Letter to the editor: Ruth Messinger responds to Joe Benjamin

To the Editor:
In recent columns, Jose Singer and Joe Benjamin did not refute any of the facts that I shared in my op-ed American Jews must speak out for Haitians in Dominican Republic. As the United States Department of StateHuman Rights Watch and some of the most reliable news organizations in the U.S. have reported, the Dominican government is shamefully denying human rights to people of Haitian descent based on their race and origins. The U.S. State Department has even urged that the Dominican government allow the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to be involved in their deportation processes; a recommendation the Dominican government has not yet followed.  
Mr. Singer and Mr. Benjamin offered only misleading rhetoric suggesting that the crisis in the Dominican Republic is purely an issue of undocumented immigrants, when it involves stripping citizens of their rights and homes. Much like the Dominican government¹s public relations campaign, Singer and Benjamin are working hard to obscure the truth. The sad truth that neither Mr. Singer nor Mr. Benjamin want to acknowledge is that hundreds of Dominicans have been exiled from the only homeland they have ever known and thousands more face the same risk.
We appreciate both Mr. Singer¹s and Mr. Benjamin¹s invitations to visit and donate to the people of the Dominican Republic, but we need no such invitation. In fact, my staff and I have visited the Dominican Republic many times, and we know the country well. I have spoken with Dominicans of Haitian descent who have lived in the Dominican Republic for decades, and I have heard reports directly from the Dominican Republic about the tragic consequences of the Medina government¹s actions. 
Further, the organization I lead, American Jewish World Service, has donated $1.9 million to the Dominican Republic to advance the political, civil and human rights of all people living there. My colleagues and I speak from a place of knowledge, experience and compassion, and we continue to seek justice for all in the Dominican Republic. 
Ruth Messinger, president of American Jewish World Service

Lesley Gore, singer of ‘It’s My Party’ fame, dies

Singer-songwriter Lesley Gore, whose hit “It’s My Party” topped the charts in 1963 when she was 17, has died.

Gore died Monday of cancer at a New York hospital. She was 68.

“It’s My Party” was nominated for a Grammy Award and sold over 1 million copies. Other Gore hits included “Judy’s Turn to Cry” and “You Don’t Own Me.” (video below)

Gore, born Lesley Sue Goldstein in Brooklyn and raised in Tenafly, N.J., was discovered by producer Quincy Jones as a teen and signed with Mercury Records.

She was nominated for an Oscar, with her brother Michael, for co-writing “Out Here on My Own” from the popular 1980s movie “Fame.”

She came out as a lesbian during a 2005 interview.

Gore is survived by her partner of 33 years, Lois Sasson; her mother, Ronnie; and her brother.


Milt Okun’s wild ride

A few years ago, Rosemary Okun, wife of veteran music producer, arranger and singer Milt Okun, had an inspired idea: take a who’s who lineup from the opera world and pair the performers with John Denver compositions.

In some ways, it made perfect sense. Not only did her husband of 55 years work with and discover Denver, but he did the same for celebrated tenor Plácido Domingo.

Due late this year, “Great Voices Sing John Denver” will be an album of 13 opera singers covering some of the singer/songwriter’s most cherished chestnuts, including “Sunshine on My Shoulders” and “Leaving on a Jet Plane.”

“We tried a dozen songs from the best opera singers,” Milt Okun told the Journal. “We approached them by sending a CD and John’s songbook, and they each picked a favorite song and we recorded.”

One of those songs will be “Perhaps Love,” a hit for Domingo and Denver as a duo 25 years ago.

“‘Perhaps Love’ launched [Domingo] as a crossover artist,” said Richard Sparks, Okun’s son-in-law, who helped him write his 2011 memoir, “Along the Cherry Lane.”

On “Voices” — recorded by Okun and composer Lee Holdridge over a six-month period in New York, Los Angeles, London and Munich — the opera star will be singing the song with his son, Okun said.

Overall, he continued, “It was very exciting to hear these great, great voices from the world of opera sing these beautiful songs. It turned out to be very appropriate because the songs can take voices. Each one is different, very special.”

Okun, 89, with his signature thick black frames, mentored numerous successful acts throughout the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, breaking folk, opera and country acts. His publishing house, Cherry Lane Music, handled Elvis Presley, and he was instrumental in the recording careers of Peter, Paul and Mary; Odetta; even Mr. Green Jeans (Hugh Brannum) from “Captain Kangaroo.”

The Beverly Hills resident’s parents were Jewish first cousins who originally hailed from a town 40 miles from Chernobyl. Left-wing political activists who lived into their 90s, the pair moved to Brooklyn and came to own the Adirondacks resort Schroon Crest, where Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and the Weavers performed. They socialized with Arthur Miller (Okun’s father turned down investing in “Death of a Salesman”) and photographer Milton Greene.

Secularly raised, Okun said, “I believe in music and art.” Yet Okun repeatedly recorded with Shlomo Carlebach — known as “The Singing Rabbi.”
Growing up, Okun had hoped to be a concert pianist, but these plans were derailed when he came down with arthritis at age 14.

“The only cure was go to bed. I went to bed for two years. When I woke up, I couldn’t play,” he said. “I was disappointed. I had no clue for a while what I was going to do. So I became a teacher.”

Eventually, Okun said, “Harry Belafonte hired me to play in his group. I could play pop music.”

As his career progressed, it wasn’t unusual for Okun to bring his work home.

“All these groups used to sing in the living room,” Okun’s daughter, Jenny Okun, remembered. “I used to fall asleep to Peter, Paul and Mary.”

At the dawn of the 1970s, some serious syzygy occurred for Okun. His book of arrangements, “Great Songs of the Sixties,” sold 1.1 million copies and included choice Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel selections.

Bob Flick of the Brothers Four had told Okun about Denver after catching him at Pasadena’s Ice House, then a folk music club. When Chad Mitchell quit his eponymous Chad Mitchell Trio, Okun had Denver replace him.

When folk music started evaporating, Okun relocated from New York to England to start over — until “John exploded. I came back.”

Soon, Denver pursued a solo career. Many rejected the talented New Mexican, but Okun negotiated a $20,000 advance on a four-album contract with an enthusiastic RCA exec, according to Okun. Several smash hits later, Denver became a successful singer and movie star.

“He had a new offer from one of the subsidiaries of RCA,” Okun said. “He had been [negotiating] himself and making a mess of it. I arranged for him to meet music attorney David Braun. He finally agreed.”

Denver died at 53 on Oct. 12, 1997, when his experimental single-engine plane crashed near Pacific Grove, Calif.

Okun last saw him three days prior, when Denver played a West Valley gig.

Okun strongly rejects post-crash insinuations that divorce had tail-spun Denver into a suicidal depression. No drugs or alcohol appeared in Denver’s autopsy. Things were looking up, he said.

These days, the Okun family is not exactly taking trips down Cherry Lane. As Milt finalizes distribution on “Voices,” his wife is self-publishing “An Imperfect Life: Poems and Drawings.”

Okun’s daughter and her husband, Sparks, are readying “Dulce Rosa,” an opera based on Isabel Allende’s short story “Una Venganza” (“An Act of Vengeance”). Sparks will write/direct the Broad Stage/L.A. Opera co-production, with music by Holdridge and with Domingo conducting. Jenny Okun did the set design, and 300 rear projections are based on her footage shot in Peru, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Mexico. “Dulce Rosa” will premiere May 17.

As for Milt Okun, there’s no golf or shuffleboard. After years of hard work, this octogenarian enjoys resting on his hard-earned laurels.

“I do a lot of reading, watching TV,” he said, smiling. “I do what I please.”

