From Broadway to cantor, Mike Stein competes on NBC’s ‘The Voice’

Chazzan Mike Stein never really considered himself a singer, but rather, he said, an instrumentalist who sings. But when an agent called and invited him to audition for the upcoming seventh season of NBC’s TV hit singing competition “The Voice,” something within him that had lain dormant since his teen years on the Broadway stage was ignited once again. 

“I don’t think that I would have done it if somebody hadn’t approached me. Up until the day of the audition, I thought, ‘Why am I doing this?’ My wife and sons are the ones who said, ‘Dad, you should do this for yourself.’ ”

And they were right, Stein, 62, admits now: “There is a deep sense of satisfaction in this business that you can’t get anywhere else. It’s a totally different kind of satisfaction than what I get being a cantor — it’s total ego, and I really enjoyed every minute.”  

Bound by contractual silence, in a recent interview Stein, a Grammy winner and, since 2000, chazzan at the Conservative Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, had to tip-toe around sharing any stories of his TV experience. He is the first cantor to appear on the show — there have been a few music ministers, and a nun once won the “Voice” competition in Italy. Stein entered into the process openly displaying his affiliation, he said. “I was representing the Jewish people. I insisted that I could wear a yarmulke, and I talked about being Jewish a lot, in almost every interview.” At his first audition, Stein sang Romemu from the Friday night service, and he added a yodel to it. “I just want to be the Matisyahu [Jewish rapper] of country music,” Stein said with a laugh.

Stein has been singing since he was a young boy growing up in New York. One of his favorite things was going to the synagogue and listening to his cantor sing in the classical chazzanut style. In third grade, Stein started to play the violin and later picked up the guitar when the Beatles came to America. Even though his mother was a pianist and his great-uncle was the famous Broadway-musicals composer Jule Styne (“Funny Girl,” “Gypsy”), his parents weren’t supportive of his passion. “My parents didn’t want me to be a singer or actor, anything in the entertainment business — for them, that was a failure. The older actors on Broadway that I met became my surrogate parents; they adopted me. … Later, I learned from this, and that’s why my children have 300 percent of my support in the arts,” said Stein. 

At 16, he entered Queens College, majoring in drama. He soon left to pursue a career in acting. It was really tough; he recalled living in a condemned building on the Lower East Side, selling everything in order to eat and sweeping floors in hopes of landing some kind of opportunity. Stein’s first break on Broadway came as part of the chorus in the rock opera “Soon.” Then, at 19, he landed a spot in the original cast of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and toured in the original road show of the rock opera “Tommy.” Then his journey took a detour. 

“I felt that all the things I was doing on Broadway were amazing, but they didn’t have the substance for me. I left my career and went to live on a farm in Pennsylvania with my girlfriend, and we lived like hippies and grew our own food,” he said.

Eventually, Stein moved back to civilization and landed in Washington, D.C., doing street theater, entertaining people as they waited in lines for museums. It was there that he met his wife, Shelley (a trained opera singer); they married and started a family. (They now have three very musically talented, now-adult sons — Jacob, Justin and Jared — and a family band called the “Rolling Steins.”)

While in D.C., Stein also auditioned for the United States Navy Band, which needed a fiddle player at the time. Stein played with that band for 17 years, including numerous concerts at the White House, performing for four presidents, as well as around the world. 

In the mid 1980s, Stein attended a Jewish music festival, where he met Cantor Arnold Saltzman, which turned out to be a pivotal moment in his life. He went on to study with Saltzman, and soon after answered an ad for a synagogue looking for a cantor on Friday nights — Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Md. That’s where his career as a cantor got its start, and he moved from there to Temple Aliyah in 2000. 

“Being a cantor is an amazing privilege,” Stein said. “I try to help people find another entrance into the synagogue through music. It helps them look at Judaism as something that they can participate in. … I enjoy being invited into people’s lives, in all stages of life, and being entrusted with their emotions.” 

With the High Holy Days just around the corner, Stein noted, “It’s a great time. When I start on the first night, that first phrase that I sing in front of the ark emotionally opens me up in a place of awe and thankfulness. I work hard [at] not letting it feel like pressure, like work; and it is work. We do avodah — avodah is worship, and it’s the same word for work. Yom Kippur feels like a marathon, because I am very weak by the end; it’s hard.”

A few days before the holidays begin, Stein will be getting another call from “The Voice,” this one to let him know when his performances will be airing during the premiere week of Sept. 22. 

