Calendar Picks and Clicks: Dec. 1-7, 2012


[SAT DEC 1]

Lewis Black

He yells so you don’t have to. Best known for his curmudgeonly commentaries on “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” Black returns to SoCal with more social and political rants. Sat. 8 p.m. $39.50-$49.50. Terrace Theater, Long Beach Convention and Entertainment Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach. (800) 745-3000. ticketmaster.com.

[SUN DEC 2]

Sing to Save a Soul

Cantors from across Los Angeles come together for an elegant night of musical variety. Beit T’Shuvah Cantors Rachel Goldman Neubauer and Shira Fox perform alongside top cantors and Jewish talent, including Cantor Chayim Frenkel (Kehillat Israel), Cantor Marcus Feldman (Sinai Temple), Cantor Herschel Fox (Valley Beth Shalom) and Seth Ettinger, student cantor at Ojai’s K’hilat Ha’Aloneem. Proceeds support the recovery of residents at Beit T’Shuvah, a drug-and-alcohol rehabilitation center. Sun. 6:30 p.m. $25 (general), $75 (reserved seating), $100 (reserved seating and dessert reception), $200 (premier seating and dessert reception). Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. (310) 204-5200. beittshuvah.org.

[MON DEC 3]

Jon Robin Baitz

The Pulitzer Prize finalist and L.A. native appears in person for an evening of readings and conversation at USC. One of the nation’s premier playwrights as well as a screenwriter, television producer and occasional actor, Baitz’s latest work, “Other Desert Cities,” opened last week at the Mark Taper Forum. Mon. 7-9 p.m. Free. USC, Doheny Memorial Library, Lecture Hall Room 240, 3550 Trousdale Parkway, Los Angeles. (213) 740-3252. usc.edu/calendar.

[TUE DEC 4]

David Brooks

New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks appears in conversation with Rabbi David Woznica at Stephen S. Wise Temple. Brooks discusses the personal experiences that have shaped his values as well as how these values influence his reaction to world events. Tue. 7:30 p.m. $15. Stephen S. Wise Temple, 15500 Stephen S. Wise Drive, Los Angeles. (310) 889-2299. wisela.org.

[WED DEC 5]

“Post-Election 2012: The Challenges We Face”

The National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles hosts a panel discussion on how the results of the Nov. 6 election will affect us. Scheduled speakers include Bill Boyarsky, columnist for the Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed; former state Sen. Sheila Kuehl; Kathay Feng, executive director of California Common Cause; and Jessica Levinson, associate clinical professor at Loyola Law School. CBS/KCAL political reporter Dave Bryan moderates. Wed. Noon. Free. NCJW/LA Council House, 543 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 852-8503. ncjwla.org.

“Mapping Jewish Los Angeles”

Wonder what Jewish Los Angeles was like more than a century ago? Go back in time with Karen Wilson, Kahn Research Fellow with the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies. Her “Mapping Jewish Los Angeles,” a five-year initiative to create a multimedia digital archive of Jewish Los Angeles, will allow users to “drill down” at particular places throughout the city — for example, Pico-Robertson in the 1950s or Boyle Heights in the 1920s. Wilson shares the first exhibits of this intriguing project — examining the history of Boyle Heights, an East L.A. neighborhood where Jews were once the majority ethnic group, from 1884 to the present. Wed. 4-6 p.m. Free. UCLA Campus, Young Research Library, Los Angeles. (310) 267-5327. cjs.ucla.edu

[FRI DEC 7]

“Who Bombed Judi Bari?”

On May 24, 1990, environmental activist Judi Bari and an eco-cohort were car-bombed on their way to a demonstration to save California’s redwood trees. Director Mary Liz Thomson’s documentary — the only film to come with a $50,000 reward, for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the bomber — chronicles the still-unsolved case, the FBI’s refusal to investigate the incident, the agency’s arrest of the victims of the bombing and the victims’ successful First Amendment lawsuit against the federal government. Fri. Various times. $11 (general), $8 (children under 12, seniors). Laemmle’s NoHo 7, 5240 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. (310) 478-3836. laemmle.com.

