Judith Wachs was the founder and Artistic Director of Voice of the Turtle, one of the premier Sephardic music groups in the U.S. Founded in 1978, Voice of the Turtle, consisted of the same four members who, for three decades, made recordings and performed throughout the US, Europe, and Israel. Judith Wachs was the visionary-researcher-linguist-historian-musical anthropologist and fellow performer who lit their musical spark.
Having never heard of Sephardic music before her first exposure to it in the late 1970s in a Renaissance music group to which she belonged, she plunged headlong into an enduring passion to bring this music and the richness of its heritage to a greater audience.
And so, the daughter of Ashkenazi immigrant parents, who grew up in Brooklyn, and was for several years a New York City junior high school English teacher, turned into “a gifted, ebullient musician-scholar devoted to women’s music and the traditions of the Sephardim. Her ensemble, Voice of the Turtle, ignited a still-flourishing Sephardic music revival.” (Scott Alarik, Boston Globe)
In October 2007, Judy first learned she was sick and that her illness was terminal. We knew the inevitability of the future and we knew it was not a distant future, but Judy steadfastly chose not to surrender the gift of the time she had left. That last year was both sad and wonderful, rich in many moments of real joy. The seeds of that joy came from family—especially her children, Cindy, Jonathan and Josh; their children, Judy’s 9—now 10—grandsons; and our friends, who were generous, loyal, and enormously kind.
Judy’s energy and exuberance were evident to anyone who encountered her, but less obvious was that Judy was also an ardent ball player and a natural athlete. She played stickball and handball obsessively as a kid in Brooklyn, and was a waterfront director when she worked at camp in the summers.
At almost age 50, Judy began to practice Aikido, a Japanese martial art that I had already been studying for over a decade. It was a pretty daunting pursuit to begin at that age. But she persisted for many years and finally made it to one rank below black belt, which was quite impressive. But the truly extraordinary achievement was the relationship she developed with our teacher—it was unlike anyone else’s. Kanai Sensei, our teacher, had come from Japan and was a highly respected martial artist. A certain degree of formality permeated most people’s interactions with him, at least during class. But Judy’s charming irreverence and exuberance won him over completely—she became an obvious favorite of his, despite her clearly limited martial arts future.
Judy’s chutzpah also made her a fearless student of languages—that, and her real desire to communicate. She had studied Hebrew as a child and in high school. When she began doing research for Voice of the Turtle, she resumed studying seriously at Hebrew College to become fluent enough for scholarly research and conversation.
Shortly after that, she began learning Spanish. On several subsequent trips to Spain, she was uninhibited about speaking wherever she went, because she just accepted the fact that she would make really silly mistakes and she would just keep going. When traveling with Judy, casual encounters with strangers routinely turned into invitations to people’s homes for dinner.
Judy also loved being outside, being in the country, being away from urban life. Her first choice of refuge was always Vermont. She loved being there, at her cabin, seven miles off a paved road, up on a hill, looking out over 60 miles of mountains. Judy was at her happiest doing liberation gardening—creating a garden next to the house in Vermont by laying a stone border around whatever flowers were growing wild, and then removing whatever she didn’t want from within its bounds, occasionally even deliberately planting a flower or two.
Unlike the other members of Voice of the Turtle, Judy was not a professionally trained musician. She had had piano lessons as a child. But her real musical life began at about age 35 when she took her first recorder lessons. From there she went on to take classes with Marleen Montgomery and to be part of Quadrivium. Her creative partnership with Lisle Kulbach, Jay Rosenberg and Derek Burrows grew out of Quadrivium and became the 30-year collaboration that has been Voice of the Turtle.
The repertoire of Voice of the Turtle is from the Jews of Spain. The songs which Judy and Voice of the Turtle acquired represent an astonishing range of musical styles and subject matter—from the strictly liturgical to the blushingly secular, from songs about food to lullabies, from ballads of knights and ladies, to children’s counting songs. These songs spurred Judy on to endless projects.
Judy was famous for her stage presence—she was a warm and disarmingly engaging character–on stage, and off. Everyone always commented on her natural ease in talking to an audience. When I asked her how she did it, she gave me a classic “Judy” response: “I just pretend I have a paper bag over my head and nobody can see me.” Ahh, but we could see you, Judy… and we still can.