Being on “The Voice,” he said, “gave me a lot of confidence and made me realize that I am worth a lot more than I think I am. It made me feel that I have so much to give, and people are ready to listen and accept what I have to give. … It gave me a big lift.” 

Good luck, Chazzan Stein. We’ll be watching. 

Learning how to respond to sin

“For there is not a righteous man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not.” (Kohellet, 7:20)

Everyone has their moments of failure, when they transgress. Not necessarily out of malice, but in response to temptation or opportunity or out of fear. Rarely do we see such failures play out in the kind of paradoxically public and intimate way, as the way we have seen failures in our community play out over these past 2 weeks. As a result of these transgression and failures, we have lost trust in a longtime community vendor whose products used to grace our Shabbat tables.  And many feel uneasy — or worse — about our local Kashrut agency that left a gaping hole in its supervision and which, in the opinion of some, has neither apologized sufficiently for its role in what happened, nor explained what specific measures it will take to prevent this sort of breach from happening again.  We have been confused by some of the words and deeds of community rabbis, and become unsure of who and what we should believe. It has been an awful couple of weeks in our community, and for all we know, the story is still not over. But it is already the right time to think about how we will respond spiritually and mortally to what has happened, so that this not become an episode that was filled with sound and fury but ultimately signified nothing. And so that we can emerge from this story as a stronger and better community. 

I’ll suggest two appropriate and necessary responses, one that is personal to each of us, and one that is more communal in nature. There’s a Talmudic story about Rabbi Yannai who was approached by the members of his community and was asked to render a Halachik ruling concerning a privately-owned tree whose branches had grown beyond the private domain, and which were now obstructing the passage of people and goods in the public domain. Curiously, Rabbi Yannai told the parties that that he could not rule just yet, but that they should return the next day. When they reconvened on the morrow, Rabbi Yannai ruled unequivocally that the tree needed to be removed.  “Ah”, the tree’s owner quickly responded. “Do you Rabbi Yannai not yourself have a tree whose branches extend into the public domain?” “Indeed so”, the sage replied, “but go out and see. If mine is still there, then you may keep yours there. But if I have cut mine down, than you must cut yours down as well”. Rabbi Yannai’s first response to the communal controversy was to examine himself, and his own degree of sensitivity to the community’s needs. Which led him, during the intervening night, to go out and remove his own tree.

Without excusing or justifying the bad and the questionable behavior that has come to light over the past weeks, personal introspection is one of the right and proper responses to it. The integrity of our outrage at others, for their having betrayed our trust and having acted behind our backs, is measured by our willingness to engage in self-reckoning, and to recognize that we too have not yet perfected ourselves in these areas. We all make promises that we don’t fully keep, and act differently when we think that no one is looking.  Similarly, the meaningfulness of our criticism that others did too much circling of the wagons and not enough forthright admission of fault, is completely tied to our willingness to search for evidence of the same tendency within ourselves – and none of us can claim that we’ve never acted similarly.

For there is not a righteous man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not.

And there is also a way to respond on a communal level. There is a level of consciousness and commitment that all of us together need to expect and demand from everyone who serves the Jewish community in any capacity. For inspiration we can look to the “Hineni” prayer recited by the chazzan on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur. The chazzan describes his fear and trembling as he stands before the Divine Judge. But the text makes clear that his fear and trembling is also the result of his consciousness that he is a public servant. “Do not hold them accountable for my sins; do not condemn them for my transgressions”, he says.  He realizes that he has undertaken a literally awesome responsibility in agreeing to represent the community, in assuming the role of “klei kodesh”, of a holy instrument who facilitates Israel’s encounter with God. And his greatest fear is that, even inadvertently, he might cause material or spiritual harm to the community he is serving. This level of consciousness and this degree of commitment represent the baseline that we must expect from anyone and everyone who takes it upon him or herself to serve the Jewish community.

And yes, this is an extremely rarefied expectation, and a very high baseline. But they are the very ones which explain the otherwise deeply puzzling story of God’s decision to bar Moshe from entry into the land over Moshe’s seemingly minor infraction of striking the rock. As Rambam explains, the community’s need for water in the desert was legitimate. And Moshe’s chastising them as “rebels”, and with the accumulated frustration of forty years, crashing his staff –  the symbol of his Divine appointment – upon the rock, was inappropriate, hurtful, and an abuse of his role as a communal leader, which is to say, as a communal servant. And to this day, everyone who takes on the role of klei kodesh walks in Moshe’s gigantic footsteps. 