British pop sensation Alex Clare balances stardom and Orthodoxy

Alex Clare is really just a nice Jewish boy.

Sure, his hit “Too Close” is currently the seventh most popular song in the United States, his music video has garnered more than 18 million hits on YouTube and he has mobs of teenage girls chasing him around Europe. But at the end of the day, he still likes to sit down with a nice challenging page of Talmud.

“I have to say, it's pretty easy being in this business and keeping the basics of Jewish law,” Clare told JTA in a phone interview before a gig in Manchester, England, last week. “I travel with a full set of milk and meat pots and dishes, in addition to having a full suitcase of tins and dry kosher goods. And Shabbos and holidays aren't an issue because I almost always go back to London or Israel or find a Chabad house to stay at.”

Clare’s career got a huge boost this past summer when Microsoft chose “Too Close” for the commercial for the latest version of Internet Explorer. The 27-year-old resident of the heavily Jewish London neighborhood of Golders Green had been dropped from his record label five months before the software company reached out to him. His 2011 album “The Lateness of the Hour,” on which “Too Close” first appeared, was considered a flop.

But Clare is embracing the commercial’s success and riding the publicity to fuel a European tour. He will be performing in the United States in late November.

“It was definitely a good feeling to get that call that they wanted my music,” Clare said. “It's tough not to want to give up.”

Clare began his career performing at bars and clubs in London. For a time he dated Amy Winehouse, the troubled pop star and fellow British Jew who died of alcohol poisoning last year. After Clare was picked up by Island Records in 2010, Winehouse reportedly told friends she was worried Clare would reveal details about their relationship in his songs.

Clare declined to discuss his relationship with Winehouse.

Asked about the subject matter of his songs, he replied that they are about “deep” themes and that he's currently working on balancing a life of stardom and religious identity. 

Watching Clare's videos and hearing his raspy voice, one wouldn’t immediately assume he is a devoted member of the tribe, but he has been an Orthodox Jew for about five years. Raised in a secular home, Clare hooked up with Chabad after studying in Jerusalem.

While on tour, Clare relies on daily spiritual guidance to help maintain his religious practice in a music world that provides no end of temptation. He studies the Tanya, a work of Chasidic philosophy by the founder of the Chabad movement, and the Talmud tractate Brachot. He also finds time to work on a new album, expected next year, which he says will incorporate subtle spiritual messages.

“One new song I’m writing is sort of based off of Shir HaShirim [Song of Songs], but you would never have known unless I told you,” he said. “But my goal isn’t to have an agenda through my music. Just to be living the way I am is a message in itself.” 

Clare is part of a growing corps of Jewish artists whose religious commitments that preclude performing on Friday nights, including the Moshav Band, Peter Himmelman and Dov Rosenblatt of The Wellspring. But a more apt comparison may be Matisyahu, the reggae star and onetime Chabad adherent who achieved global success singing about spiritual themes while clad in the black and white garb of a Chasid.

Clare acknowledges that many compare him to Matisyahu but insists that his mission is different, adding he doesn't come with the same “shtick.”

“I'm not trying to be a religious symbol for anyone,” he said.

Clare said his team helps him keep certain religious laws: For example, his bodyguards help ward off the mobs of screaming teenage girls — and there are many — so that nobody touches him, since he adheres to religious laws of modesty which forbid touching women.

“I know clubs and concert halls are not the best place for a nice Jewish boy, but everyone has their life choices and this is mine,” he said. “It’d definitely be different if I was a Satmar Chasid. They’d probably disown me.”

Clare says that he did lose a record deal opportunity because he refused to play on Sukkot and tour over the holidays. But he says these are small prices to pay, and even with sacrifices made, a little faith can go a long way.

Joshua Bloom: His voice is more than the sum of his parts

The old theater saying that there are no small parts, only small actors, can also be said for opera. Just ask Australian bass Joshua Bloom, who was in town last month to begin rehearsals as Masetto for the Los Angeles Opera production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.” The opera’s seven performances run Sept. 22 through Oct. 14 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Masetto marks Bloom’s L.A. Opera debut. “Masetto is a small role, but a good one because you can certainly make an impression,” Bloom said during a break in rehearsal. “There are some roles where nobody remembers you, but Masetto has enough meat to it — it’s great to debut with in a major house.”

The role has already earned him accolades at other major opera houses, including last year at the Metropolitan Opera. In The New York Times, Anthony Tommasini praised his peasant Masetto as “stalwart,” adding that his “hearty bass” made for an “endearing performance.”

Audiences may recall Bloom from his Walt Disney Concert Hall debut last year as Algernon in a striking concert version of Gerald Barry’s unpredictable operatic take on Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Though primarily a bass, Bloom’s flexible range comfortably negotiated this quirky comic baritone part.

Bloom’s lyric, rather than dramatic, voice type has a substance and weight that projects well, especially in the Handel, Mozart and Rossini repertory.

“A lot of the roles for my voice type are smaller, but they’re significant,” Bloom said. “Masetto is the only one who stands up to Giovanni in any meaningful way, and that makes him interesting in a cast of people who are often manipulated by Giovanni without any recourse.”

Masetto is just one of the comprimario, or supporting parts, in Bloom’s repertory. In August, he played Leporello, the Don’s servant, at a festival in Tallinn, Estonia. And when Bloom returns to L.A. Opera in May 2013 for a six-performance run of Puccini’s “Tosca” (May 18 through June 8 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion), he will be playing Angelotti.

“Angelotti is another small part, but actually it’s really pivotal,” Bloom said, “and possibly my favorite small role to do. You have some really good music, and it’s very dramatic.”

L.A. Opera music director James Conlon observed in an e-mail that the late tenor Charles Anthony often made his greatest impact in smaller parts. A New York Times critic, reviewing his Met debut in 1954, said Anthony even made bit parts, like the Simpleton in Mussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov,” unforgettable.

“Angelotti is very, very important,” Conlon said. “A great deal of the first act of ‘Tosca’ absolutely depends on a strongly sung and defined Angelotti as a counterweight to the other characters.”

Conlon added that Angelotti’s escape from prison sets “Tosca’s” entire drama in motion, which ends —  (spoiler alert!) — in the violent death of the opera’s four most prominent characters.

Bloom has sung larger parts, including the title character in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” and Nick Shadow (the Devil) in Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress.” Next year, he is scheduled to sing the bass role in Gerald Barry’s opera “The Triumph of Beauty and Deceit.” It’s part of a double bill with Handel’s “The Triumph of Time and Truth” at a festival in Germany.

“I play Time in both shows,” Bloom said. “The role has very low notes, but also very high. Gerald likes to explore the extremes of people’s ranges, so there’s not a huge difference between his baritone and bass roles. He writes a lot of falsetto for basses as well.”

Bloom, 38, grew up in Melbourne with musician parents who exposed him to all sorts of music from a very young age. But they encouraged him to go to law school. 

“Music wasn’t something I ever thought of doing as a profession,” Bloom said. “Music, to my parents, was not a good career choice. I think they wanted me to get a real job.”

Bloom, whose father is Jewish, went to Anglican schools on a music scholarship as a cellist and double bass player. “Technically, I’m not really Jewish,” Bloom said. “My parents are firm atheists, so I was never particularly religious. I went to Jewish kindergarten. That was as far as it went. Nonetheless, obviously having a Jewish father, and my name being as it is, well, there you go.” 

Bloom majored in history at the University of Melbourne, focusing on Hitler’s Germany, Holocaust history and Russia under Stalin. He also started acting in fringe theater, “doing the odd musical.” 

