Dr. Gordon and Hannareta Fishman fell for Newport Beach in 1956 while he served as a medical intern in Long Beach. The couple even considered putting down roots until they inspected a local phone book. But their hope turned to disappointment and shock at finding three other opthomalogists already listed in Corona del Mar.
Four decades later in 1993, after raising a family and building a successful practice in their hometown of Detroit, the Fishmans abandoned their old lives to start again in retirement, returning to the beach life for which they still hungered. Without friends, relatives or community expectations, the couple reveled in possessing a clean slate to rewrite the direction of their lives. "It was anything you wanted it to be," Hannareta Fishman said.
And Orange County's Jewish community has not been the same since.
Nearly single-handedly, the couple created what is now one of the Jewish community's most anticipated events: an annual "Chanukah Concert" that sells out the 2,900-seat Orange County Performing Arts Center and features 12 children's choirs and cantors from synagogues and day schools throughout the county. The Dec. 8 performance at 2 p.m. is the concert's eighth consecutive year.
"I have to credit their vision with doing it on a large enough scale for it to succeed," said Cantor Alan Weiner, the concert's choirmaster, who choreographs the succession of acts with a pianist and other musicians.
The first event, however, was a near disaster. Held at Irvine's 800-seat Barclay Theater, the overflow crowd without seats started venting their frustration on the glass walls of the theater's atrium. Only children vacating their seats to spend the performance cross-legged on the stage averted a near riot. The venue changed thereafter.
More recently, an audience of young families was scandalized by the guest appearance by Milton Berle, who told off-color jokes. Hiring headliners was ditched after that.
This year's refinements include its theme, "Chanukah Rocks," pushing cantors to rehearse audience-energizing music, Israeli-style dancing by students of Tarbut V'Torah Community Day School and the "10'rs," a parody of last spring's "Three Jewish Tenors" performed by 10 year olds Mathew Gibbs, Danny Busch and Adam Mann.Â
The concert is a rare opportunity for young children to experience the breadth of the county's Jewish community and for cantors to grab the limelight beyond the pulpit.
"We live in a Christian society. Isn't it nice for your children to be able to go somewhere that's theirs?" asked Hannareta Fishman, 68, who has four adult sons and seven grandchildren.
"Before this happened, the cantors didn't get to sing pop songs together," said Gordon Fishman, who opens his house for rehearsals. "They're so glad to see each other. They're doing it for their community, their synagogue and for themselves."
Singing gives children recognition for contributing to their community, said Herb Modelevsky, a retired pediatrician from San Clemente, who entertains restless toddlers during the concert's second half in a clown outfit.
"It's a very powerful experience," added Cantor Arie Shikler of Irvine's Congregation Shir Ha Ma'alot, who will sing an original composition, "Every Young Lion." Motivated by performing on a professional stage, all the children's choirs have improved musically, he said.
During the event, the 12 cantors will perform individually as choral groups assemble behind the curtain. This year's cantorial repertoire includes, "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina," from University Synagogue's Ruti Brier; "New York, New York," from Temple Beth El's Shula Kalir-Merton, and a Sephardic melody, "Yismach Moshe," from Congregation Eilat's Joseph Chazon.
While the Fishmans put on the concert to honor Gordon Fishman's parents, they and others credit it with sharpening awareness among the county's dispersed Jewish population, so unlike the cohesive Detroit community.
Initially, the concert garnered a tepid reception and the cooperation of just six synagogues. "But it had such a great impact, now everyone subscribes," said Frank Edelstein, a neighbor who suggested the "10'r" parody. The concert's only advertising is through the center's playbill and in newsletters of synagogues, which keep 50 percent of ticket proceeds. Last year, they netted $20,000. "They put us in their budget," Gordon Fishman added. "They won't let us quit."
Creating Jewish community is the only remnant from the Fishmans' past they seem intent on replicating.
In Detroit, their country French home was so filled with furniture that it lacked any wall space. Gordon Fishman's pride was 28 classic sports cars. Once their boys left home, though, whenever he wanted to take one for a spin a dead battery would frustrate him.
Here, among the faux chateaus and Spanish-style haciendas of Newport Beach's Spyglass Hill, the Fishmans' contemporary home in a titanium white stands apart. The interior is a minimalists' canvas, sparsely furnished and flooded by natural light for displaying their new collecting passion: museum-size abstract works by leading contemporary artists and sculptors. Wall-sized canvases by Frank Stella and Robert Jessup keep company with mesmerizing kinetic sculptures in stainless steel by George Rickey.
"When you live that life," explained Gordon Fishman, 73, referring to his former private practice and professional obligations, "you see a lot of realism." He appreciates the interpretation permitted by the abstract. "It's so enjoyable to live around happy paintings," he said.
Music, though, provided the reoccurring theme in the Fishmans' Jewish home life, more relaxed than the modern Orthodoxy of Hannareta Fishman's parents. Her own children were encouraged to bring a guest to Friday night Shabbat dinners. Afterwards, while Hannareta Fishman provided accompaniment on the piano, the rest would open cases enough for a brass band. Gordon Fishman played trombone.
The grown Fishman sons and their families now stretch from San Francisco to London. Each year they assemble for a black-tie birthday bash celebrating their cumulative birthdays and take a joint vacation.
Growing up, Gordon Fishman's strongest Jewish connection was playing on the intrasynagogue basketball league started by his father, a furniture maker. In mirroring the efforts of his father, Gordon Fishman's own intramural concert seems a most fitting tribute. Â