Human Rights Shabbat 2012

Synagogues throughout North America commemorate the intersection of Jewish values and universal human rights as part of an initiative organized by Rabbis for Human Rights, which advocates for the rights of all people. Participating congregations and communities include American Jewish University, Beth Chayim Chadashim, Beth Shir Shalom, B’nai Horin: Children of Freedom-Los Angeles, IKAR, Kehillat Israel, Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center, Temple B’nai Hayim and Temple Israel of Hollywood. Fri. For more information, visit rhr-na.org/resources/human-rights-shabbat.html

Conservative Cantors Converge


Several hundred cantors associated with the Conservative movement will be making beautiful music together in Los Angeles this week, even as they examine the roles of the cantor beyond that of liturgical jukebox.

The Cantors Assembly will base its annual national convention at the Universal Hilton May 11-15, with public concerts offered at Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air on Monday, May 12, and Sinai Temple in Westwood on Tuesday, May 13. Scores of local chazzanim and other musicians will participate.

While the convention will include numerous presentations on traditional and contemporary synagogue music, during the week several of the highlighted speakers will address broader issues facing congregations and the Jewish community as a whole.

Aside from the exposure to new music and techniques and the camaraderie of being with peers, one purpose of the convention is to explore the role of cantor as klei kodesh (literally, holy vessel), or clergy member, a position that transcends music-making, said Joseph Gole, senior cantor of Sinai Temple, a local co-chair of the convention.

“The cantorate today is expanding beyond music and pastoral counseling,” said convention co-chair Nathan Lam, senior cantor of Stephen S. Wise. “There’s an outside world that’s impacting on Jews, and we cantors have to be ready to deal with that world.”

Speakers include Venice-based rabbi and author Naomi Levy, whose latest book focuses on creating one’s own prayers, and Rabbi Elliot Dorff of the University of Judaism (UJ), who will discuss the upcoming debate within the Committee on Law and Standards of the Rabbinical Assembly, the Conservative rabbis’ organization, over whether openly gay and lesbian individuals can be admitted to Conservative seminaries and clergy groups; currently, they are barred.

The subject of homosexuals being accepted as students and clergy is relevant to cantors, as any decision involving rabbis covers cantorial students and cantors as well, Dorff told The Journal.

Beyond that, he said, “Cantors have gays and lesbians as members of their extended families and sometimes not-so-extended families,” and they encounter gay men and lesbians in their congregations.

Levy, who encourages readers to bring prayer into their lives in her book “Talking to God: Personal Prayers for Times of Joy, Sadness, Struggle and Celebration,” told The Journal she hopes cantors at the convention will “take the idea back that prayers doesn’t just exist in the siddur…. If we can empower our congregations to create personal prayer, it would be the greatest service we can give.”

Cantors are as important as rabbis in the formation of congregants’ prayer lives, Levy added, “since they’re the ones who express the liturgy; their impact is even greater, so it’s important to talk with them about personal prayer.”

Other prominent Los Angeles-based speakers are Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the UJ, pundit Dennis Prager and Sinai Temple’s Rabbi David Wolpe. In addition, commentator and political adviser Steven Emerson will address the convention on global terrorism.

The convention will also include a presentation by the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation and a preview of the ambitious Milken Archive of American Jewish Music, which are both locally based, and it will kick off with a program on the image of the cantor in film, which includes screenings of the original 1927 “The Jazz Singer” and the 1937 Yiddish film “The Cantor’s Son.”

Holding the convention in Los Angeles allows a greater representation of West Coast cantors than an Eastern location does, indicated convention co-chair Chayim Frenkel, cantor at Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades.

“It used to be that the ‘great cantors’ were back East,” Frenkel said. “I think Los Angeles has a rich history of chazzanut, a heritage of unbelievable cantors that goes back decades.”

The first of the two public concerts sponsored by the convention will be an extravaganza celebrating American Jewish music and music makers, with Lam as narrator. Employing a light show and video projections along with a 13-piece band and a 100-voice choir, the show will present Yiddish favorites, synagogue art music and theater pieces.

The Tuesday night concert at Sinai Temple, featuring the Los Angeles Zimriyah Chorale along with soloists, will focus on masterpieces of the cantorial literature. Frenkel said the assembly hopes to raise $250,000 to help fund scholarships at the Jewish Theological Seminary cantorial school.

For more information about the public concerts, call
Debbie Gordon at (310) 476-8561 ext. 2228 for the May 12 event or Maureen
Rosenberg at (310) 481-3235 for the May 13 concert. For information on the
convention, log on to www.cantors.org .

New Jewish Music


During Orange County’s annual “Chanukah Concert”, a corner
of Costa Mesa’s Performing Arts Center is transformed into an all-Jewish music
store featuring CDs recorded by some Reform cantors who participate in the
performance.

