October 17, 2018

Knowing Kaddish Helps Cantor Land TV Roles

Larry David with Kenny Ellis. Photo courtesy of Kenny Ellis via JTA.

Kenny Ellis has been a cantor for 27 years, but before he got into Jewish liturgy, he was an entertainer — and he maintains a thriving side career as an actor and singer, which will be on full display in the coming days.

Ellis, who serves Temple Beth Ami in Santa Clarita, can be seen in a pair of television roles for which he’s perfectly suited: He portrays rabbis officiating at funerals on episodes of HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and NBC’s “Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders,” airing Oct. 22 and Oct. 24, respectively.

It would be nice to get something steady. Gotta pay those college bills. –Kenny Ellis

Being able to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish gave him the inside track at his auditions, he said.

Shooting the “Curb” scene last December was a reunion of sorts, reconnecting him with Larry David, the show’s star and creator, for the first time since the late 1970s. In those days, Ellis was a young stand-up comic in New York, and he became friendly with David, Richard Lewis, Elayne Boosler and others on the circuit.

“It was a chavurah of comedians. We’d share taxis to go from the Improv to Catch a Rising Star and go to delis after to hang out,” Ellis said. “I had not seen Larry in all these years, and I wondered if he would recognize me.”

On the set, Ellis said, David “looked at me kind of strangely and said, ‘Do I know you from somewhere?’ I said yes and told him who I was. We talked about all the people that we knew. I stayed in touch with a lot of people and was able to catch him up. He was very kind to me and I was very excited about that.”

While shooting the “Law & Order” scene of the funeral of attorney Leslie Abramson’s mother, Ellis got to spend time with star Edie Falco during breaks in filming.

“We were kibitzing the whole day,” Ellis said. “I felt like I knew her all my life. A lot of actors go back to their trailers, but she hung out and ate with us. She’s a sweetheart and an amazing actress.”

Ellis discovered his love of performing as a child when he and his sisters put on shows in their Philadelphia living room to entertain their parents. He sang in synagogue choir and took part in his high school’s band, choir and musical productions.

After his graduation from Temple University with a bachelor’s degree in theater in 1974, he moved to New York with his sights set on Broadway but ended up performing in the Catskills, Miami Beach and elsewhere. Jewish organizations like Hadassah, B’nai B’rith and ORT hired him for functions. He continued to pursue stand-up comedy and acting roles when he moved west in 1978.

Ellis was president of his United Synagogue Youth chapter and first went to Israel at 16. He credits his maternal grandmother for his “love of Judaism, Jewish culture and Yiddishkayt.” But he’d never considered becoming a cantor until a rabbi heard him sing at synagogue and suggested it.

He has been the chazzan at Temple Beth Ami, a Reform congregation, for eight years, and was at Temple Beth Haverim in Agoura Hills before that. But it was his first job at Valley Outreach Synagogue where he met his wife, Laura, who was in the choir.

“We’ve been married 25 years and have two sons,” he said. Adam, 21, is a UCLA senior and Aaron, 17, is a senior at Agoura High School.

Ellis, who grew up listening to Jewish music on the radio over lox and bagels every Sunday, deejayed his own Jewish music program while at Temple University, and currently he teaches a Jewish music class one Wednesday per month at American Jewish University. He released a big band-style album called “Hanukkah Swings” in 2005 and often performs his one-man variety show locally, around the country and in Israel.

Ellis hopes more roles are in his future, especially a recurring part, perhaps as a doctor, lawyer, neighbor or another rabbi. He worked with Mark Feuerstein in a movie two years ago, playing a rabbi who ordered a kosher meal on a plane, and he’d love to appear on Feuerstein’s new sitcom, “9JKL.”

“It would be nice to get something steady,” Ellis said. “Gotta pay those college bills.”

There’s Some Good Music to Fill the Air

I was sitting in a fast-food joint last week when they piped in a pop-salsa version of “Jingle Bells.” If it had been Eddie Palmieri or Ray Barretto, I would have been fine, but this sounded like Menudo on crystal meth, and I decided I’d had enough Christmas music for the next millennium.

