Behind the Music: The Wedding Singer

In the 1998 hit comedy "The Wedding Singer," the eponymous character was a nice Jewish boy named Robbie. At the Sept. 2 Century City Park Hyatt reception of 30-something newlyweds Daphna Ghozland and David Hollander, the wedding singer is a nice Jewish boy named Robbie. True, the latter — singer/pianist/bandleader Robbie Helperin — will occasionally perform the odd ’80s pop song with his Simcha Orchestra as Adam Sandler did in the movie, but that’s where the parallels end, or at least, that’s where Helperin would like them to end.

"It was kind of painful to watch," Helperin said of the movie that immortalized his profession as a "Loserville" populated by "creepy musicians," in his words.

But this 39-year-old Jewish band performer doesn’t see his job that way. "Part of my drive has been to dispel the stigma of the job by making it as phenomenal as it can be," Helperin said.

The job of a wedding singer is unlike that of other musicians, like a rock star or concert pianist, because a successful wedding band is one that you notice — and one you don’t. It’s the soundtrack of your wedding, but it’s also the background music.

"I want people to be comfortable speaking," Helperin said. "I don’t want to be the kind of performer that takes away from the bride and groom. At the same time, you need to be control. You say as little as possible but as much as you need to get the job done."

While Ghozland, a psychologist, and Hollander, an optometrist, helped Helperin narrow down the song list for their Labor Day wedding, they trusted Helperin enough to let him choose most of the material.

"Robbie’s very organized, which certainly helped," Hollander said. "I told him I wanted to dance all night. I didn’t want any rap. Basically dance music from the ’70s and ’80s."

At his Beverly Hills office, Helperin has binders filled with music culled from dozens of cultures. He uses the latest computer software to keep clients and schedules meticulously organized and cross-referenced.

For the big fat Jewish wedding, Helperin offers a wide variety of styles: Klezmer, Moroccan, Yemenite, Persian, Israeli Folk, Chasidic, Yiddish, Musica Mizrachit, modern Jewish rock, modern Jewish funk and modern Jewish disco.

"Most Jews are exposed to a very tiny percentage of the Jewish music out there," Helperin said.

Ghozland also needed some French standards to entertain her father’s Algerian-French side. The Simcha Orchestra offered "La Vie En Rose," the Moroccan tune "Porom Pom Pero" and, for the father-daughter dance, "Under Paris Skies" — all sung in French.

Helperin was a 24-year-old aspiring pop star who counted James Taylor and Billy Joel as inspirations when he joined the Simcha Orchestra, which was founded 20 years ago by Jerry Katz, a guitarist who had once performed with Shlomo Carlebach. "At the time, I had hair down to my shoulders," Helperin said, "Jerry asked, ‘You a musician?’ I said, ‘Yes.’"

Over time, Helperin’s role within the band expanded. After Katz made aliyah to Israel, Helperin inherited the Simcha Orchestra on June 5, 1993.

"The same day the business became mine was the day I got married," Helperin said. But he and the band didn’t perform at his own wedding. "My wife told me to take the day off."

With a wife to support and the details of his rapidly growing endeavor to oversee, Helperin put aside his pop-singer dreams. Under Helperin’s leadership, the Simcha Orchestra amassed a roster of musicians who have performed with Frank Sinatra, Neil Diamond and Woody Herman, and have played for Steven Spielberg, Bob Dylan and Quincy Jones.

The band’s present lineup includes guitarist Tom Bethke, bassist Chris Haller, Bob Faust on trumpet, Joel Lish on viola and singer Sareet Atias. Drummer Jay Setar has been with the band since the early 1980s. Recent additions include cellist Jan Kellie, trombonist Rob Kaufman, and violinist Jonathan Dysart.

Percussionist Jeff Stern — a Burbank resident who recently played at "Hallelu" and has worked with Craig Taubman, Sam Glaser and Debbie Friedman — had his very first Jewish gig under Katz’s Simcha Orchestra.

Woodwindist Geoff Nudell, who reconnected with junior high school pal Helperin six years ago, admitted that he does not get too sentimental doing weddings and b’nai mitzvah. "It’s a job. I don’t mean to sound callous, but I don’t have any emotional commitment," Nudell said.

