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Alby Kass, resort owner and Yiddish folk singer, dies from COVID-19

Alby Kass, a resort owner and Yiddish folk singer, died from complications from COVID-19.
(Larry Kass)

Alby Kass was known for his powerful voice.

Kass, who owned a resort along the Russian River north of San Francisco, was also the lead singer of a Yiddish folk group, the Jubilee Klezmer Ensemble, a passionate theater performer and a compassionate leader whose joyfulness touched all those he knew.

So when the 89-year-old was left alone and voiceless as he battled COVID-19 in a San Leandro hospital, his loved ones knew there was only one way to comfort him. They sang.

As he drew his final breaths, Kass was surrounded by the sounds of his friends, children and grandchildren playing the piano and singing the Yiddish folk songs he had taught them. Each had recorded their own pieces, uploaded them to an old cellphone and delivered it to his nurses, who hooked up the phone to a speaker. He died March 31.

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“The sound might be over, but there’s still a lot of echoes,” said his son Larry Kass. “I can still hear my dad sing if I want to.”

Kass’ fight with COVID-19 was short. On March 26, Larry spoke to his father, who was in a Hayward nursing home, and noted nothing unusual.

By then, the nursing home had informed Larry about the positive cases in the facility. The staff said Kass was doing well. But on March 27, he was rushed to the hospital with a fever and placed in the intensive care unit. He never left.

Kass was born in the Bronx and at age 9, after his father died, he was often left to care for his younger sister and tidy their small apartment as his mother worked in the garment industry. It was the tail end of the Great Depression.

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When his mother was home, however, they would sing Yiddish songs together as they cleaned.

At 18, Kass joined the Air Force and was stationed in the Travis Air Force Base in Northern California. He then moved to Los Angeles, taking various jobs — including at a furniture factory and hammering serial numbers into engine blocks at General Motors — before getting his teaching credential at Los Angeles City College.

He taught sixth grade for 20 years in Los Angeles schools as well as in schools for the children of military personnel in Japan, Germany and the Philippines.

In Los Angeles, Kass met and married his wife, Wallie, and they had two sons, Larry and Jonathon. The family moved to Guerneville, Calif., where Kass began running the Riverlane Resort.

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Kass and his wife were the perfect team, joining their love of community service and performance to found the Russian River Jewish Community group and a local choir. They performed often as Tevye and Golde in local productions of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

“He was sort of a real life Tevye,” said Robert Bulwa, a friend of Kass’.

Alby and Wallie Kass
Alby and Wallie Kass performing in “Fiddler on the Roof.”
(Larry Kass)

Wallie, who has dementia, does not know about her husband’s death, Larry said.

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As Kass grew older, Larry began learning his parts — a passing of the torch that filled the elder Kass with pride.

“I think it was important for him to know that I took his musical legacy seriously,” Larry said. “We were very proud of him and we knew he was proud of the father that he’d been.”

Kass was generous, giving all of himself and his time when he was needed, friends said. He also enjoyed life and its beauty fully, they said.

“His sense of joy was so honest, pure, and powerful, that it reminds me of the joy a young child feels when they are truly happy,” wrote a friend, Mark Peabody, on a memorial page. “Alby wasn’t just appreciative of his fellow musicians, he was in awe of them. To him, the music we made filled him with a sense of wonder, bliss and pleasure.”

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He was also an activist, once fighting for residents affected by sewage dumping into the Russian River. And as the owner of the Riverlane Resort in Guerneville, he was more like a father than a boss.

“There’s a lot of fathers and sons who don’t have that comfort of knowing there wasn’t a whole lot left to say,” Larry said. “We’re lucky that we did.”

Kass is survived by his wife, two sons and four grandchildren.

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