“I wanted to be an actor,” Bloom said, but people who heard him sing recommended he take voice lessons. “I kind of fell into opera. It wasn’t something I was desperate to do from a young age.”

Bloom left Melbourne for New York when he was 26 and is now based in San Francisco. Since his father was originally from Chicago, Bloom said he’s never had a problem working in the United States, which became necessary for him to cultivate an interesting career.

“Australia is very isolated geographically, and the arts scene is tricky,” Bloom said. “If you want to be a full-time, professional opera singer, there’s really only one company that is available — Opera Australia.”

Over the years, Bloom has been invited back regularly to Opera Australia, but he doesn’t regret leaving. “It’s a great country,” he said, “but for opera singers, it’s a difficult environment.”

Bloom, who is on the road for most of the year, said his parents are “very proud” of his thriving singing career. But, he added, living out of suitcase gets old quickly. And there’s no time for relationships outside the work.

“I would have to establish something quickly and then manage the long-distance thing, which is difficult at the best of times,” Bloom said, adding that most of the people he meets are in the business.

Though he continues to enjoy the variety of small and large lyric roles he’s offered, Bloom said he hopes in the next decade to venture into heftier emotional terrain. One of his dream roles is King Philip in Verdi’s “Don Carlos.” 

“He’s such a complex and profound character,” Bloom said. “There’s a lot of pathos involved, and the music is extraordinary. Although I’ve never played him, Don Giovanni is also a role where, depending on your stage of life, you have a different insight into the character. Those roles have multiple layers, to be explored over a lifetime.”

For more information and to purchase tickets, visit

Kipah-wearing teen set for ‘America’s Got Talent’ semis [VIDEO]

Edon Pinchot, a kipah-wearing Jewish day school student, will be performing in the semifinals of “America’s Got Talent.”

Pinchot, 14, of Skokie, Ill., will be among 12 acts performing live Tuesday night on the popular NBC reality show before a a television audience that could top 10 million. The second set of 12 semifinalists will perform Sept. 4.

Other semifinalists joining Pinchot, a singer and pianist, on Tuesday’s show include singers, a dancer, a dog ventriloquist, an acrobat, a mind reader and a comedian.

Should enough TV viewers cast their votes for Pinchot, he will advance to the finals and a chance to take home the $1 million prize. He has performed an audition, in the Vegas round and in the quarterfinals to reach the semis. His kipah has made him a focal point for viewers.

Pinchot,  who is Sabbath observant and keeps kosher, is the fourth of five children and has been playing piano since he was 9. His grandmother, Ginger Pinchot of Silver Spring, Md., says Edon is “very athletic. He’s one of the stars of his soccer team, and he’s also a straight A student. He’s just kind of an all-around guy.”

The show’s three judges—Howie Mandel, Sharon Osbourne and Howard Stern—are Jewish.

Pinchot will be starting high school soon at the Ida Crown Jewish Academy in Chicago.

Opinion: A call to boycott former Pink Floyd front man, Roger Waters

As many of you know, Israel is under assault. However, the perpetrators are not only Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, but rather artists and musicians who are engaged in a Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. Popular musicians—including Elvis Costello, The Pixies, Carlos Santana, The Gorillaz and Roger Waters—are refusing to perform in Israel, in order to punish the tiny Jewish state.

Roger Waters, former lead singer of the popular rock band Pink Floyd, wrote at length about his decision to boycott the state of Israel.

Here is part of what he said:

“In my view, the abhorrent and draconian control that Israel wields over the besieged Palestinians in Gaza, and the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank (including East Jerusalem), coupled with its denial of the rights of refugees to return to their homes in Israel, demands that fair minded people around the world support the Palestinians in their civil, nonviolent resistance…For me it means declaring my intention to stand in solidarity, not only with the people of Palestine, but also with the many thousands of Israelis who disagree with their governments racist and colonial policies, by joining a campaign of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel, until it satisfies three basic human rights demanded in international law.

1. Ending its occupation and colonization of all Arab lands [occupied since 1967] and dismantling the Wall;

2. Recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality; and

3. Respecting, protecting and promoting the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN resolution 194.”

So basically, Waters is calling for a boycott of Israel, until all the “Palestinian refugees” are allowed back in, effectively destroying it as the homeland of the Jewish people.

That Roger Waters, and so many other artists, would boycott the only true democracy in the Middle East—the only country that upholds the progressive values and human rights he supposedly lauds—shows how far anti-Semitism has pervaded our culture.

Many musicians boycott Israel because of peer-pressure, and because of pressure from anti-Israel hate groups. They succumb to this pressure because there does not seem to be any repercussions for boycotting Israel.

Well, I believe this is the perfect opportunity for Israel supporters to take a stand, and say “enough is enough!” If Roger Waters wishes to starve Israel economically then we should do the same back to him.

Roger Waters is scheduled to perform at the Coliseum in Los Angeles, May 19th of this year. This event will most certainly be attended by many Jews, as Roger Waters is extremely popular, and Los Angeles comprises one of the largest Jewish communities in the world. But maybe we can change that, and send a message to Roger Waters, and any other musician who is considering a boycott of Israel.

Please inform all your friends about Roger Waters’ boycott of Israel, and urge them to not attend his concert. Call up his management, write on his Facebook page, and do whatever else you can to let Roger know that boycotting Israel comes with consequences.

This is the perfect opportunity for Jewish liberals and conservatives, AIPAC and J-Street, to unite under a common cause, and make it clear that trying to economically destroy the only Jewish State will not go unnoticed.

We are not saying that people cannot criticize Israel. Of course they can. But there is a stark difference between criticism and a boycott. Let’s be clear—to single out the only Jewish state for hateful and economically harmful boycotts, is simply anti-Semitic.

Jewish singer is Turkey’s pick for Eurovision

A Jewish singer will represent Turkey at the Eurovision song contest.

Can Bonomo of Izmir was Turkey’s pick for the annual songfest, Zaman’s online edition reported Tuesday. This year’s contest will take place in Baku, Azerbaijan, in May.

EuroVisionary, a Eurovision fan site, describes the 24-year-old singer-songwriter’s style as “Istanbulian music that works with tunes from Alaturca to international indie style” with the Shins, Wax Poetic, the Kinks, the Libertines and the Beatles as influences.

A board selected by the Turkish Radio and Television Corp. chooses the country’s contestant.

Adam Lambert says ‘lesson learned’ after arrest

Former “American Idol” finalist Adam Lambert brushed off his arrest in Finland on Thursday, blaming his bad behavior on travel, booze and “irrational confusion” and adding “lesson learned” on Twitter.

“Jetlag+Vodka=blackout. Usblackout=irrational confusion. jail+guilt+press=lesson learned. Sauli+Adam+hangover burgers= laughing bout it. :),” Lambert tweeted to fans.

The “Whataya Want From Me” singer, 29, was involved in an argument in a Helsinki bar with his boyfriend, Finnish reality TV star Sauli Koskinen. Their quarrel became physical and the pair were arrested, questioned then later released by authorities, according to media reports.

Koskinen also addressed the incident on his blog, writing in Finnish, “publicity is not easy. But celebrities are only human people.”

Lambert, whose colorful costumes and makeup earned him the nickname “Glambert,” rose to fame in 2009 on U.S. singing contest “American Idol,” but lost in the final round of the No. 1-rated TV show to Kris Allen.

Despite being the runner-up, Lambert forged a solid career and now enjoys a loyal following as a singer. His single “Better Than I Know Myself” was released on Tuesday, and is currently at No. 30 on the iTunes singles chart. (Reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Bob Tourtellotte)

Bigger than the beard, Matisyahu move marks ongoing spiritual journey

The world’s most famous Chasidic Jew has shaved his beard.