“They don’t have much opportunity to put their CDs up for
sale,” said Dr. Gordon Fishman of Newport Beach, who co-produces the concert
with his wife, Hannareta. She and some friends supervise sales, which this year
include works by Ruti Brier, Nancy Linder, Shula Kalir-Merton and Arie Shikler.
Also available are CDs by the Orange County Klezmers, who play at the concert
intermission.

Unlike mainstream recording artists, who count on frequent
gigs and building street credibility to win a recording and distribution
contract, the aim of these gifted artists is not about achieving commercial
success, but liturgical renewal. “The Reform litmus test is, ‘Can you sing it
in a synagogue?'” said Mark Kligman, an associate professor of Jewish
musicology at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.

“Very few are able to make money from recording,” he said,
noting that a folk artist is considered noteworthy with sales of 5,000 copies.
A rare exception is Andy Statman, who is credited with reinvigorating klezmer
music, under contract to mainstream label Sony Classical.

The cantors, like many performers still holding day jobs,
each self-produced their own recordings, though some received more help than
others. Most attempt to achieve national distribution by submitting their work
for consideration to the handful of Jewish music distributors. Distributors
receive about 300 unsolicited submissions annually, half of which are aimed at
Orthodox consumers, who by far eclipse non-Orthodox Jews in music buying,
Kligman said.

The concert audience will get a sample of the most recent
recording by Shikler, cantor of Irvine’s Congregation Shir Ha Ma’a lot. From
“Libi Ba Mizrach,” Hebrew for “My heart is in the east,” he will perform to a
reggae beat “Every Young Lion.” Onstage, as on the CD, he will be backed by the
Flying Falafel Bros., a four-man band that accompanies him for musical Shabbat
services.

The CD spans several musical styles and includes 12 numbers
from an archive of original compositions that Shikler estimates number in the
thousands. It was recorded by Irvine’s Woodland Music Productions. “It’s like a
pipe that’s open,” he explained of his music-producing flair. “Two nights ago,
I wrote four songs,” he said.

His earlier CDs, “The Torah in Song” and “Hebrew Reggae,”
are live recordings from services where the liturgy is sung to Shikler’s
arrangements.

“Most people in the Jewish world aren’t doing original
music,” said Randee Friedman, president and founder of Sounds Write Productions
Inc. of San Diego, which distributes works by 200 contemporary artists,
including New York’s Debbie Friedman and Albuquerque’s Rabbi Joe Black.

Ruti Brier, cantorial soloist with Irvine’s University
Synagogue, in May released her first CD, “Shabbat Alive,” which she co-produced
with Sam Glazer, a well-known Jewish music producer in Los Angeles. She sings
the Friday night prayers to a blend of jazz, pop-klezmer and Mideastern
melodies. Even without a distributor, 800 copies of “Shabbat Alive” have sold,
Brier said. She is considering an English-language CD next.

Nancy Linder, of Westminster’s Temple Beth Emet, recorded
“My Favorite Hebrew Songs,” and “Songs of the Jewish Spirit.” She is finishing
work in a Fountain Valley studio on a third CD, tentatively titled “Simchat
Shabbat.”

Among the lot, the most ambitious CD was made by Shula
Kalir-Merton, cantor for Aliso Viejo’s Temple Beth El. She commissioned new
compositions from Cantor Meir Finkelstein, Craig Taubman and Cantor Alan
Weiner. Its title song, “Don’t Ask Me to Leave You,” was written by the late Ami
Aloni, who was to produce the recording. The rest are well-known Israeli songs
with unusual arrangements. She recorded at a Los Angeles studio with full
orchestral arrangements.

“It was a labor of love all the way,” said Kalir-Merton, who
received financial help from an anonymous donor. “I didn’t want it to be
half-baked. I love music. It’s poetry. I wanted the magnitude of the passion to
come out.”

In two years, she has sold 500 CDs. All proceeds go to the
synagogue.

“That was my commitment to the donor. I have stuck to it
religiously,” she said.  

The Sound of Cantors


For Shannon McGrady Bane, the music of the High Holidays had always welled up into a transcendent, life-changing event. Raised a Methodist, she found the theology of Judaism a better intellectual fit while attending college. There, a rabbi asked her to sing the holiday repertoire.

“It opened up another world for me,” said McGrady Bane, 37, a cantorial soloist at La Mirada’s Temple Beth Ohr, who converted to Judaism and is working on completing her cantorial education.

