Gundersheimer

Staff Writer
Published: 12/2/2021 2:55:16 PM

Before the music got going, the guitarist had a few instructions for the young dancers beside him as everyone prepared to rehearse the song.

“This is called ‘The Mitzvah Bus,’ which has kind of a funky beat,” said Ben Gundersheimer, otherwise know as Mister G, the kids’ songwriter and performer from Whately. “The chorus goes like this: ‘We’re gettin’ on the Mitzvah Bus, and it sure feels good to us.’”

Then, with some prerecorded backing tracks, Gundersheimer began singing, sounding emphatic chords on guitar to the funk/hip-hop tune, as the five children beside him, ages about 5 to 14, swayed and clapped their hands.

It was a late afternoon in mid-November in the sanctuary of the historic Florence Congregational Church, which more recently has also become the music hall of the Bombyx Center for Arts & Equity, a new venture that offers a home for art, community events and spiritual groups.

And Gundersheimer, the Latin Grammy Award-winning artist, author and educator, was checking off all those boxes. With help from Kyle Homstead and his crew at Laudable Productions, the Easthampton company that has created the Bombyx Center, Gundersheimer was filming the first parts of a concert that will be streamed Monday, Dec. 6 at 5:30 p.m. — the last day of Hanukkah — to Jewish communities across North America and possibly further afield.

“It’s pretty exciting that we get to do this right here in our own community,” Gundersheimer said to a small group of friends and supporters in the audience. “I want to encourage you to make as much noise as you can. Go crazy!”

The concert, which will include performances and interviews with a number of other musicians and people, is part of a series of virtual events that have been funded and produced this year by the JCC Association of North America (JCCA), a New-York based organization that connects JCCs — Jewish community centers and camps, such as the Springfield Jewish Community Center — across the U.S. and Canada. The organization also has connections to JCCs abroad.

Randy Ellen Lutterman, vice president of development and arts and culture for the JCCA, says her organization began what’s called JFest earlier this year — virtual events designed to connect Jewish communities that have otherwise spent much of the past year and a half isolated from one another.

“My job is to help create those ties,” she said. “And one of the things we’ve found that really brings people together in times like this is the arts. Music, books, dance — it’s a common vocabulary.”

Lutterman said she became aware of Gundersheimer’s work — he’s a former teacher who’s also written children’s books, in Spanish and English, that are based on some of his songs — over the past few years and got in touch with him about putting together a Hanukkah show.

“I knew from the first Zoom call I had with Ben that I’d want to work with him,” Lutterman said. “He’s a great musician and he’s smart, creative, funny, and he has experience as an educator. Plus he has all these connections to musicians from different countries and cultures, and that’s important … music is one of the key ways we tell stories.”

Looking to connect

In an interview a few days after he began taping the Hanukkah show, Gundersheimer said he was excited to put the concert together, in part because it gives him a chance to perform and connect with other musicians and audiences — opportunities that have been limited since COVID-19 arrived in March 2020.

Though many musicians have returned to touring this fall, Gundersheimer said children’s performers such as himself still don’t have a lot of options for live performing, at least indoors.

“In general, presenters [of children’s music] are in a holding pattern, because a lot of children haven’t been vaccinated,” he said. “And in a lot of cases, parents don’t want to take the risk of exposing their kids to any possible threat … so there aren’t a lot of opportunities to play.”

Alongside his wife, Katherine Jamieson (Missus G), Gundersheimer has done some outdoor shows this year — his annual Halloween show, normally staged at Northampton’s Academy of Music, was held outside The Common School in Amherst in October — and he’s also staged livestreamed shows at the Academy with no audience present.

But Gundersheimer has gotten used to collaborating remotely with musical friends, as he did for his 2020 album “Children of the World,” which included digital contributions from musicians, engineers and others from five continents and 14 countries.

For the Dec. 6 show, he’s enlisted help from several friends: Massamba Diop, the noted talking drum player from Senegal who also spends time in the U.S.; Chilean jazz vocalist Claudia Acuña; Israeli-born clarinetist Oran Etkin; and guitarist Adam Gardner from the alt-rock band Guster.

Most have contributed segments they’ve filmed at their homes or other locations, which have been woven into the video. For one segment, Diop and Gundersheimer were able to jam at Gundersheimer’s Whately studio.

“Oran [Etkin] filmed his segment from the oldest synagogue in Europe, in Prague, so that should be really interesting,” he said.

As he recorded his songs at the Bombyx Center in November, Gundersheimer was clearly enjoying performing in front of the small but enthusiastic audience and singing tunes about eating latkes and chocolate, watching fireflies, and being with friends and families.

He was joined by Missus G and Elise Barber, the cantor of Temple Beth El in Springfield. Meanwhile, the children who danced and sang alongside him — “The Dreidels” — were students from the Ruach community school of Beit Ahavah, a reform Jewish community that shares space in the Bombyx Center.

That the Bombyx Center is now home to arts events, the Florence Congregational Church, and Beit Ahavah made it a fitting place to film the Hanukkah concert, Gundersheimer said: “This show is all about community and coming together, and that’s what the center is about.”

With a laugh, Randy Lutterman, the JCCA official, said she had hoped earlier this year, before the delta variant arrived, that the Dec. 6 show could be seen “by roomfuls of kids in JCCs all over. But if we can’t have that, they can still watch at home with their families, and we can help support artists like Ben. For that we’re really grateful.”

To register to see the free Hanukkah show, visit virtualjcc.com and scroll down for the link.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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