With a declaration Tuesday morning that he was “reclaiming” himself, Jewish music star Matisyahu—a.k.a. Matthew Miller—shaved his signature beard and wrote, “No more Chassidic reggae superstar.”

The musician posted two photos of his newly beardless face to the social networking site Twitter and added an explanation on his website a few hours later.

“When I started becoming religious 10 years ago it was a very natural and organic process,” he wrote. “I felt that in order to become a good person I needed rules—lots of them—or else I would somehow fall apart. I am reclaiming myself.”
Matisyahu’s religious journey has long been an object of speculation and media fascination. Raised in a Reconstructionist family in White Plains, N.Y., he became affiliated with the Chabad movement only in 2000, after studying at one of its institutions in Israel.

Four years later, after his debut album “Shake Off the Dust… Arise” was released by JDub Records, Matisyahu began a rise that ultimately would find him performing on national television as well as at Jewish events.

Here was a beat-boxing Chasid borrowing lyrics from Jewish liturgy on television while wearing the black fedora and long black coat typical of members of the Chabad sect. Matisyahu represented a major step forward in the visibility of traditional Judaism in the mainstream media.

Chasidic Judaism was always central his public persona. While on tour, promoters made special arrangements to accommodate Matisyahu’s Sabbath observance.

As recently as last weekend, Matisyahu’s status as a Chasidic cultural icon was on full display. An episode of the Bravo channel’s “Chef Roble & Co.” focused on a kosher Thai Vegan party held at the musician’s home. The episode explored the intricacies of rules governing the preparation of kosher meals.

But Matisyahu’s spiritual exploration didn’t end with his rise to public attention. In 2007, he distanced himself the Chabad movement, a move that sparked another round of news stories.

“My initial ties were through the Lubavitch sect… At this point, I don’t necessarily identify with it any more,” Matisyahu told the Miami New Times in 2007. “I’m really religious, but the more I’m learning about other types of Jews, I don’t want to exclude myself.”

“Matisyahu was never a part of the movement’s conventional line,” a senior Chabad official told Haaretz later that year. “It’s possible that he felt that his membership in Chabad caused him to be scrutinized.”

Matisyahu went on to explore other schools of Chasidism—including Karlin-Stoliners, a Chasidic group known for praying at full volume. It wasn’t a matter of rejecting Chabad, the singer told JTA in 2008, but rather “not feeling bound to one way or one path, but open to many paths within Judaism.”

The singer’s latest statement isn’t definitive. It doesn’t rule out belonging to Judaism or even a Chasidic movement. At most, the statement seems to indicate another stage of spiritual exploration.

“Get ready for an amazing year filled with music of rebirth,” Matisyahu says in his statement. “And for those concerned with my naked face, don’t worry … you haven’t seen the last of my facial hair.”

On fire

The old stereotype of Mizrahi music — an Israeli genre created by immigrant Jews from North African and Arab countries — was of teary, sorrowful love ballads: tales of lost loves, broken hearts and dashed hopes. You could say Mizrahi music was Israel’s version of country music.

Moshe Peretz, one of the headliners for the I.L.Care community concert on Nov. 20, is the poster boy for the genre’s modern image — which is, by contrast, vivacious, upbeat and full of life. Hits like “Esh” (“Fire”), “Me Hashamayim” (“From the Sky”) and “Eshmor Alayich” (“I Will Keep You Safe”) are more likely to make you want to dance than to cry. Dark-featured and handsome, Peretz has been one of the top-selling artists in Israel since 2007, and the November concert, expected to draw an audience of 6,000, will be his Los Angeles debut.

“I’m so excited to be part of this project,” Peretz said in a phone interview from Israel. He said he has had other opportunities to perform in Los Angeles, but none of them panned out, and it doesn’t seem to intimidate him that his first stateside show will be at one of the largest U.S. venues to host an Israeli artist in recent times.

“The purpose of this concert is to build community, and I’m inspired by that,” he said. “I think it’s everyone’s right to live wherever they want, wherever it’s good for them, but it’s important to maintain a connection to Israel … and to safe keep our religion. In the end, we are Jewish wherever we live.”

Born in 1983 in Tiberias to parents of Moroccan and Iraqi descent, Peretz started out as a hairdresser, but it didn’t take long for him to turn a lifelong passion for music into a career, both writing and composing his own songs. He released his first album at 22, in 2005, which turned out to be a commercial failure. But that slap of reality didn’t shake him, and his next album in 2007 contained the megahit “Esh,” which rocketed Peretz to stardom.

“Besides his great voice, the fact that Moshe Peretz is a young and multitalented artist — a singer, composer and writer — helped him a lot,” said Eliran Refael, a popular Los Angeles DJ who caters to the Israeli-American crowd. Indeed, a television segment on one of Israel’s top channels described Peretz as one of the most intelligent and sophisticated artists in his genre for his writing and composing skills.

One of the markers of success in Israel is the price a singer commands for a private performance at a wedding — weddings in Israel are often lavish, 700-guest affairs — and Peretz is among the most requested and best-paid entertainers of them all. According to the TV report, he earns approximately $53,000 per week during the busiest wedding season, a total of $800,000 in one summer.

But contrary to many young celebrities who fall victim to the vices of fame and fortune, Peretz, who is currently working on his fifth album, has maintained a reputation of humility and a clean image, too: no tattoos, no drugs, no controversy. That reputation is part of the reason the Israeli Leadership Council chose Peretz as its headliner for the family-friendly community concert, along with Chasidic reggae star Matisyahu.

“He has a good, positive attitude,” said Eli Tene, co-chair of the ILC. And it doesn’t hurt that he’s enormously popular here, too, particularly with the younger generation — his blend of Mizrahi, rock and pop music is lively and infectious.

“It’s going to be such an electric show,” Tene said. “Anyone who’s not going to be there will feel that they really missed out.” 

The I.L.Care community concert will take place Nov. 20 at 6:30 p.m. at the Gibson Amphitheatre at Universal CityWalk. $18 with a volunteer commitment, $90 without. To purchase tickets, visit

All the right ingredients

Israeli megastar Idan Raichel launched his music career as a keyboardist for various other Israeli artists, with the hope of one day producing his own albums. In his first attempt to do so, Raichel created a studio in his parents’ basement in Kfar Saba and began recording anonymous singers from very different cultural backgrounds, including Ethiopians, Arabs, South Africans and Yemenites. His multilingual music was unique, emotional, inspirational and, most important, relatable.

In November 2002, The Idan Raichel Project released its first single, “Bo’ee” (Come With Me), which quickly became a huge radio hit. A month later, the collaborative’s first album was released, captivating Israeli listeners and changing the face of the Israeli music industry.

Raichel, who writes, sings, plays the keyboard and produces on his albums, began performing in the United States and reaching out to American fans in 2005, with his first tour outside of Israel. After recording three top-selling albums, and performing throughout the United States, Mexico, Ethiopia, Europe and at the Nobel Peace Prize awards ceremony in Oslo, Norway, Raichel sat down with TRIBE to talk about life as a musician, his relationship to his songs, his new project and — in his opinion — the two most significant minutes of the year.

TRIBE: How much of the year do you spend performing outside of Israel?

Raichel: We don’t have fixed tour dates. Sometimes we rest at home, travel, and record all in two weeks. We travel a lot, though, which only makes me appreciate the place I came from even more. Whenever we’re on tour, we know that our last destination will be home, which is actually the reason we decided to name our new album “Traveling Home.”

TRIBE: How does all this traveling affect establishing a life in Israel?

Raichel: It’s hard. All my relationships have to be long-distance ones, close to impossible.

