The value of voice


As we prepare for the High Holy Days, we often do not consider one aspect  of ourselves, our voice. I’m taking about our actual vocal cords; our means of producing sound. 

We use our voice to chant along with or respond to the cantor, but many of us will also use our voice minimally, as we let the cantor and choir fill our ears and hearts with deep meaning, letting us sit there and contemplate our lives, our loves and our transgressions.

Never before (most likely) has anyone said lift up your voice in song like your life depends on it! Even as cantors encourage you to sing, they don’t tell you that in doing so — by truly engaging your physical voice — you will create a physically healthy and rejuvenating experience. They also don’t tell you that psychosomatically engaging your voice will help you release fears and emotions stored in the voice and mind, and therefore help bring you to new levels of self-realization (what the High Holy Days are about).

It is true: Singing relieves stress, lowers blood pressure, simultaneously engages your left and right brain to build your intelligence and creates a vibration of your vocal cords that resonates throughout your entire body, that creates a positive, healing response in your mind, body and spirit. 

Not to mention, when a community sounds their voices together, the room shifts from a bunch of people with different lives and problems, to a kehillah (community) with a common intention for healing and peace. 

And here’s where I get personal: Having studied and taught voice for a decade, I know many of you believe “you can’t sing” or “you have a bad voice.” That’s OK. You can think that, but realize you’ve helped make the belief a reality by believing it. 

The ultimate truth is that you can sing. It is your birthright. Why do I know this? Simply because you have a voice. 

Cantor Neil Newman, my first cantorial mentor, reminded me to tell the congregation that it’s not singing we’re doing; it’s praying. This will make people more comfortable to join in the song. And while he is right, I cannot help but remember that singing and praying are often deeply connected. It often doesn’t matter if I’m singing an Italian aria, a Spanish rumba or the Avinu Malkeinu; to me, it’s all prayer.  

These High Holy Days, please give yourself permission to use your voice a little more assertively than you have in the past. I promise that the people sitting next to you won’t mind or judge you. It is most likely that you’ll motivate your neighbors to sing as well (they may be too nervous or uncomfortable to use their voices in the first place). 

It’s wonderful that your cantor has a great voice. But so do you. It’s yours!  

And as a cantorial soloist, sure, I love singing from my heart so that all can hear. But the magic truly happens when I succeed at leading the community in song; when they lift up my voice so I can continue to lift up theirs. 

We then become individual prayers as one voice. 

That, is ruach.


Ariella Forstein is a cantorial soloist, performer and vocal empowerment coach based in Los Angeles and in Minneapolis. Find out more about Forstein’s work at ariellaapproach.com and about her performing at ariellaforstein.com

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.”

First Person: Rivky and Gabi were truly special people


Many of you first heard of the Holtzberg family four days ago when news of the Mumbai hostage situation emerged. I feel compelled to write this because I want the world to know who Rivky and Gabi Holtzberg were in life and to tell you what I witnessed of their accomplishments in their brief 28 years on earth.

While I am devastated by their death, I am thankful that my life and so many others were touched by their purity, friendship and spirit.

Before I entered the Chabad house in Mumbai, I thought, “What kind of people would leave a comfortable and secure life in a religious community to live in the middle of Mumbai; a dirty, difficult, crowded city?” As I got to know Rivky and Gabi over the course of this past summer, I understood that G-d creates some truly special people willing to devote their lives to bettering the world.

I was first welcomed by Rivky, who had a big smile on her face and her baby Moishie in her arms. She ushered me and my fellow travelers into the Chabad house and immediately offered us something to eat and a sofa to rest on. We quickly became good friends. We bonded with the Holtzberg family and the staff at Chabad, including Sandra, the heroine who saved baby Moishie’s life.

Like his parents, Moishe is a sweet, loving, happy baby. He was so attached to Rivky and Gabi. He got so excited to sing Shabbat Z’mirot (songs) every Complete coverage of Mumbai Chabad attackFriday night with his father, and I could tell by the light on Gabi’s face when they were singing together, that he looked forward to it too. It breaks my heart that I can still hear Moishie’s voice calling, “Ima, Ima, Ima”, and she will no longer be able to hold him or rock him in her arms.