For many Jews who make an annual pilgrimage to synagogue only during the High Holidays, it is cantors who summon a spiritual experience. “The key that opens the soul is music, not words,” said Shula Kalir-Merton, cantor of Aliso Viejo’s Temple Beth El.

Cantors believe most congregants revel in hearing the repetition of the familiar, traditional chants sung exclusively on High Holidays. Even so, like any performer with a captive audience, some cantors use the showcase to experiment, introducing fresh arrangements of traditional melodies as well as popular ones by contemporary composers.

“This is the high point for cantors; it’s very high drama,” said Cantor Linda Ecker of Fountain Valley’s Congregation B’nai Tzedak. This year, her repertoire of prayers set to music will include three original pieces composed by congregant Ted Bach.

Today, the liturgical music of Conservative and Reform congregations are a blend of traditional melodies, Germanic and high-church in quality, along with others sung in a contemporary-folk style familiar to fans of Bob Dylan, but also popularized among cantors by the late Israeli rabbi, Shlomo Carlebach. For congregants in their 20s and 30s, however, a reliance solely on classical European melodies is a playlist for discontent. “It doesn’t mesh with our spirituality,” said Rabbi Elie Spitz, of Tustin’s Congregation B’nai Israel. After doing without a cantor for 21 years, the synagogue hired Cantor Marcia Tilchin, who appreciates both genres.

Tilchin, along with another newcomer, Svetlana Portnyansky, increase the ranks of women cantors locally to seven. While the Orthodox movements still do not permit women clergy, even in the Reform and Conservative movements it’s only been in the last 25 years that women could officially become cantors. Entrenched attitudes, however, erode even slower. Only in recent years, as old-timers in synagogue leadership are succeeded by baby boomers, are women cantors gaining acceptance, said Abraham B. Shapiro, executive administrator of New York’s Cantors Assembly, the 538-member professional group for Conservative cantors.

The very different backgrounds and training of the new cantors, both hired by Conservative synagogues, illustrate the national shortage of Jewish clergy, a phenomenon true of other religions, too. Their differences also provide a window into the sensitive subject of cantorial professionalism. Many congregations, especially in the Western states, rely on cantors who lack academic credentials. Instead, they learn the distinctive prayer chants in apprenticeships by studying at the elbow of mentor cantors.

The reasons range from geography to historical precedent to regulatory reluctance. In addition, new synagogues are outpacing new graduates, said Cantor Israel Goldstein, director of the School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which graduated 12 cantors this year. The Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) installed nine more as cantors in 2002. Both New York schools are no more than 50 years old.

“Very few congregations would employ rabbis who are not ordained,” Goldstein said. To avoid constitutional conflicts, unlike in other professions, states largely avoid establishing professional standards for clergy.

Portnyansky, 37, named permanent cantor of Newport Beach’s Temple Isaiah, is more accurately called a cantorial soloist since she lacks a diploma or certification by a professional group. A conservatory-trained vocalist, she discovered sacred music in 1988 when the Moscow Jewish Theater reopened 40 years after its closure by Stalin. In 1991, she defected, ditching the Russian music group she toured with in the United States. Though not fluent in Hebrew, Portnyansky auditioned to be accepted by JTS, singing Ukranian folk songs. “They took me,” she said. “I was almost illegal.”

After transferring to Los Angeles’ University of Judaism (said to be considering starting a cantorial program) and taking private lessons, she started working part time as a cantorial soloist in 1994. She continues secular concert work, too. During the holidays, Portnyansky, who lives in Woodland Hills, intends to tinker little with what people expect. She may anyway. “You can improvise from your heart,” she said.

Conversely, Tilchin, 41, a JTS graduate, prays in a traditional style. “I’m like the old guys murmuring with a couple of great, grand pieces thrown in,” said Tilchin, who studied and worked in theater before enrolling in cantorial school in 1992. Given a choice of secular jobs, hers would be country music singer.

“We’re looking for a different kind of music experience than we were in the old days,” she said, when High Holiday soloists sung prayers as operatic arias. Today, she said, “97 percent of the people don’t know the meaning of the prayers. It’s the tune that makes you feel like you’re having a spiritual experience.”

She sees her job as communal cheerleader engaging congregants rather than one defined by the limelight.

The county’s only other invested cantor is Jonathan Grant of Newport Beach’s Temple Bat Yahm.