As connected and involved Jews, we each make a myriad of Jewish-living decisions and choices daily. And the unfortunate events of the past two weeks have presented us with an invaluable opportunity to express, through our choices, the expectation that anyone who serves our community – whether as a rabbi or as a baker, as a school administrator or a butcher, as a chazzan or as a board member – possess the awesome consciousness that he or she is a “klei kodesh”, and function with the absolute commitment to, above all else, never bring material or spiritual harm to the community. Please don’t think that you can’t have an impact. Right now, more than any time I can remember in the life of this community, terms like “preserving trust”, and “the need for transparency” carry a power than no one can ignore. Collectively, we can make something good happen.

My Dad told me a story on his deathbed, a story he had never told me before. In the mid-70’s,  as a professional social worker, he was the director of a Federation storefront, charged with servicing the needs of the Soviet Jews who were coming to the Rockaways in large numbers at that time. By the mid-80’s the immigration had slowed to a trickle. An influential board member suggested that my father manipulate the numbers, to obscure the reality that the clientele had sharply decreased in size. But my Dad wouldn’t do it. Because he knew he had been entrusted with the Jewish community’s funds and resources, and now they were better placed elsewhere. And he closed the service center, and at age fifty-something, he looked for a new job. That was the first time he had told me this story. And it was the last story he ever told me.

Nobody can — or should — paper over or minimize the awful events of the past few weeks. But we can — and must — know how to respond to them.

Pasadena temple gets Argentina’s first woman cantor

Cantor Ruth Berman Harris has been earning paychecks for leading services since she was 15, years before a cantorial school even existed in her native Buenos Aires, Argentina.

“I think it was what I was born to be,” she said. “I became a bat mitzvah, and I never left the synagogue.”

Which particular synagogue has changed over the years, though — from Argentina to Israel to the United States. In August, Harris joined Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center, a Conservative congregation serving 500 member families through campuses in Pasadena and Arcadia.

“She’s made an immediate connection,” said temple president Matt Ober. “She has experienced very different synagogues in very different places and has a keen understanding of human nature and people and what people need to be able to pray more deeply and be more connected to spirituality, and that’s what we all kind of seek.”

Harris, 40, said that she’s been influenced by each of her geographic and cultural stops on the way to Southern California.

“Who I am in the core understanding of what a cantor should be, I got it from growing up in Argentina,” she said. “The vision of the chazzan being an emissary of the congregation instead of a performer is something embedded in the fiber of who I am. We don’t perform; we daven.”

Harris said that when she began leading services in Buenos Aires as a teenager, she was the first female in the country to do so. She wasn’t ordained until 1996, after the Rabbinical Seminary of Latin America started its cantorial program.

Most congregants were supportive of having a woman as a spiritual leader, she said.

“Some people thought it was a little bizarre, but, for the most part, people were very welcoming,” she said.

After Harris moved to Israel in 1996, she studied at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem and led services at three synagogues.

Harris said her experience in Israel taught her that Hebrew is a language that is vibrant and alive. It’s a lesson that remains evident as she effortlessly sprinkles Hebrew words into everyday conversation. (No slouch when it comes to linguistics, Harris is fluent in English, Spanish and Hebrew, and can understand and sing in Yiddish and Ladino.)

Her time in Israel also connected her to Jewish culture and continuity in a very real sense.

“Israel gave me a sense of belonging to a bigger picture,” she said.

But splitting her time among three shuls made it impossible to put down roots in any one of them. So her family made the decision in 2001 to move to America, where she served congregations in Wisconsin and Arizona before coming to Pasadena.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is thrilled to have her.

“She’s amazing,” he said. “She energizes a room when she walks into it.”

Just as important, Grater said they already have established a strong partnership.

“We both believe in participatory prayer,” he said. “Our vision of prayer, of a deep and meaningful and rich prayer experience, is something that I cherish. … She can now be the voice for that.”

Already,  Harris, a mother of three, said she feels at home at the Pasadena synagogue.

“I think I’ve been preparing and growing and professionally developing to be able to arrive at this partnership, which is ultimately what I’ve always wanted,” she said.

And there’s another bonus to landing where she has.

“Looking at the beautiful mountains, it pretty much feels as close to God as I can be.”