On my second Shabbat at Chabad, Rivky told me there were two Israeli men staying at the house who were just released from an Indian prison. When I saw these men sitting at the dinner table, I was startled. One man had only a front tooth and a raggedy pony tail, and the other looked like an Israeli version of Rambo. I observed the way that Gabi interacted with them and how they were welcomed at the Shabbat table the same way everyone else was, and my fears melted away. Over the course of the night, I learned that these men were not the only prisoners or ex-convicts the Holtzberg’s helped. Gabi frequently brought Kosher meals to Israelis in prison, spent time with them, listened to their life stories, and took them in after their release.

I realized that Gabi and Rivky’s job was not only to run a Chabad house and provide warm meals and beds for weary Jewish travelers, it was much greater. The Holtzberg’s were running a remarkable operation. They took their jobs as shlichim (emissaries) very seriously. Their lives never stopped. There was no such thing as “personal space” or “downtime”. The phones rang constantly, people came in and out like a subway station, and all the while Rivky and Gabi were calm, smiling, warm, and welcomed everyone like family.

Rivky spent each day cooking dinner with the chefs for 20-40 people, while Gabi made sure to provide meat for everyone by going to the local markets and schechting (koshering) chickens himself. They also provided travelers with computers for internet access, so that they wouldn’t have to pay for internet cafes. They even took care of our laundry. Having spent much time abroad, it was clear to me that Rivky and Gabi were unusual tzadikim (righteous people).

On my last Shabbat in India, I slept in Rivky and Gabi’s home, the 5th floor of the Chabad house. I noticed that their apartment was dilapidated and bare. They had only a sofa, a bookshelf, a bedroom for Moishie, and a bedroom to sleep in. The paint peeled from the walls, and there were hardly any decorations. Yet, the guest quarters on the two floors below were decorated exquisitely, with American-style beds, expansive bathrooms, air conditioning (a luxury in India) and marble floors. We called these rooms our “healing rooms” because life was so difficult in Mumbai during the week. We knew that when we came to Chabad, Rivky and Gabi would take care of us just like our parents, and their openness and kindness would rejuvenate us for the week to come.

The juxtaposition of their home to the guest rooms was just another example of what selfless, humble people Rivky and Gabi were. They were more concerned about the comfort of their guests than their own.

The Holtzberg’s Shabbat table was a new experience each week. Backpackers, businessmen, diplomats and diamond dealers gathered together to connect with their heritage in an otherwise unfamiliar city. We always knew we were in for a surprise where an amazing story would be told, either by Gabi or a guest at the table. For each meal, Gabi prepared about seven different divrei torah (words of torah) to share. Though most of them were delivered in Hebrew (and I caught about 25%), his wisdom, knowledge and ability to inspire amazed me. Rivky and Gabi were accepting of everyone who walked through their doors, and they had no hidden agendas. Rivky once told me that there was one holiday where they had no guests. It was just herself, Gabi and Moishie. I expected her to say how relieved she was not to have guests, but she told me it was, in fact, the only lonely holiday they ever spent in India.

I remember asking Gabi if he was afraid of potential terror threats. Although his demeanor was so sweet and gentle, Gabi was also very strong-minded and determined. He told me simply and sharply that if the terrorists were to come, “be my guest, because I’m not leaving this place.” Both he and Rivky believed that their mission in Mumbai was far greater than any potential terror threats.

Everything Rivky and Gabi did came from their dedication, love and commitment to the Jewish people and to G-d. I cannot portray in words how remarkable this couple was. If there is anything practical that I can suggest in order to elevate their souls, please try to light candles this Friday night for Shabbat, improve relationships with family members and friends, try to connect to others the way that Rivky and Gabi did- with love, acceptance and open arms. There is so much to learn from them. May their names and influence live on, and inspire us in acts of kindness and love.

Hillary A. Lewin is aPh.D. Candidate in Clinical Psychology at theFerkauf Graduate School of Psychology ofYeshiva University

ALTTEXT

The author (right) with Moshe and Rivka

Lebhar’s Dream


If you wanted to start a worldwide revival of Moroccan Jewish customs, where would you base your operations? Probably where there’s already a high concentration of Moroccan Jews, like, say, Israel, Montreal or France. But right in the heart of trendy Westwood?

Maybe there’s a disconnect there, but don’t say that to Rabbi Mordechai Lebhar. He’s very happy in Westwood.