Historically, only congregations of 600 families or more could afford two full-time clergy. Nationally, cantors — who earn less than rabbis — average $92,500 annually, according to the University of Akron’s Department of Statistics, which surveyed Cantors Assembly members in 2000. The highest paid were in the West, averaging $97,000.

To accommodate second-career students and help address the cantor shortage, the cantorial schools and their movements’ respective professional groups established a certification process. Cantorial soloists can demonstrate their competency during a five-year period. Just four cantorial soloists a year succeed, said Goldstein, of HUC-JIR’s cantorial school.

One who did is Ecker, who graduated in 1998, having sung at the temple’s first service in September 1976. “By the time it opened up to women, I was already married” and established professionally as a senior accountant at UCI’s Medical Center, she said.

“There are more and more untraditional students that the college should start looking at,” argues Cantor Evan Kent, director of cantorial music at HUC-JIR’s Los Angeles campus, which this September will start offering some undergraduate education classes geared to returning students.

The certification process is harder than attending graduate school. “Because when you are in school, you’re tested as you go,” said McGrady Bane, who is working toward certification by taking Judaic studies at HUC-JIR. Passing the cantorial certification requires successfully taking two exams a year apart. “It’s a lot of information to have at your ready,” she said.

McGrady Bane said she loves the music of the High Holidays. “It’s always been my favorite season, because the music is so stirring, majestic and passionate.”

She is using a new piece this year that evokes those emotions; a choral and trumpet piece written for the 134th Psalm by contemporary composer Charles Feldman. “It’s grand. It’s very majestic. It’ll start the new year off right.”

The Music Men


Move over Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo and Jose Carreras.

The Three Jewish Tenors are coming to the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa next month, accompanied by the Pacific Symphony Orchestra.

Cantors David Propis, Alberto Mizrahi and David Katz — all of major U.S. congregations — will perform cantorial classics, arias and showtunes. They’re equally at home on the operatic stage as the bimah: Mizrahi has understudied for Pavarotti, Propos’ 1998 Carnegie Hall debut was dubbed "stunning" by The New York Times, and Katz received standing ovations for his starring role in "La Boheme."

The goal of the March 14 concert, presented by the Jewish Community Center of Orange County (JCC), is to raise more than $100,000 to benefit the JCC and participating Jewish organizations. It also aims to bring Jewish music out of the synagogue and into the concert hall: "We’re trying to elevate the work in a way that makes it more accessible to a cross-generational public," says Chicago-based Mizrahi.

The Three Jewish Tenors began during a round of golf between sessions of a cantorial convention in Chicago in 1993. Propis, Mizrahi and Katz’s predecessor, Cantor Meir Finkelstein, were puttering around the course while harmonizing Yiddish songs and snippets of the Verdi opera, "Rigoletto."

The Houston cantor flashed back to the concert his renowned father, Dov Propis, had performed with fellow cantor-opera singers Jan Peerce and Richard Tucker. It was the 1950s — the Golden Age of cantorial music — a time when Tucker and Peerce regularly appeared with symphony orchestras and received the enthusiasm usually reserved for secular stars.

Propis’ mind then flashed forward to the early 1990s, when The Three Tenors — Pavarotti, Domingo and Carreras — had become classical music’s hottest ticket. The opera stars were selling out concert halls and inspiring copycats such as the Three Irish Tenors and the Three Mo’ Tenors.

The light bulb went off inside Propis’ head. "I thought, ‘If they can do it, why can’t we?’" he recalls. "Why not The Three Jewish Tenors?"

The cantor was so sure of his idea that he went for broke — literally — when proposing the act as a fundraiser for his Conservative shul. "I basically pledged my salary for a year if we didn’t make a profit," says Propis, who was vindicated when a 1995 concert with members of Houston’s Symphony Orchestra netted $120,000. In 1996, another Houston concert sold out a month before the performance and raised $350,000.

Concert proceeds from this stop on the tenors’ national tour will benefit the JCC transition fund to the new Samueli Jewish Campus to be built in Irvine, according to David Goldberg, JCC development director.

Propis hopes it will also build some Jewish pride. "After every concert, people tell me how proud they feel to be Jewish," he says. "Having Jewish music in a symphony hall setting gives a new kind of legitimation to Jewish music, and says it can compete with the best."

For tickets ($20-$65) and information about a preconcert reception and dinner, call (714) 755-0340, ext. 123.