This past month had been a reflective, and also difficult, month. It involved the loss of two people who had deep impacts on my life, as a singer and as a person: Charity Sunshine Tillemann-Dick and Mira Zakai.
Charity and I first met several years ago at IVAI in Israel. When we met, I had no idea that anything was amiss, much less that she was grappling with a terminal disease. She had life-and-death struggles over the last 15 years of her life. Yet, she had accomplished things that would have been remarkable by any standard: she’d sung at Lincoln Center and other prestigious venues around the world, she had keynoted at TEDMED more than once, she had a number 1 album on Billboard's Traditional Classical charts, and she published a book. (In her book, she detailed her life story using her own unique voice as a writer. She also recorded an audio version of her book, which included her singing.) What was even more remarkable than her on-paper achievements was that she’d always had the sunniest, most generous, and most resilient disposition of anyone I had ever known. She had been a dear and wonderful friend to me, and many others I know described her exactly the same way. That she was able to be all she was while going through two double-lung transplants and cancer had always been unfathomable to me. It served as an example for me. A few years ago, when a colleague was going through a hard time in her singing career, I showed her one of Charity’s TED talks. In it, Charity spoke about singing before and after her first double lung transplant. After I showed my colleague that TED talk, she was incredibly moved, and had a renewed resolve and zest for singing. The biggest gifts and legacy I carried away from having known Charity were precisely that: her zest, resolve, generosity, and wisdom, as a singer and person. I’ll always have fond memories of the times Charity and I shared, when we’d catch up over the years. I feel so blessed that all my memories brought me joy--some of them even made me laugh out loud to think about them! Even knowing she’d been terminally ill for a long time, and that she would die early in her life, hearing about her passing still felt surreal. It speaks volumes as to how meaningful her presence was during her extraordinary life.
Mira Zakai was an incredible singer, with an international career, prized by of some of the greatest conductors in the history of our art form. That in and of itself would have been enough to be the pride of one’s home country. However, she used her knowledge, influence, and platform to nurture countless singers and conductors. I’m one of the singers who had been lucky enough to know and learn from her. She was the one who taught me that when you sing a piece that sits in the best place for your voice, the best of all worlds happened: singing is much easier, you’re naturally able to give the piece many vocal colors, and your singing has heart and comes across—and that’s what people pay for when they buy a ticket. She taught me that. I also remember being initially nervous to sing some Israeli songs for her, especially since the arrangements of these songs were written especially for her. Her praise for me, and her telling me she wanted to hear me sing more, was something I considered to be the highest compliment and encouragement, and do to this day. During the time we knew each other, she’d offer me advice, encouragement, and come to performances of mine—she offered this nurturing to many others as well. On a related note, when I prepared concerts, hers were among the recordings I would use to inform my own singing and interpretations. She also encouraged women singers that they could have families while having careers singing, as she did. This was another important example to me. Yet even her legacies as a singer and a teacher weren’t the greatest things about her. She was an incredibly kind and generous person—I’ll never forget how she came especially to my grandmother’s home two years ago to pay us a visit during the shiva right after my grandfather passed away. No matter how great an artist one is, that experience solidified to me that there’s no greater legacy one can leave behind than being a kind person.
I’ve cried a lot this past month over these two losses. However, I’m not only crying tears of grief and loss, but also tears of gratitude for having known and been touched by them. I miss them both terribly, but I know their legacies are living on both in me and countless others.