For one thing, he’s happy wherever his books are. On a recent Sunday afternoon in his cozy Westwood apartment, he showed me some of these books, arranged in high piles on his dining room table. He picked up each one like a watchmaker with a fragile watch. The books contain teachings of the great Moroccan sages going back several centuries.

They are rare books seen by few people, fragile and precious.

But there’s one book in those piles that is not so rare. This is a book the rabbi himself wrote three years ago, “Magen Avot” (“Shield of our Fathers”). The book distilled many of the Moroccan customs discussed by the sages, and it has caused a mini-stir in Moroccan circles around the world because it challenges Moroccan Jews everywhere to reclaim their long-forgotten traditions.

Lebhar’s got this mad love affair with tradition. At one point, he choked up as he spoke of a certain Moroccan custom which I also recall from childhood: Before the final evening prayers of Shabbat, and in front of the congregation, the best voices of the shul would sing these beautiful Tehilim melodies. Why did they do that?

Our Moroccan ancestors, the rabbi explained, were Torah romantics. They were so in love with Shabbat that they didn’t want it to end. So they sang these soulful melodies at the twilight of the holy day, as a way of soaking up and deepening the Shabbat experience, longing against all odds that it would never end.

The rabbi thinks that if Moroccan Jews would become more aware of the reasons behind their traditions, they would be more likely to honor them.

And those reasons are not always romantic. For example, at Shabbat meals, Moroccans have a tradition of saying certain brachas over food, between the Kiddush and the blessing on the bread. Why? Not because our salads are so amazing that we can’t stand to wait another minute, but because Torah-observant Jews have an obligation to recite 100 brachas a day. Since Shabbat prayers have fewer brachas than weekday prayers, our ancestors used the Shabbat meal to help them fulfill that obligation.

Lebhar’s got hundreds of those customs. He can go on for hours on even silly customs, like, say, why Moroccan Jews kiss each other in shul. A few years ago, the great Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef, who hails from Iraq and often makes rulings that differ from Moroccan customs, ruled that kissing was not allowed in synagogue. He interpreted a talmudic teaching differently than the Moroccan sages, who allowed this traditional greeting between men, based on their own talmudic interpretation.

The point that Lebhar keeps making is that all those Moroccan traditions, silly or not, have good reasons behind them, many of them talmudic reasons driven by a deep respect for Jewish law.

“A lot of Moroccans treat these customs like grandmothers’ folktales,” he told me. “They don’t take them seriously. But you can’t just throw 500 years out the window.”

Since he published his book, he says he’s been getting calls from Moroccan Jews around the world who are gaining a new appreciation for their own customs. That’s why he’s planning to write three more volumes.

Still, for someone so obsessed with reviving his ancestors’ customs, Lebhar has some explaining to do.

Like, for starters, why did he leave his Moroccan community in Montreal when he was in his early 20s to study for more than 10 years in some of the world’s most hard-core Lithuanian yeshivas? And then become fluent in Yiddish?

And why did he become a key player in a whole other Torah revival, one run by Ashkenazi Jews out of Westwood Kehilla, where Lebhar heads a busy outreach kollel?

He doesn’t get defensive when I confront him with these contradictions. He wanted to learn in the best yeshivas, he says, and immerse himself in Talmud. As far as his role with Westwood Kehilla and their program LINK (Los Angeles Intercommunity Kollel), he loves that they’re creating another “Torah hood” on the Westside.

The person who brought him out here a few years ago, Rabbi Asher Brander, who runs Westwood Kehilla and LINK, has built a portable center of Torah outreach where, Lebhar says, “there’s always serious learning going on.”

That’s the word, I think, that might explain Lebhar’s seeming contradictions: Serious. He takes his Torah seriously, and so do the rabbis and students at Westwood Kehilla and LINK. Lebhar’s a funny guy, but get him going on a piece of Talmud, and he’s in another world.

Seriousness might also explain the bond he feels with his Moroccan ancestors those holy men of Fez, Meknes, Marakkesh and Casablanca who took their traditions very seriously, and whose words live on in the books on Lebhar’s dining room table.

When I asked him what compels him to continue working on this dream of a Sephardi Moroccan revival while immersed in an Ashkenazi community he told me that when he lived in Jerusalem, and studied at the Litvish Yeshiva, he would visit this holy man every week.