TRIBE: What do you enjoy about singing abroad and, specifically, in the United States?

Raichel: When we perform in Israel, we usually play radio hits. In Israel, many look at our music as pop culture. It’s exciting to come here and meet a new crowd, a crowd of people not necessarily familiar with our music or with Israeli culture. Sometimes they are just random people who follow us through Facebook or who found our Web site. The fact that I can bring a taste of Israel to other countries is a great honor.

TRIBE: What is the most personal song you have ever written?

Raichel: All my songs are personal songs about a loss or absence. I tend not to explain the meaning of my songs because I fear that they will lose their meaning to the listeners. A woman once talked to me on the street and told me that the song “Im Telech” [If You’ll Leave] was played at her wedding as she walked down the aisle. During the same week, another woman told me that the same song was played at her father’s funeral. The same song could have different meanings to different people. Once I write a song on paper, it’s no longer mine. I believe in each person taking a song to his own place.

TRIBE: At a recent Q-and-A session at the West Hills Israeli Cultural Center, you spoke of a soldier’s family who put the lyrics of one of your songs on their son’s grave. How did that gesture make you feel?

Raichel: The song “Mikol Ha’ahavot” [Of All the Loves] speaks of someone who is gone but is still everywhere. There is a line in the song that says, “Will you remember them, will you know, you’re in all of them,” which is the line that the soldier’s family put on his grave. It was touching and only proved to me that once I put the song out there, it’s no longer mine. I’m just the tool that passes the message on for people to absorb and utilize.

TRIBE: You have said in interviews that, of all the holidays, you find the Israeli Memorial Day the most important. What is it about the IDF and its soldiers that you find so moving?

Raichel: I think that the 365 days in a year accumulate a certain meaning. At the end of the day, it’s the basic things in life that make it possible. It’s like a chef who cooks at a restaurant and has all the fancy ingredients in the world, but if he doesn’t have sugar, salt or pepper, he can’t cook anything at all. I feel that our army is a basic ingredient. On our memorial day, the 365 days of the Israeli existence in a year are reduced to only two minutes of a siren’s sound. I think that those two minutes truly reflect the Israeli way of life, the Israeli pride, our longing and sadness, our concern for and about the future, our patriotism and our mutual destiny. Those two minutes truly show what all Israelis have in common, if it’s our lives in the present, or the respect we have for our past. To me, those two minutes sharpen our minds and are the epitome of Israeli society.

TRIBE: Do you run your songs by anyone after you write them?

Raichel: One person who I sometimes ask for advice is my partner, Gilad Shmueli, who I produce all my albums with, but even though he sometimes gives me great pointers, we often disagree and I end up doing what I believe in. Either way, he’s my best professional mirror. I sometimes also like to play the new songs to my sister. She shows sensitivity to my work.

TRIBE: You have collaborated with dozens of artists throughout your career. With whom haven’t you worked and would like to in the future?

Raichel: I would be very happy to work with the Israel Philharmonic. They are one big and talented artist.

TRIBE: Do you have any aspirations to produce other artists in the future?

Raichel: I am actually currently working with a soul singer named India.Arie on a new album called “Open Doors.” I wrote the songs, and she’ll be singing them. It’s exciting stuff.

Idan Raichel is currently touring the United States with Grammy Award-winning American soul artist India.Arie and will perform at the Luckman Fine Arts Complex in Los Angeles on Oct. 13. For tickets, visit idanraichelproject.com/en/on-tour.13.

The romanticism of Matt Nathanson

Pop-folkie Matt Nathanson had just returned from hanging in Hawaii, but it was a vacation he only enjoyed “50 percent,” he said.

“I don’t really do it well,” the 38-year-old said of vacationing. “My time off is really spent digesting things for the music.”

Still, for the San Francisco musician, it was a short and well-deserved break. He recently released “Modern Love,” his seventh studio album, and he’s been on the late-night talk-show circuit to promote it. At the time of our interview, he was about to start a brief tour with Maroon 5 and Train (the tour began on Aug. 28), and on Sept. 25, he kicks off the All Night Noise Tour 2011, a headlining trek of North America, including a stop at The Wiltern in Los Angeles, on Oct. 29.

“It’s like a hootenanny,” Nathanson, 38, said of his live shows. “It’s like throwing a house party, and everybody shows up.”

“Modern Love” takes Nathanson beyond the singer-songwriter genre that made his name. The album features horns, electric guitar, percussion and more, on tracks like the lead single, “Faster”; as well as “Run,” a collaboration with country duo Sugarland; and “Kept,” on which finger-picking and atmospherics lead to a climactic electric guitar solo.

Born in 1973 in Massachusetts to a Jewish father and Catholic mother, Nathanson grew up celebrating “Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah and Christmas and Easter,” he said. “It was really weird.”

He’s able to trace back to when he first became interested in pursuing music — when he was 6 or 7 years old and saw a poster of Gene Simmons’ band KISS.

“I remember thinking, ‘I need to be in a band that does something like that, sounds like this,’ ” he said.

After high school, Nathanson enrolled at Pitzer College in Claremont, where he played music on the side. He released his first album, “Please,” in 1993. Over the next 10 years, he put out four more studio albums, steadily building a cult fan base while working with longtime collaborator Mark Weinberg, a producer and writer whom he met in college.

His music has tended toward acoustic folk and gentle rock, and has been featured on TV shows such as “Scrubs” and “One Tree Hill.” It doesn’t sound anything like the hard rock work of KISS, although Nathanson’s look — goatee, spiky hair and sideburns — suggests heavy metal.

In 2002, he scored a contract with Universal Records. But his real breakout success came after he opted out from Universal and signed with Vanguard Records, an independent label. It was for Vanguard that he released “Some Mad Hope” (2007), which featured the platinum-selling single “Come Get Me Higher.” The emotional, catchy song caught on on radio and, seemingly, everywhere.

The success of “Come on Get Higher” was his validation, Nathanson said. “It was this moment of, ‘Oh all right, I can just be me.’ And being me, I’ve never felt that powerful.”

In a description of “Modern Love” online, Nathanson said that the desire to expand his sound drove the new album.

“I had done the singer-songwriter thing — eight albums of it! I didn’t want to be defined by only that,” he wrote on Vanguard’s Web site.

In the same discussion, Nathanson explained the meaning, for him, of “modern love”: “Two opposing ideas banging against each other.”

“Everyone I know was going through personal relationship crisis,” he writes. “Divorce. Affairs. Being alone. Being newly in love. I was watching the people around me struggle and transition. The songs are about them. About me. The struggle to actually love and find love” in a modern world.

Nathanson’s romanticism might come from his obsession with music, where everything stems from emotions. He concedes that his love of music has had its costs.

“I’ve pretty much committed to music my entire life, and that’s pretty much the only thing I’ve dedicated my life to, much to the chagrin of relationships I’ve had, much to the chagrin of family,” Nathanson said. “Music has taken over my life.”

It’s for the same reason that he isn’t religious, he said.

“Judaism doesn’t play a huge role in my life these days; neither does Catholicism … I’m pretty spiritual, but I’m not anywhere when it comes to either one of those religions,” he said. “I’ve never been able to dedicate time to do it correctly.”

This indifference to religion might change, however.

“I long for something in my life that is outside of myself, and I just haven’t quite figured out where to look,” he said. “That’s something that’s happening now that I’m getting closer to 40,” Nathanson said.

But he isn’t likely to become too serious — at least not any time soon. In fact, the name of his upcoming tour draws from a perfectly juvenile lyric from “Modern Love’s” single “Faster”: “You’re all night noise, you’re a siren’s howl.”