Some gigs can be trying, especially religious weddings, which can demand long, uninterrupted performances from the band.

"The schedule is such so that there’s continuous music and intensity," said Nudell, who has played bass clarinet for the TV series "Monk" and on the "Undercover Brother" soundtrack. "Typically, the average hora is 30-45 minutes nonstop, so that can be taxing."

Helperin still dreams of returning to his original singer-songwriter aspirations. But for now, he has a wife, a 4-year-old boy and a 9-month-old girl to provide for.

"I really like what I do," Helperin said of leading the Simcha Orchestra. "It’s got a little element of everything I ever loved about music — I get to orchestrate and arrange, conduct, I get to sing, I get to make people happy. The only thing I miss is the songwriting. I’m still looking forward to getting back to that one day."

The Oldest Diary

There is something otherworldly about the experience of a Bar or Bat Mitzvah. It is perhaps the preeminent spiritual-cultural paradox in all of Jewish life. When girls and boys focus so intensely on this personal lifecycle event, each possesses a transcendent, timeless and eternal quality.

I was reminded of this recently as I was sitting in my study helping a young girl work on her speech a few weeks before her Bat Mitzvah. We began talking about her upcoming Bat Mitzvah and how it made her feel about being Jewish, how she might describe her own Jewish identity and her place in the history of the Jewish people.

In order to put into words exactly how she saw her relationship to the Torah and the passing down of Jewish tradition, she told me the following story: “Imagine that my parents and I decided to research our family history, and we discovered that my great-great-great-grandmother had lived her whole life in a small village in Russia. When we discovered that this same small village still exists today, we decided to take a trip to see where my great-great-great-grandmother lived.

“When we got there, it looked like it hadn’t changed in 200 years, and we began to explore the small, crowded streets. Suddenly, we stumbled upon the very house in which my great-great-great-grandmother had lived. When we knocked on the door, an old woman came and asked us what we wanted. We told her – through our interpreter, of course – that she was living in the exact same house that my great-great-great-grandmother had lived in and we were curious to see what it was like. She immediately invited all of us into her home.

“While my parents were busy talking to the woman, I walked in to explore another room. As I looked around, I noticed that one of the floor boards was loose, so I pulled it up and discovered a very, very, very old and dusty book. I grabbed the book and ran back in to show my parents. The woman who lived there took the book from me and began to read it.

“She told me that it seemed as if I had actually found my great-great-great-grandmother’s diary. Here were stories all about how she lived, what she thought about and what her dreams were for the future.”Imagine how incredibly excited I was to find this book. It was the most amazing thing I had ever owned, and I was thrilled to be able to read all about my own ancestor’s life. Who wouldn’t want to find a remarkable diary like that?”

“And Rabbi Reuben,” said the young girl, “that is how I feel about my Bat Mitzvah. When you hand the Torah from my grandparents to my parents and then me, it will be just like I’m getting the oldest family diary that has ever been found. Like I am saying to everyone, ‘This is now my story, too.'”

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses recites the final poem that he has written in his diary. He begins this poetic conclusion to the entire Torah by challenging us to recognize that the words and laws, commandments and ethical foundation of the Torah “isn’t a trifling thing for you, it is your very life.” Indeed, at this most sacred season of the Jewish year, our real challenge is to figure out each day how to make the precious inheritance which is our own Torah wisdom a meaningful part of our everyday lives. Then, says Moses, we will long endure on the earth, and the world will be a more sacred and holy place because we are in it.

Steven Carr Reuben is senior rabbi of Kehillat Israel, the Reconstructionist congregation of Pacific Palisades.

To the Graduates

I can’t remember a word spoken by Ira Goldstein, the Plainview (NY) High School valedictorian, Class of 1965, but I’m sure his graduation address was brilliant. Ira, who apparently was in the Philosophy Club with me for three now-forgotten years, was the most brilliant boy in a class of brilliant boys. Girls were “smart” or “sweet” in those days; boys were “brilliant.”