The man was the former chief rabbi of Morocco, Rabbi Chalom Essas. After a few years, Lebhar was so impressed with the chief rabbi’s knowledge of Moroccan tradition that he suggested to Rabbi Essas that he should write a book on the subject.

In true Jewish fashion, the chief rabbi, probably having no clue that Lebhar would soon be living in trendy Westwood, replied: “That’s a great idea. Why don’t you do it?”

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.


7 Days in The Arts


Saturday, April 15

The bread don’t rise, but spirits may. Two events tonight focus on Passover through music and comedy. Celebrate Chol Hamoed Pesach at Stephen S. Wise Temple with this evening’s “Let My People Sing” series event, “Tears, Laughter and Spirit.” Comedian Joel Chasnoff performs with The Lost Boys of Sudan Choir and Dream Freedom Performers of Milken Community High School. Or visit the Workmen’s Circle for “Music, Mayses … and Matse?!” a concert of Yiddish and klezmer tunes performed by renown musicians Yale Strom on violin, Mark Dresser on contrabass and singer Elizabeth Schwartz.

Stephen S. Wise: 7:30 p.m. Dessert and coffee follow. Donation. 15500 Stephen S. Wise Drive, Los Angeles. R.S.V.P., (310) 476-8561. ” width=”15″ height=”1″ alt=””>

Sunday, April 16

Ladies only, you are cordially invited to a special screening of “Together as One,” a multicamera video produced by Kol Neshama, an L.A. arts program for Orthodox girls and women. The film about positive attitude and watching what you say has a “Wizard of Oz”-ian spin, when the snide-mouthed protagonist, Bracha, ends up in The Land of Emes (Truth). There are elaborately choreographed musical numbers featuring now-Orthodox professional performers, along with local school girls. The video may only be viewed in today’s and tomorrow’s screenings.

April 16 and 17, 3 p.m. and 7 p.m., Upstairs@ Kehilas Yaakov, 7211 Beverly Blvd. (877) 637-4262.

Monday, April 17

Director Nicole Holofcener’s film about the midlife struggles of four female friends — and their uneasy relationships with money and each other-comes to theaters this week. Jennifer Aniston, Catherine Keener, Joan Cusack and Frances McDormand star in the comedy/drama “Friends With Money,” which was the opening night film at the Sundance Film Festival.

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Tuesday, April 18

Head to LACMA West for art that makes you go, “hmmmm….” Their new LACMALab installation, “Consider this…” features the work of six varied artists that all invite viewers to “examine the cultural and social landscape: who are we and what do we want to be?”

Through Jan. 15, 2007. Free (children 17 and under), $5-$9 (general). 6067 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. www.lacma.org

Wednesday, April 19

Pay homage to legends of different sorts at tonight’s American Cinematheque screening of “The Night of the Hunter.” This is the kickoff event for their new screening series of devoted film critic “Kevin Thomas’ Favorite Films.” The monthly event will feature 10 of Thomas’ favorites, including “Sunset Boulevard” and “A Star is Born.” Tonight also serves as a tribute to Thomas’ friend, actress Shelley Winters, who starred in “Hunter.”

7:30 p.m. $6-$9. 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica. www.americancinematheque.com.

 

Thursday, April 20

The circle of life takes an unconventional turn or two in Michelle Kholos’ new play “Two Parents, Two Weddings, Two Years.” The story follows Sidney, a grown woman with a boyfriend and a career, who must reconcile herself with the fact that her divorced parents are both, separately, getting remarried, while she struggles to hang on to her significant other, and her brother tries to romance his soon-to-be sister-in-law. Wacky Jewish family drama ensues….

8 p.m. (Fri. and Sat.), 3 p.m. (Sun.), through May 14. $25. The Hollywood Court Theatre, Hollywood United Methodist Church, 6817 Franklin Ave., Hollywood. (323) 692-8200.

 

Friday, April 21

A woman dressed in a white gown and veil stands at a border crossing between the Golan Heights and Syria. She is “The Syrian Bride,” the titular character in a new film by Eran Riklis, and her story is based on a real incident Riklis witnessed and filmed for his 1999 documentary, “Borders.” The bride’s story is a complicated one, of people’s lives caught between the politics and bureaucracies of border countries. The film played at this year’s Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles, and is released theatrically today.