Nathanson confirmed that there’s this type of loose sexuality throughout the album.

“They’re all bedroom references,” he said. “I’ve decided that most of my songs are carnal in some ways.”

Amy Winehouse, British singer, 27

Amy Winehouse, the talented but troubled chanteuse, was found dead in her north London flat on July 23. She was 27.

According to a statement made by London’s Metropolitan police, the cause of death is “unexplained.”

The results of an autopsy were inconclusive, and a full toxicology report will not be available for two to four weeks. There is widespread speculation that Winehouse died from a drug overdose or alcohol poisoning. British tabloids, though suspect in their veracity, claim she spent her final days on a drinking and drug binge, reportedly buying heavy narcotics such as ecstasy and cocaine shortly before her death.

For those who followed Winehouse in the press, her very public decline augured disaster. Her entry into the international pop scene in 2007 began with the popular single “Rehab,” in which she flouted the idea of seeking treatment: “They tried to make me go to rehab/I said, ‘No, no, no.’ ” Over the years, she was ensnared by drug arrests, public paroxysms, hospitalizations and other bizarre behaviors. Just last month, Winehouse was forced to cancel the remainder of her European tour after bumbling her way through a performance in Belgrade, Serbia. Videos taken by concert-goers revealed a sozzled songstress, tripping around the stage, casting off her shoes and barely able to belt a lyric.

The crowning moment of Winehouse’s short-lived career came in 2008 with the release of her breakout album “Back to Black.” The album included the notorious single “Rehab,” which became a kind of anthem for bad celebrity behavior. Winehouse went on to win five Grammys that year, including Best New Artist. 

Soulful and irreverent, admired as much for the self-styled obsidian-haired beehive that became her trademark as for her retro-soul sound, Winehouse was a singular star. She proved incredibly resistant to the music industry machine, retaining her distinct style as a lyricist and singer, never becoming a mass-marketed music product churned out by a record label.

Her most popular singles, “Rehab” and “You Know I’m No Good,” are both deeply personal ballads that hint at the demons with which Winehouse wrestled. She crooned about love and liquor, and her lyrics often include admonitions to the men in her life suggestive of her surrender to those personal struggles.

Winehouse was born Sept. 14, 1983, to a Jewish family that claims several jazz musicians in its lineage, according to The Edmonton Journal. Her mother, Janis, is a pharmacist, and her father, Mitch, is a former cab driver who at 59 launched a career as a musician. Mitch Winehouse had been in New York to perform a concert of his recently released jazz album at the famous Blue Note club when he received the news of his daughter’s death. “This isn’t real. I’m completely devastated,” he told The Daily Mirror. In addition to her parents, Winehouse is survived by a brother, Alex.

Winehouse’s sadly prophetic lyrics offered an image of a messy life, one held hostage by an illness Winehouse could not bring herself to treat. Months shy of her 28th birthday, Winehouse’s youth and emotional instability had not permitted the full realization of her potential. She joins a cohort of legendary musicians — including Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison and Janis Joplin — who also reached their often drug-fueled ends at 27.

In loving memory of our chazzan, Debbie Friedman

When the New Reform Congregation [now Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills] was established in 1984, Debbie was our chazzan for 3 years. She responded, and the congregation was thrilled, as truly “the old dreamed new dreams and the youth saw visions.” Our shul was “alive to the sound of music” to Debbie’s presence and her music. Debbie gave voice to the voiceless through her voice and her passion for justice.

Prof. Stanley Chyet z’l’ of Hebrew Union College was a poet and reflected thusly:           

what is that poets do
they sing
wind and insects
the substance of their songs
and maybe of themselves
they wander lost
among flaming riverbanks
at dusk their voices rise
above the howling winds
above the din of insects
their voices rise above tall marsh trees
above tree tops their voices
fling out into space
into the arteries of creation.

Debbie was our musical poet…but not ours alone…to our movement….to the Jewish people…to the world. May she rest in peace as she teaches the angels above to sing songs of healing…a Mishaberach to you, Debbie.

Singer Debbie Friedman hospitalized

UPDATE: Jewish singer/songwriter, performer Debbie Friedman dies

Songwriter Debbie Friedman has been hospitalized in Orange County, Calif.

Friedman is reportedly sedated and on a respirator, according to an email sent Wednesday from the West Coast office of the Union for Reform Judaism. The email asked that prayers be said on Friedman’s behalf, as well as for her mother, sister and aunt.

A spokesperson for the URJ told JTA the union has received no further updates on Friedman’s condition.

An immensely popular singer and songwriter, Friedman, who is in her late fifties, is widely credited with reinvigorating synagogue music by introducing a more folksy, sing-along style to American congregations. In 2007, she was appointed to the faculty of the Reform movement’s cantorial school in a sign that her style had gained mainstream acceptance.

She is best known for her composition “Mi Shebeirach,” a prayer for healing that is sung in many North American congregations.

A video tribute to Debbie Friedman

Ray Benson (Asleep at the Wheel): The biggest Jew in country music [VIDEO]

CRAPONNE SUR ARZON, France (JTA)—Think Jews and country music and you’ll probably come up with Kinky Friedman, the cigar-chomping frontman of the iconoclastic Texas Jewboys, who is also a humorist, mystery novelist and failed but flamboyant candidate for Texas governor.

The real Jewish king of country music, however, is Ray Benson, the nine-time Grammy-winning leader of the country western swing band Asleep at the Wheel.

At 6-foot-7, Ray Benson has been described as a “Jewish giant” and “the biggest Jew in country.”

He literally and figuratively towers over the stage in a Stetson and fancy tooled boots, with a grizzled beard and long, thinning hair pulled back in a pony tail.

“I saw miles and miles of Texas, all the stars up in the sky,” he sings in his deep, mellow baritone. “I saw miles and miles of Texas, gonna live here ‘til I die.”

Now 57, Benson was born in Philadelphia but has lived in Austin for 35 years. He talks with a twang, plays golf with Willie Nelson, has recorded more than 30 albums and was named Texas Musician of the Year in 2004.

By his own estimate, he is the only Jewish singing star in the country western scene.

“Kinky’s not a country western singer—he’s Kinky!” Benson laughed during a conversation with JTA this summer at the annual Country Rendez-vous festival in south-central France, where Asleep at the Wheel wound up a five-nation European tour.

Unlike Friedman, however, who makes playing with stereotypes part of his in-your-face persona, Benson has—until now—kept his religious identity out of the limelight.

“I didn’t want to be known as a Jewish country western singer; I wanted to be known as a country western singer who happens to be Jewish,” he said.
“You don’t usually tell your religion or politics on stage,” he added. “For years, because I’m 6’7” and people don’t think Jews are tall, and because I guess I don’t look like the stereotype Jew, most people don’t known I’m Jewish.”

Benson got his musical start as a child in suburban Philadelphia, where he grew up in a Reform Jewish home. He and his sister put together a folk group, and he was only 11 when he played his first professional gig.

“In those days, if you’re a Jewish kid, you go to school, you go to college or you enter your parents’ business,” Benson said. “So, I obviously chose a different path.”

Benson founded Asleep at the Wheel in 1970 along with several friends, including his former Philadelphia schoolmate Lucky Oceans, a pedal steel guitar player born Ruben Gosfield, who now lives in Australia.

The band based itself in West Virginia and California before moving to Austin in 1973. Over the decades, Benson has remained the anchor of the group, while some 90 musicians have moved in and out of its line-up.

On the road much of the year, the band has criss-crossed the nation, playing everywhere from down-home dance halls to the White House—they were, in fact, scheduled to perform there on Sept. 11, 2001.