“The difficult he does quickly; the impossible takes a little longer” was written under Ira’s school photo. He was destined for greatness, but I never heard about him again. I used to follow him home from school, padding along behind him since he lived around the corner from me. I can’t remember a word he said.Still, I miss him terribly. I know this sounds insane, but 35 years later I think I’m finally ready for high school. Having worked on my self-esteem for three decades, I’d finally be capable of talking to Ira about things that matter. Leslie Wiletzky, who had been a god to us girls as sophomore class president the year after I moved from the city to the suburbs, would no longer intimidate me either. I’m even ready for Bob Dickman (Fencing, Honor Society, Russian Magazine) now. And what about Allen Kranz, sports editor? I can still fake interest in football, if that’s how the game is played.

Yes, now I’m ready for high school. I’m confident I can enter the girls’ room on my own now, without a bodyguard. I’m not afraid of those “Leader of the Pack” gang girls with their teased hair and stiletto nails, though I still dream about them and break into a sweat.

The first time around, none of my outfits were good enough, and the fashion police in the sorority crowd had real fun snickering at my plaid skirts. I didn’t own a single Orlon sweater, let alone a twin set! These days, I’m an adult and wear jeans. But just in case I relapse into self-doubt, it’s good to know that I can have all the sweater sets I want – and in Lycra – since my mother no longer co-signs my charge card! I can afford my own Kate Spade bag, too, if I want one. You can’t be too well-armed against peer pressure.What a wuss I was. I hated lunch hour, spent writing morose poetry and trying on shades of lipstick, even though my best friend at the time, Diane Cobert, swore in my yearbook that we had endless fun. “I can still remember that first day in Caf 2A eating spaghetti,” she wrote in my yearbook. “Ever since it’s been a ball.”

What an actor I must have been. Everyone, it seems, admired my sense of humor. I burned my hair during the National Honor Society candle lighting ceremony. What a joke! David Don, however, took me seriously.

“Despite your liberal tendencies, you’re still OK,” he said. See, it began early.No matter what they say in the Plainview Gull, I was totally unhappy, and I mean every single day. Paul Kornreich (Chess, German Club) had the right idea. “Whenever you’re feeling gay,” he wrote, “just remember the miserable times we had in history; that will cure you.”

I made it look good, I guess, as did we all. I don’t remember my public speaking class, but Barry Aaronoff insists I alone made it endurable for him. “The only good spot of the period was you.” He never said a word to me, I swear it.

It’s no wonder that it took so long for the pain to ebb. We were just kids, hurting each other mercilessly in preparation for the real world, which has been kind in comparison. That’s why I’d like once again to look into Barry Aaronoff’s eyes.

“You wrote ‘I’ll never forget,'” I’d tell him, pointing to his own handwriting. “Did you?”

Since I’m on the topic of high school graduation, it’s not too early to address the college road ahead. Inspired by Maria Shriver’s best-selling “Ten Things I Wish I’d Known – Before I Went Out Into the Real World,” here are the first “Four Things I Wish I’d Known – Before I Went to That Hare Krishna Meeting” (with more to follow soon):

1) Learn who you are: Many people think college is the time to experience alienation, to respect other cultures more than your own and to bust the rules. Fine, but rebellion gets tiresome. Plan to take a Jewish studies course. There’s more to our tradition than your Bar/Bat Mitzvah. Your non-Jewish roommate may know more about religion than you do. 2) Get a support system: You may think Hillel is square, but come the High Holidays, you’ll be glad it’s there. Keep the number posted. Use It. 3) Watch out for loneliness. Suicidal thoughts and depression are too common among freshmen. Don’t be macho. Call home. Light candles. Keep your spiritual life alive. Get a subscription to your hometown Jewish newspaper. 4) Satisfy your curiosity, but don’t forget to come home. Of course you may want to date non-Jews.

But then get smart and see Rule 1): Learn who you are.Meanwhile, has anyone seen Ira Goldstein?

Marlene Adler Marks is senior columnist of The Jewish Journal. Her e-mail address is

A Better Strategy

History never precisely repeats itself. I was cleaning up after dinner the other evening when I heard my daughter, Samantha, now nearly 17, on the phone; she was talking with a guy named Vinnie.

“Vinnie?” I said, as she hung up. “I think we should be focusing on Jewish guys now, don’t you?”