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Senior Moments – Proudly Jewish in ‘Sunset’


Within the first moments of the comedy/drama “Sunset Park,” I wanted to get to know Sheila Oaks, who plays widowed mother

Evelyn Horowitz two nights a week at the Zephyr Theatre. Something about Oaks' authentic, sensitive portrayal of a 70-something New York Jewish woman made me curious.

It turns out that Oaks also is a hard-working speech pathologist. And, most inspiring, she's a 68-year-old who continues to discover herself as a professional, a woman, and a human being.

Oaks grew up in Brooklyn and inherited a passion for singing and the theater from her parents: “My father took me regularly to see theater and to the Brooklyn Academy of Music for classes. My mother loved to sing, and we used to sing all the Broadway show tunes together.”

At 8 years old, Oaks first appeared on stage in a talent show, where she sang “Swanee River” in blackface. She cringes at the political incorrectness, but it was the beginning of a love affair with performing. Oaks pursued her acting while also getting a psychology degree at University of Pennsylvania and a master's in speech pathology at Tulane. Her acting roles have included television, feature films and numerous stage productions on both coasts.

When I asked Oaks about playing Jewish roles, such as the one in “Sunset Park,” she recalled that her parents had explained the difficulties they sometimes faced as Jews. Her father was a chemist who often couldn't get hired because he was a Jew, and her mother constantly warned her children that they, too, might be treated unfairly.

“My mother was petrified of being Jewish,” Oaks recalls. “I heard all these stories and cautions from her, and I guess I took it to heart and adopted some of her fears.”

Oaks occasionally found herself worrying about how audiences would judge her for being Jewish or playing a Jewish character–which she did often in productions such as “Enter Laughing” or “Jake's Women.”

“I think at times I held myself back because I didn't want the audience to be put off. You know, people make comments about a woman being a 'Jewish princess' or about someone behaving 'too Jewish,' like it was something negative.”

None of this carried over in her work as a speech pathologist.

“Speech therapy isn't concerned with anyone's religion or color,” she says. “It's a very universal experience when someone stutters, or when someone has had a stroke. They all face the same challenges and those who work with them are very accepting.”

Oaks has managed to marry her passions for theatre and therapy.

“I love Viola Spolin's theater games and I've discovered they have great value in my speech therapy work,” she says. “When I've used some games with stroke patients with aphasia, words would pop out that they couldn't express through traditional approaches. And when I had stutterers do improvisation games, they could focus on a partner and stop judging themselves.”

Oaks works at The Help Group, treating children with autism spectrum disorders, and for Partners, Jewish Family Service's Adult Day Treatment on Santa Monica Boulevard, with seniors dealing with strokes, cerebral palsy and Parkinson's disease.

And yet, she still finds time for her acting.

“Sunset Park” director Mark Taylor remembers Oaks coming in to audition for the Inkwell Theater production.

“We knew she was right for the part of Evelyn when she walked in the door,” Taylor said. “Her mannerisms, her vulnerability, her voice were all perfect.”

The show — which because of double casting has six senior citizens playing three roles — began its second run in Los Angeles Oct. 14. During the summer, before the show reopened, Oaks found an old tape of her mother and herself singing.

“I thought of my mother in creating my role during the first run, trying to picture her and remember her,” Oaks said. “But I hadn't actually heard my mother's voice in 17 years. Hearing her voice evoked memories, like a Proustian thing when a smell can trigger old experiences. This truly impacted my performance as Evelyn. It gave my acting more colors.”

“I can just hear my mother: 'Oh, so you think what I say is funny? You're going to try to imitate me?'” she continued. “I said to her once that she was a Neil Simon character, and she said, 'You're making fun of me!' I said, 'No! Mother you are a gem!'”

And how does she feel, this time, playing a New York Jewish woman?

“I've grown so much in this role, in not holding back in fear of being judged by audience. It's really a universal character, with relationships and feelings that any woman could feel. But I'm so proud to portray it through a Jewish persona. I'm bringing my own ethnicity to the part; it's truly allowing me to honor my Jewish roots.”

“Sunset Park” by Marley Sims and Elliot Shoenman has been extended until Dec. 4. 7456 Melrose Ave., Hollywood. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111 or visit ekzmail@adelphia.net or her Web site,