'This really isn't so different from other things we do'

UK Jewish seniors go viral as they rock iconic album covers during lockdown

Keeping busy despite a ban on visitors, residents of Sydmar Lodge recreate famous images of musical artists such as Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie, and Elvis Presley

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

  • 'Roma-Bowie' (Robert Speker/Sydmar Lodge)
    'Roma-Bowie' (Robert Speker/Sydmar Lodge)
  • 'Sheila-Elvis' (Robert Speker/Sydmar Lodge)
    'Sheila-Elvis' (Robert Speker/Sydmar Lodge)
  • 'Vera-Adele' (Robert Speker/Sydmar Lodge)
    'Vera-Adele' (Robert Speker/Sydmar Lodge)
  • 'Toba-Michael Jackson' (Robert Speker/Sydmar Lodge)
    'Toba-Michael Jackson' (Robert Speker/Sydmar Lodge)
  • 'Renee-Taylor Swift (Robert Speker/Sydmar Lodge)
    'Renee-Taylor Swift (Robert Speker/Sydmar Lodge)

Martin Steinberg’s jeans-clad tush has recently become nearly as famous as Bruce Springsteen’s, thanks to a new creative project currently going viral on social media.

Steinberg is among residents at a Jewish care home in North London who recently posed for photos inspired by famous record album covers from the 1950s through today. The photos — styled, shot and edited by the home’s activities coordinator Robert Speker — have become a global sensation to the surprise and delight of the unlikely models.

With Sydmar Lodge in pandemic lockdown mode since March 12, Speker has been working harder than ever to keep the residents busy and upbeat. The album cover photoshoots are merely one of many outside-the-box activities the award-winning Speker has come up with during this period in which residents have been unable to receive even family members.

“It’s only recently that we have begun to have window and garden visits,” Speker told The Times of Israel by phone on July 16.

‘Martin-Bruce’ (Robert Speker/Sydmar Lodge)

Sydmar Lodge is an independent care home for approximately 50 individuals age 65 and up. People of all backgrounds are welcome to join the Sydmar Lodge community. However, the facility’s observance of Shabbat, Jewish holidays and kosher dietary laws tends to attract mainly Jewish residents.

Speker, 41, is the sole Jewish staff member, and it therefore falls to him to assist residents with Jewish rituals. (This Passover, when residents were not permitted to leave their rooms, he loaded up a cart with wine, matzah, and a seder plate and went from door to door holding a quick mini-seder at each one.)

Sydmar Lodge activities coordinator Robert Speker, the genius behind the album cover project. (courtesy)

According to Speker the album cover project is in line with the way he usually interacts with the residents.

“This really isn’t so different from other things we do. I tend to have madcap ideas and like to do things a bit differently. Laughter and fun is central to everything,” Speker said.

Apparently the residents are game. So far, 10 have modeled for the project, and there is a waiting list. One extremely enthusiastic participant named Sheila Solomons has been photographed three times already.

Speker, who has worked at Sydmar Lodge for five and half years, decided to let Solomons pose for Rag’n’Bone Man’s 2017 “Human” album after she had already wielded her cane like a smashed guitar on the cover of The Clash’s “London Calling,” and strummed it as Elvis did his guitar on the cover of his eponymous debut album.

‘Sheila-Clash’ (Robert Speker/Sydmar Lodge)

“Sheila requested that we do the Rag’n’Bone Man album because I had taken her to one of his concerts at her request. We even got her a VIP pass to go backstage to meet him. He signed an album cover for Sheila, and we put the image of that cover next to her photo,” Speker explained.

‘Sheila-Rag’n’Bone Man’ (Robert Speker/Sydmar Lodge)

Solomons doesn’t miss a beat when it comes to the current popular music scene. She’s also expressed interest in going to an Ed Sheeran concert.

“Unfortunately, we haven’t been able to make that happen yet. But we will try to when he plays in London next,” Speker said.

The artists depicted on the album covers thus far vary from country music icon Johnny Cash to megastar Madonna to punk-alternative rockers Blink 182. One photo features the shadowed faces of carers from Sydmar Lodge mimicking the members of Queen on the cover of their second studio album.

‘Lily-Madonna’ (Robert Speker/Sydmar Lodge)

Surprisingly — or not — the seniors were familiar with many of the artists Speker suggested.

“They have lived through the periods all these artists were active. And I play all kinds of music for them. I play the music of their youth from the 1930s and 1940s, but I also play more recent music. After all, they are still living in today’s world and need to be connected to it. Also, it’s a good way to help them connect to their grandchildren and great-grandchildren,” Speker said.

It’s a good way to help them connect to their grandchildren and great-grandchildren

After first finding out which residents wanted to be involved in the project, Speker then considered which artists they resembled. It wasn’t about duplicating the album cover as much as evoking an interpretive similarity. At the same time, Speker was focused on highlighting differences between the resident and the musician.

‘Hilda-Blink 182’ (Robert Speker/Sydmar Lodge)

“It wasn’t about impersonating the artist. It was about seeing the personality of the model. It’s about focusing on the individuality of each person,” Speker said.

The activities coordinator often posts photos or videos of Sydmar Lodge programs on the internal Facebook page limited to residents and their family members. Occasionally he posts pictures of particularly interesting ones on his own social media accounts.

A week ago — right before Shabbat began — Speker tweeted the 12 album covers compiled since early June. By the time Shabbat was over on Saturday evening, the images had gone viral.

‘Carers-Queen’ (Robert Speker/Sydmar Lodge)

“I was blown away,” Speker said.

Then came the media inquiries — first from the UK, and then from around the world. Busy with his duties at Sydmar Lodge, Speker enlisted his sister to field all the requests.

“It’s crazy. I’ve been interviewed by print and television outlets in the US, Australia, Russia, Brazil and Israel. The story has been was picked up everywhere, including Japan,” Speker said.

According to Speker, some artists have reached out asking for one of their albums to be included in the project.

‘Roma-Bowie’ (Robert Speker/Sydmar Lodge)

The care home residents have been excited to see themselves in the paper or on TV.

“It’s a lovely feeling for them. They’ve been smiling and giggling,” Speker said.

After discussing it as a group, the residents decided to take positive advantage of all the attention and start a crowdfunding campaign. Their GoFundMe page states that the funds are for activities at the care home, but Speker said that the residents plan on donating the money to their favorite charities.

There is much excitement at Sydmar Lodge about continuing with the project. Speker has some ideas about which album covers will be next. However, he was circumspect when asked what those might be.

“We’re going to keep it a surprise,” he said.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed