MAY 18, 2017 — For the last 26 years, Marcy Yellin has spent nearly every day giving back to the North Shore Jewish community. A native of Queens, Marcy moved to Swampscott in 1991 with her husband, Ben – a scientist – and her three sons, Adam, Jacob and Seth. A gifted singer and guitarist, she brought her guitar to the former Temple Beth El (now Shirat Hayam), and entertained children in her preschool class, where she taught for 17 years. For the last 19 years, she’s been a regular presence at synagogue services, inside Hebrew School classrooms, at summer camps, Tot Shabbats, and at other Jewish institutions. She sings for toddlers and adults, reminding people that music can connect friends and strangers, and also heal.
Marcy, can you tell me about your upbringing and when you first started to sing?
I grew up in Queens in a religious family, leaning toward the Orthodox. I have Sephardic roots on both sides – my family is from Turkey. I got turned on to Jewish music as a child because I was encouraged to go to shul on Shabbat and on holidays. I would go with my father to Kol Nidre and I loved the music and I got to sing.
In the third grade I was put in chorus and I was a soprano. My father encouraged me to buy a guitar. I bought it with my babysitting money when I was 12 and it cost me $50 with a hard shell case! I still have it – it’s a classical guitar. I still play it. Back then, I got a music book, because we couldn’t afford lessons, and I taught myself to play chords.
A lot of the songs I sing now I learned back then in public school chorus, like “Blue Moon,” “Moon River,” “More,” and “Unchained Melody.” These are songs I was singing in the chorus and now I’m singing them to the elderly at the Shapiro-Rudolph Adult Day Health Center in Peabody.
Why do you enjoy singing for children?
I just love children and I love teaching, and I relate to a quote from the Talmud, which says:
“Whoever teaches their child, teaches not only their child, but teaches their child’s child and so on to the end of generations.” Over the years, I’ve taught kids to sing the Sh’ma (prayer). It’s very deep. For me it’s a way for children to begin learning about God – singing songs about God.
You sing mostly for children and the elderly?
Yes. When I play for the elderly I think of my parents and all they gave me as a kid, and what they did to put me where I am today, and to make me feel the way I do about giving. As a Jew, you’re taught to give to the most vulnerable of populations, and at this point I believe small children and older adults are the most vulnerable in our community. Music does something to the soul – there’s a spark in the brain from music and it’s always there. It never goes away, from the time you’re little to the time you’re old. It’s the only creative thing I know that reaches across generations.
What songs do you play for kids and adults?
I do other people’s music. I sing songs about God, love, peace and being a good person. I sing about Jewish themes to children, like Tikkun Olam, and use a lot of music by Ellen Allard, Rick Recht, Sheldon Low and Eliana Light. For adults who are suffering from Alzheimer’s and dementia, I sing Carole King, the Beatles, Ricky Nelson, Bob Dylan, Righteous Brothers, Mary Travers and much more. I’m always adding new material. They love the songs and they connect to them from the time they first hear them. Some of these people can’t remember what they did five minutes ago but they remember the words. And they remember me.
In Peabody, you sing to children and adults at the same time. What are your thoughts when you’re singing?
I notice that the kids are connected to the adults. If you’re a little kid and you sit next to a person in a wheelchair or someone on an oxygen tank, or with a walker or a cane, you’ll never be afraid of them.
Your son Jacob has a deep connection to Judaism.
Yes. He is 32, and is globally cognitively delayed. He works with the preschool kids on Fridays as a classroom assistant, and helps out on the tzedakah program, and walks around with the tzedakah box which people donate to. The reason he works on Fridays is that I really want to keep Judaism in his life, and it’s very important to him.
Can you tell me about your involvement with disability inclusion summer programming at the JCC?
In my spare time I do volunteer work at the Jewish Community of the North Shore for inclusion and disabilities. For many years I have wanted the JCC to become more inclusive than they were. With the help of the executive director and many others that vision has come true. I am so proud of all those that have supported this endeavor and continue to support it. It has been said before that it takes a village and I am blessed to have that village in this little community.
Your mother, Suzie, recently passed away. Did music bring you closer in her last years?
Yes. For the past two years when my mother was in assisted living and in a nursing home, I played for her and she would smile and say ‘this is my daughter.’ She was grateful and was showing me off to the staff there, which was a nice thing. She suffered from dementia and the music brought her back to a lot of places. And she never forgot me. I’d say ‘who’s here?’ And she’d say, ‘gorgeous music.’ Maybe she forgot my name but she called me gorgeous music.