So I went home to a desk littered with new Chanukah CDs: surf guitar, lounge, big-band swing, alt-rock and a large helping of Allan Sherman wannabes. Surprisingly enough, several of these albums are not only better than a doped-up kiddie band, they’re actually pretty good. Here are the best:

Kenny Ellis: “Hanukkah Swings!” (Favored Nations, $13.95). As the cover photo of Ellis in a stingy-brim hat suggests, this is a loving pastiche of the great Sinatra of the Capitol years, a sort of ring-a-dreidel-ding feel.

The arrangements by Harvey R. Cohen are a pretty good imitation of Nelson Riddle and Billy May, but Ellis gives the game away whenever he opens his mouth. The voice is too light, the vibrato too insistent for the Sinatra-style material.

Ellis is more at home on the big ’70s shmaltz anthems like “Hanukkah Candles.” On the cha-cha version of “Ocho Kandelikas” he sounds great. (available at www.kennyellis.com)

Guns ‘n Charoses: “Gimme Some Latkes … and Other Musical Chazerai” (Chutzpah Music, $12.95). Think Allan Sherman meets Weird Al Yankovic in shul.

I’m not usually well-disposed toward musical parody unless it’s on the level of Sherman or Weird Al, but Mark Edelman, who wrote all but one of these tracks (and collaborated on the other), is genuinely clever, and I laughed out loud repeatedly. The musicianship, almost all of it by Jeremy Belzer, is not on the flat-out rocking skill level of Yankovic’s band, but it’s good enough not to get in the way of Edelman’s send-ups of “La Vida Loca,” “Yakety-Yak,” “The Gambler” and “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”

The only letdown is “Using My Religion,” and the real problem there is that Michael Stipe’s sense of song structure is a little too slippery for parody. Otherwise, a hilarious record and, unlike most comedy sets, funny more than once. (Available from www.kewlju.com.)

The LeeVees: “Hanukkah Rocks” (Reprise/J-Dub, $13). Alt-rock heavies Adam Gardner of Guster and Dave Schneider of the Zambonis felt that the post-punk world desperately needed a Chanukah record of its own. Well, they wanted to do a Chanukah record, and with their track record (and producer Peter Katis who has worked with Interpol and Get Up Kids), they had no trouble getting one made.

The result is a very funny, smart self-satire, with adolescent agonies turned into the difficult choice of sour cream vs. applesauce (“Tell your mom to fry, not bake”) and of not getting presents (well, there are “six-packs of new socks from each of our moms”).

Meshugga Beach Party: “Twenty Songs of the Chosen Surfers” (Jewish Music Group, $17.98). How much surf guitar can you take in a single sitting? If you answer, “All you can give me,” then you will love this set.

Mel Waldorf is a very, very good surf guitarist in the Dick Dale mode, and this recording of Jewish standards, including “Driedl, Driedl” and “Oh Hanukkah” is both very funny and very danceable. Twenty cuts of this stuff is a bit too rich for my blood, but Waldorf does it well. Only one miscue, a dark and serious version of “Kol Nidre” that is in questionable taste.

Of course, you could set your sights on a lower brand of humor and dig “Kosher Christmas Carols” (Footlight, $14.95) a compendium of Shermanesque riffs on classic Yule songs with rather smarmy, “Jewish-themed” lyrics (available from www.sillymusic.com).

Or you could watch George Segal’s career take an unexpected turn as he becomes the rapper Dr. Dreck, the keystone of Chutzpah on their album “Eponymous” (JMG, $17.98).

On a more positive note, there is a new album of the score from “The Odd Potato” (6-10 Productions, $15.95) a well-received off-Broadway show about the holiday, available from www.theoddpotato.com. Judd Hirsch narrates, and the cast includes such stars as John Mahoney and Elaine Stritch.

Or as punk icons The Vandals suggested, “Hang yourself from the [Christmas] tree.”

George Robinson is the film and music critic for The Jewish Week. His new book, “Essential Torah,” will be published by Schocken Books in the fall of 2006.