For MLK Day, Israeli Gospel Jazz Choir Hits N.Y.


As Sly and the Family Stone famously sang, it’s a family affair.

Iris and Ofer Portugaly are a married couple, jazz musicians and teachers at Israel’s famous Rimon School of the Arts, leaders of their own combo and a spirited and exciting gospel jazz choir.

Cantor Rebecca Garfein of Congregation Rodeph Sholom was looking for a musical group that would tie together Jewish and African-American influences to perform at the synagogue’s annual observance of the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

She remembered a Tel Aviv wedding she had attended in 1989 in which the bride and groom played with the wedding band. Garfein has vivid memories of the bride sitting behind the drum kit in her gown, driving the beat. That would be Iris Portugaly; the pianist-groom was Ofer. Why was Garfein at the wedding? Because Iris is her cousin and friend.

The Portugalys, their band and choir are performing at Rodeph Sholom Jan. 18 as part of Shabbat services.

“This was a wonderful opportunity,” Garfein exclaimed. “Iris and Ofer were planning a visit to U.S. with their gospel choir, we’ve talked for years about having them come to the synagogue and we were able to work out their coming for this weekend.”

Although the couple received their musical training at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, they decided to return to Israel shortly afterwards to pass along the jazz knowledge they had acquired in the States.

“It was important that we come home to Israel 21 years ago,” Iris says. “We wanted to make a connection between jazz and Israeli culture. We always combined things that had Israeli roots with American jazz. We arranged Israeli songs and it felt very natural.”

A dozen years ago, while on tour in Nigeria, the duo hear a local choir performing gospel material and it registered strongly.

“I decided to start a gospel choir at Rimon School,” where she is head of the voice department, Iris recalls. “The head of the school liked the idea very much, it solved the problem of finding a place for so many singers.”

At first the project was just another performance class at the school, but within two years, the Portugalys had a professional-quality choir mixing jazz and gospel with great elan. More recently, Ofer, who is a pianist-arranger-composer, starting doing settings of piyutim (liturgical poems) for the group, which is in keeping with the rather non-Christian nature of the band.

“Oh, we’re doing strictly kosher gospel,” Ofer says with a laugh. “When we decided to perform Edwin Hawkins’ ‘Oh Happy Day, we had an Israeli lyricist rewrite it in Hebrew and dropped the references to Jesus.”

Iris adds, “We don’t say the word ‘Jesus.’ Americans find it very funny, gospel with no Jesus.”

Ofer continues, “American gospel is amazing. We don’t relate to it [as] religion but the music has so many nice things about it — optimism, giving hope to people, good vibes.”

“It makes you happy,” Iris says.

“It moves you,” Ofer replies.

It has been over a decade since the pair were in New York City and they are understandably eager to play here again.

“We’re very excited about it,” Iris says. “It’s new for us also. We have no idea — we’re doing the best we can to make the music as good as we know. That’s what we always do, try to be there with the spirit.”

And keep it in the (extended) family.

Iris and Ofer Portugaly and their Gospel Jazz choir will be performing Friday, Jan. 18 at Congregation Rodeph Sholom (7 W. 83rd St.) as part of the Shabbat service, which begins at 6 p.m. Guests will include soprano Diana Solomon-Glover, soloist at Riverside Church and VOCÉ (Voices of Christ Ensemble), a gospel choir who also frequently appear at Riverside, as well as Cantor Garfein.