“He’s a friend, Mom,” said Samantha.

And to my surprise, I let it go at that because I wasn’t sure what else to do.

I had had my own Vinnie when I was just about Samantha’s age: an Elvis look-alike, down to the huge, dark pompadour over his forehead. I thought he was earthy and exotic, exciting, if not dangerous. He worked in the gas station across the street from the bakery where I did the afternoon shift. I could see him, and his black leather jacket with the turned-up collar, through the window, as he washed windshields and pumped fuel. It made the hours fly by.

Vinnie was a secret. I told him never to call me at home. I knew that a trial awaited me if Vinnie’s existence was revealed. Yes, a trial, literally speaking. Our dinner table would convene as night court. I would present my own lawyerly defense of Vinnie, citing my rights as a free woman in America to explore the vast terrain of good-looking guys before I settled down with a nice Jewish man. But the court would not be moved, and, eventually, I would burst into angry tears. Before I could finish presenting my logic and my evidence, my parents would invoke the name of my grandfather, who, they promised, would sit shiva for me if I married “out.” Truly, I was lost.

Now that I’m a mother myself, I understand my parents’ concern. I, too, hope that my daughter will marry a Jewish man, and for most of the same reasons. The best of those reasons remains that it is easier for a husband and wife to get along in the storm-tossed seas of marriage if their values, beliefs and rituals are similar. Though opposites do attract, intermarriage remains a hard business, at times requiring the suppressing of spiritual growth of both parties. A parent can argue, without a trace of ethnocentrism or paranoia, that a marriage and a home life organized around Judaism’s ethical principles, its calendar, Shabbat, and its love and concern for family harmony has a wonderful future going for it.

And, yet, I don’t want to guilt-trip my daughter, either, since that would certainly backfire.

What to do?

Just a few days after the call from Vinnie, I saw a newspaper advertisement paid for by the New York branch of the Conservative movement. The ad was selling, of all things, the benefits of Jews marrying Jews. And the ad’s tone was, with but one exception, so balanced, so smart, that it can only help those who, like me, are struggling for the right strategy on this ticklish issue.

“When You Tie the Knot, Don’t Break the Chain,” the ad’s headline read. And then it went on to make the common-sense argument that marrying a Jew is good for you. Here’s a line or two that I liked:

“If you were born Jewish, the rich and remarkable heritage that is Judaism is yours. All that is wonderful, all that is joyful, all that is sacred in Judaism belongs to you and to those who come after you.”

This ad is quite a distance from the “your grandfather will sit shiva” approach of a generation ago. In fact, the ad succeeds, I believe, because it captures the way many of us — especially those who are now parents — regard Jewish life today: “wonderful,” “joyful” and “sacred.” We are committed to community, to raising Jewish children, and to providing the spiritual and educational experiences that will be of lasting value in our children’s lives.

Yet, strangely enough, though we are much more fully engaged in Judaism than we ever expected to be when we got married, many of us parents are still “laid back,” hesitant to force Judaism upon our children where their own future marriages are concerned. We want them to choose it naturally, as we did.

But maybe saying nothing is as bad as saying too much. Maybe our children need to know what is expected of them, and that we’re looking to them to keep the faith, indeed.

To be candid, I’m not thrilled with the ad’s declaration that “interfaith marriage dilutes Jewish identity and removes future generations from the Jewish fold” — since this is not provable and disregards the great contribution of Jews by Choice toward the very renewal so many of us are enjoying. I think the attack on intermarriage is ill-considered and wrong.

Nevertheless, with that exception, it’s a relief to hear the other words, which break the ice and encourage parents and children to discuss marriage and Jewish family life in a new and thoughtful way.

“Don’t be a weak link in a chain that has proven unbreakable for more than 5,000 years,” says the ad. “Marriage within the faith. It really does matter.” That’s the point, indeed.

Join Marlene Adler Marks, senior editor of The Jewish Journal, this Sunday morning at the Skirball Cultural Center when her “Conversations” guest will be Los Angeles historian Mike Davis. Her e-mail address is wmnsvoice@aol.comHer book, “A Woman’s Voice” is available through>