By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Charlene Brooks’ parents, both Holocaust survivors, toiled 12-hour days at their dry cleaning and alterations business leaving their daughter to fend for herself as a latchkey kid in Andersonville. She recalled the joy of singing on the back stairs of her third-floor apartment building with a neighborhood girl.
Music was always a part of Brooks’ life, and the clearest way to express herself. Listening to Broadway show music, and dancing around her living room as a child, was only the beginning.
From childhood, the question of whether to be a singer was not really a choice, but, what kind of singer. Today, Brooks balances her love of Jewish liturgy, popular tunes and storytelling with a career as entertainer, composer and cantor at Bene Shalom, a Reform temple in Skokie.
On New Year’s Eve, she will ring in the holiday with the music of Broadway, pop, Latin and rock. She will be accompanied by a six-piece band at the Skokie Theater starting at 8 p.m.
Twenty-two years ago, when Brooks and her husband joined Bene Shalom with their two young children, the rabbi found out Brooks was a professional singer. He asked if she would mind singing a few songs for Chanukah. That grew to other occasions and she ended up with a permanent place on the bima. She is now a cantor who has one more year in her training at the Hebrew Seminary in Skokie.
Charlene realized that singing liturgical music was a way to fill a spot in her life that also needed fulfillment. “When I started cantoring, I wasn’t sure how I was going to make both of those lives work because I was wearing the choir robe Friday night and Saturday morning and evening gowns on Saturday night,” she said. “And yet, it was kind of amazing. It provided me with a balance that most people don’t get an opportunity to have. I was searching for a spiritual home and I found one. It’s enhanced everything I do.”
Bene Shalom started as a synagogue 45 years ago for the deaf Jewish community. It is now a “deaf-friendly” synagogue for a congregation of about 135 families who are mostly hearing. Everything said and sung at the temple is communicated by a sign language interpreter. There are also sign language courses offered at the temple.
Brooks knows sign language and her 25-year-old daughter is studying to be a sign language interpreter. Her son is an Israeli Krav Maga martial arts instructor. Her husband, Ken Clinkman, is a technology trainer who serves on the board of Bene Shalom.
Brooks performs a one-woman show called Life Stinks (and Other Things My Mother Taught Me.) She presented it at the Illinois Holocaust Museum last summer and at a New Jersey Holocaust museum. “It was very successful. It’s about my parents and the landsmen who literally came on the boats together and stories about how funny they were. I perform songs and tell stories about the pain and joy of these people and my experience growing up with them.”
The title of the show originated with an angry phone message left by her mother when she couldn’t get a hold of anybody. “Mel Brooks was right. Life stinks,” she yelled. “I just laughed and laughed and said, OK, I’m going with that.”
Brooks writes original songs for services that mesh with the themes of Rabbi Douglas Goldhamer’s sermons. “I try to find a song that would punctuate what he says. But I realized it was just as easy to write one and that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 20 years. I have a slew of songs that I’m in the process of recording.”
Brooks understands Yiddish and sings Yiddish songs. “My parents only spoke Yiddish to each other. After all, they were in America. I wish they had spoken Yiddish to me. I wish I had heard more. When I hear a Yiddish accent, my heart melts.”
Tickets to Charlene Brooks: Feelin’ Good show on Dec. 31 are available by calling 847-677-7761 or by purchasing online at www.skokietheatre.org.