Asleep at the Wheel has played at inauguration parties for Presidents Bush and Clinton and expect to play for whomever is elected in November. Earlier this year, they played at an Austin fund-raiser for Barack Obama where the Democratic presidential nominee joined them onstage for a chorus.

In the 1970s, when the band first started touring, Benson recalled, country music was a “southern, conservative, Christian, white domain—period,” and he repeatedly came up against offhand prejudice and ignorance about Jews and Judaism.

He cites as an example a member of Tammy Wynette’s entourage, who blamed “the Jews in New York” for failing to promote her career, and had a hard time believing Benson when he told him he was Jewish. Then there’s the wife of a musician who had never heard of Judaism as a religion.

“I asked her what she thought a Jew was, and she said, ‘Someone who’s cheap,’ ” Benson recalled.

“So the stereotypes are there, and they’re still there,” he said.

“I always felt myself to be an ambassador,” he added. “I’m not a great practicing Jew on a daily basis, but I’m Jewish. And so I try to bring to them that we’re just people.”

Recently, for the first time, Benson started doing this publicly, making explicit reference to his Jewish identity on stage.

The revelation comes as part of “A Ride With Bob,”  a musical that Benson co-wrote, based on the life of Benson’s musical hero, the Western Swing pioneer Bob Wills, who died in 1975.

Benson stars in the play, along with members of Asleep at the Wheel. Since its premiere in 2005, it has played to audiences all over Texas and elsewhere, including a sell-out performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington.

The premise is an imagined conversation between Benson and Wills. In it, Wills asks Benson how “a Jewish boy from Philadelphia” can play western swing music. Benson responds: “The same way that a white, hayseed hillbilly from the West Texas panhandle” can play, as Wills did, blues and jazz.

“Basically in this play I confront the issue, and I let the cat out of the bag—hey, I’m Jewish and happen to be the leader of the ‘modern kings of western swing,’” Benson said.

“In the context of the play I was able to reveal this and also give it context,” he added.

The point he wanted to make, he said, is that it doesn’t matter where you come from or what your religion or background is in terms of music, art or other creative endeavors. What’s important, he said, “is what’s in your heart or what’s in your mind or what’s in your talent.”

Asleep at the Wheel: ‘Route 66’ (live)


Iranian Jews still awaiting apology from Muslim singer

Dariush live in Las Vegas 2007

The concert at the Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino in Las Vegas was advertised as a “night to remember,” and it lived up to the hype.

During the Dariush Eghbali concert on Dec. 23, which drew about 5,000 Iranian Americans, local Iranian Jewish fans were shocked when the popular Iranian Muslim singer made what some considered to be an anti-Semitic remark between songs.

Despite a recent meeting with Eghbali, the controversy continues, more than three months later, as the Iranian Jewish community awaits an official apology from the singer.

During the concert, Eghbali quoted an alleged passage from a book he attributed to Lebanese American poet Khalil Gibran, best known in the United States for the book “The Prophet.”

In a video clip (since removed) from the Las Vegas concert posted to Eghbali’s Web site, dariush2000.com, the singer speaks in Persian, saying, “Different people have different talents.” He elaborates, saying that Iranians notice one bad tree in a beautiful park; Germans are power-seekers; Italians are fashion-oriented; and Jews are “mochareb,” which is the Persian word for “saboteurs.”

After making the statement, Eghbali reiterated that the words were Gibran’s and told the audience he had a message of harmony and peace for all peoples.

Iranian Jews who attended the concert began circulating e-mails denouncing the singer, calling for boycotts of his shows. Others called on Calabasas-based concert promoter Tapesh to pressure Eghbali into making a formal apology. Tapesh issued a written statement to the media indicating they were not responsible for the comment he made and did not endorse it.

In late February, Iraj Shamsian, a close Iranian Jewish friend of Eghbali, brokered a meeting between the singer and nine leaders from the local Iranian American Jewish Federation (IAJF).

“At the meeting Dariush said he really didn’t think Jewish people are saboteurs and it was something he read in a Farsi-translated book,” Shamsian said. “At the meeting he clarified that he never meant to hurt anyone and was sorry some people were hurt by what he said.”

Elias Eshaghian, chairman of the IAJF, said that while he and other Iranian Jewish leaders were initially pleased with the outcome of the meeting with Eghbali, they are awaiting a formal letter of apology from the singer.

“We are surprised that even though he expressed his regret over his statement … he has still not released a written apology to start healing the wounds in our community,” Eshaghian said.

Shamsian said the 57-year-old singer, who lives in Los Angeles and Paris, was shocked by the allegations of anti-Semitism and disappointed with the e-mails circulated about him.

“He was very hurt when he received those e-mails,” Shamsian said. “He told me it was one of the worst experiences of his life, because after 40 years of being a beloved performer in the Persian community he never thought Jewish people would think he was anti-Semitic. He’s always had a message of harmony amongst all people.”

The controversy surrounding Eghbali’s statement briefly unified the local Iranian Jewish community, which is often plagued by infighting. During a Jan. 2 meeting, nearly 70 Iranian Jewish leaders from different organizations gathered at the IAJF synagogue in West Hollywood to discuss the community’s response to Eghbali’s comments.

The community leadership agreed that a tempered response to the incident would be needed once the singer issued a formal apology.

“We need to respond to [Eghbali] properly but also calm our community because emotions are running high,” said Rabbi David Shofet of the Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills. “We need to use our energies in more productive ways to help resolve other more serious issues the community faces.”

Iranian Jews who have seen the online video of Eghbali’s Las Vegas concert said his statement may have been insensitive but was not intended to be anti-Semitic when placed in context, since he was calling on all people of the world to set aside their differences and unite in harmony.

“There is no benefit in him [Eghbali] saying something negative about Jews,” said Bijan Khalili, an Iranian Jewish publisher. “Unlike Ahmadinejad who wins support in the Arab streets by bad-mouthing Israel and the Jews, Dariush wins nothing by make any alleged anti-Semitic statement — so it’s obvious there was no negative intent by him.”

Karmel Melamed has more on this story in the Iranian American Jews blog.

Khalili said Eghbali is not known to have made anti-Semitic remarks in the past and has enjoyed a strong Jewish fan base for 30 years.

Shamsian also defended Eghbali, saying the singer “does not have an anti-Semitic bone in his body [nor] have I never heard Dariush say anything anti-Semitic or express hate for any religious group.”

Eghbali, who is on tour in Europe, did not return repeated calls for comment.

Iranian Jews, for the most part, have enjoyed warm relations with their Muslim compatriots since both groups immigrated to Southern California following the 1979 Iranian revolution. Khalili and other local Iranian Jews said they did not want isolated incidents like the one involving Eghbali blown out of proportion and jeopardizing their existing friendships with Iranian Muslims.

Dariush Fakheri, one of the founders of the Eretz-SIAMAK Cultural Center in Tarzana, said he was disappointed with the IAJF for missing the opportunity to really engage Eghbali and educate local Iranian Muslims about anti-Semitism through help from Jewish groups such as the Anti-Defamation League.

“We are not radical Islamic leaders to issue fatwas against people who insult us,” Fakheri said. “We as Jews are a peace-loving people and should have put together seminars to educate Muslims about issues of anti-Semitism — after this incident we see the importance of gatherings such as these.”

Iranian Jewish activist Noorollah Gabai (left) and Iranian Jewish publisher Bijan Khalili at IAJF meeting on January 2. Photo by Karmel Melamed

Sondheim and Yiddish songs are ‘like prayer’ for Patinkin

Mandy Patinkin performs “Finishing the Hat” in Sunday in the Park with George
“I have acquired a taste for Patinkin verging on addiction,” Clive Barnes wrote in the New York Post in 2001.

