Mural sings a farewell song for cantor

It is not uncommon for a synagogue to honor a cantor who leaves the congregation. Torahs and plaques adorn the halls of temples around the world paying homage to the influential people who have served them. 

But the members at Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles wanted to do something a little different for Cantor Evan Kent, who served the community for 25 years before announcing that he and his life partner, Rabbi Don Goor of Temple Judea, would be making aliyah to Israel this summer. They commissioned a mural, which was unveiled May 17. 

“We really wanted something that people could feel, that they could see and touch,” Temple Isaiah’s Rabbi Zoë Klein said. 

The resulting ceramic artwork by Karen Koblitz of the University of Southern California’s Roski School of Fine Arts stretches 21 feet long and 6 feet tall, including the border. Built into the wall of the temple’s main entrance facing Pico Boulevard, it is titled “Hava Nashira” (Hebrew for “come let us sing”). 

It features an array of images that are symbolic to different aspects of the cantor’s life — some professional, others personal — including a guitar, his two cats and a gazelle representing the marathons that, as a runner, Kent competed in. 

“I was sort of overwhelmed, and I never imaged that it would look like what it did,” Kent said. “Once I started seeing [Koblitz’s] renderings and her drawings, it was pretty amazing.”

The mural features several nods to the history of Jewish music by including King David’s harp and a shofar. Two hands granting the priestly benediction to those who walk under also are present. 

“It was a real challenge to come up with something to honor Cantor Kent after [his] 25 years of service,” Koblitz said. “I interviewed the cantor, the members of the temple and the rabbis, and it made it easier to put the imagery to the Jewish music.”

Klein said the final result hit the mark.

“It’s like a visual mantra in a way. There’s a lot of rhythm when you look at it,” said Klein, who saw this as an opportunity to honor Kent with something that would be personal and unique. 

Several ideas were originally considered, including an endowment fund, to bringing in jazz bands once a month for Shabbat, to woven tapestries that would go in the sanctuary. The congregation eventually decided that the best way to do this was through a mural dedicated to the cantor. 

“The art on the walls is a way of shaping an environment for this community, and the mural is an extension of that rather than just take a portrait of Evan and hang it on a wall,” said Jean Abarbanel, a member of the temple’s art committee. 

As a way to make the congregation a part of the project, the temple held a ceremony in which members brought in pieces of their ceramics and smashed them in paper bags. The shards were then collected and used to make the frame that encases the mural. 

“A few of the members actually came to [the] studio and participated in creating the border, so it’s like the community really wraps around the mural.” Koblitz said.

The project was underwritten by funds raised by the Festival of Jewish Artisans and was completed in about six months. 

“It’s a multifunctioned piece of art: to honor someone, to teach, to remember, to talk about,” Abarbanel said. “There are so many different ways that rabbi and clergy are honored when they finish their work at a particular temple, and I think this is pretty unique.”