Maybe you know him as Inigo Montoya, the Spanish fencer in “The Princess Bride,” who shouts, “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!”

Or perhaps you were introduced to him in “Yentl,” as the serious yeshiva boy whose confused feelings for Babs’ cross-dressing Torah student entwined him in romance.

Or maybe you simply know him as Mandy Patinkin, master showman.

The actor/singer/entertainer will perform for one night only on Feb. 2 at the Kodak Theatre in Hollywood in a career retrospective showcasing his original interpretations of Broadway songs with longtime collaborator pianist Paul Ford.

In his eclectic career of nearly three decades, Patinkin, 55, has moved comfortably from musical theater to television and film work, as well as solo performances showcasing his versatile singing voice. But the theme that unifies most of his work is his near-religious devotion to the stage.

“It’s what I love to do more than anything in the world,” Patinkin said. “It’s like food for me — to perform these songs at a time when the world is so stressed — physically, economically and environmentally bleeding.”

If that sounds bleak, he offers “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” lyrics as a kind of meditation: “When all the world is a hopeless jumble, and the raindrops tumble all around, Heaven opens a magic lane…”

Patinkin describes himself as a “mailman,” transmitting the messages of songwriters like Stephen Sondheim and Irving Berlin, but says he avoids encumbering the material with his own feelings.

Listening to Patinkin wax poetic, it seems implausible that he could keep a cool distance from any performance.

“I am someone who feels a lot,” he said by telephone from his home in New York. “I can’t choke off who I am.”

His intensity may stem from growing up a Conservative Jew on the South Side of Chicago, where he first experienced the power of music when performing in the synagogue choir.

Raised in a traditional family, Patinkin attended Hebrew school, performed cantorial solos during High Holy Days and studied drama at the local JCC, where he discovered his calling.

“If you love someone, tell them,” Patinkin remembers his drama teacher saying about the musical “Carousel.”

“If that’s what this genre of material is about, I like it. And I want to visit it more often,” Patinkin remembers thinking. This message sent him straight to Julliard to study acting.

One of his first and arguably best-known roles was as a yeshiva student opposite Streisand in the movie, “Yentl.” Other actors might have feared being typecast by a Jewish-themed film with predominantly Jewish characters, but not Patinkin.

“All my roles are Jewish,” he said. “Whether I’m Inigo Montoya or a Spanish cabdriver or Georges Seurat — there’s a Jewish core to all of them, because it’s me, and I can’t avoid who I am.”

Indeed, many of Patinkin’s career decisions have been motivated by emotion.

He caused a stir last summer when he asked to be released from his role on the CBS television show “Criminal Minds,” reportedly over creative differences. Although Patinkin wouldn’t say, rumors have circulated that he disapproved of the show’s treatment of violence. Another time, he left the series “Chicago Hope” because it kept him away from his family.

Is he afraid his choices might hamper his success?

“No. I believe attending to my family has only helped me professionally, never hurt me,” Patinkin said. “You prioritize by listening to your heart.”

His heart has found its voice in modern show tunes. Sondheim is “the William Shakespeare of our time,” he said. Show tunes are songs that “hit a nerve which humanity wants to revisit constantly.” Musical scores have “a heartbeat.”

For him, music is like prayer.

“Lyric is what always drives me, and the words and what the stories are, but great music is extremely spiritual,” he says, delivering his words with the emphasis of a Shakespearean soliloquy. “Great music without any lyrics at all is some people’s complete connection to spirituality and religion. Great religions almost all have music in them. When you combine the two, it allows you to feel the thought.”

If he is effusive about the stage, he is absolutely unconstrained with his feelings about Judaism. But during one performance, his Jewish exuberance translated into a political statement, and it was not well received.

On Sept. 10, 2001 Patinkin sang a Hebrew prayer during a performance in New York and then placed an Israeli flag and a Palestinian flag together on top of a stool. The sound of an explosion blared. He then sang the Sondheim lyric from “Into the Woods”: “Careful the things you do, children will listen.”

The next day, after the World Trade Center attacks, an Israeli performer angrily pointed out riotous celebration in Gaza, and said they were waving the same flag to celebrate the destruction of Sept. 11 that Patinkin had used the night before during a prayer for peace.

Patinkin hasn’t performed “Children Will Listen” the same way since.

“I’m not interested in making people upset or angry,” he said, defending his act. “If I don’t have your attention and your calm, than you won’t hear the positive thoughts these people wrote, the wishes for humanity, for people to be together and not hate each other. I can sacrifice certain things to gain greater attention to the cause.”

These days, instead of making political statements, he is pursuing peaceful Jewish causes such as the Arava Institute, an environmental studies center in Israel, and touring his formidable Yiddish repertoire.

“It’s a gift to have a heritage, a culture that you come from — it’s your gift! It’s your map of the world you came from. You can’t avoid it, and to deny it is stupid, it’s really stupid,” he declared.

For Patinkin, ignoring one’s heritage is ignoble and has consequences: “You’re depriving yourself of one of the greatest conscious and unconscious food sources that your history has to offer you.”

And then, without any drama at all, he said: “Being Jewish has been one of the great gifts of my life.”

The Calendar Girls: Picks, kicks and plugs



” target=”_blank”>http://americancinematheque.com.

Have a thirst for higher education, but don’t want to deal with the hassle of test taking, registration and studying? Now you can go “Back to College For a Day” and learn from renowned USC and UCLA professors, among others. Lecture topics include the impact of stress on behavior and the brain, the coexistence of Christians, Muslims and Jews in Medieval Spain, and law in a multicultural world. 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. $179 (parking and lunch). Mount St. Mary’s College, Chalon Campus, 12001 Chalon Road, Los Angeles. (818) 704-4207. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.plays411.com/thrillme or ” target=”_blank”>http://maccabilosangeles.com/.

The Jewish Single Parents and Singles Association has a lovely Sunday all planned out for you: start out with a hearty omelet or toasted bagel with cream cheese at local favorite Katella Deli, then spend the rest of the day with the group, wandering the glorious art-filled halls of the Getty Center Museum. Exhibitions to check out include the photographs of Andr�(c) Kert�(c)sz, the history of the nude in photography and Nicole Cohen’s critically acclaimed video installation, “Please Be Seated.” 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Katella Deli, 4470 Katella Ave., Los Alamitos. (714) 964-7031.

Harry Boychick is inviting you to his bar mitzvah. Don’t know him? Doesn’t matter. None of the guests know Harry, but they will be joining him and his family at a rollicking reception. Amy Lord, the creator of “Grandma Sylvia’s Funeral,” brings us her new interactive show, “The Boychick Affair: The Bar Mitzvah of Harry Boychick,” where the audience joins in the insanity, mingling with actors, dancing, laughing and even partaking in the celebratory meal. This promises to be unlike any show (or bar mitzvah) you’ve ever been to. Sundays at 2 p.m. (open-ended run). $36 (twice chai for the bar mitzvah boy!). Price includes meal. Hayworth Theatre, 2509 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. (800) 838-3006. ” target=”_blank”>http://www.westsidejcc.org.

Drag your honey out of bed to do some good today. ATID’s Couples Havurah, for young Jews (married or dating) between the ages of 21 and 39, has planned a volunteer day where you and your other can help prepare kosher meals for people with HIV/AIDS. “Project Kitchen Soup” will leave you feeling so warm and fuzzy inside that you’ll forget you woke up at 7 a.m. 7:45 a.m.-12:15 p.m. Free. Hirsh Family Kosher Kitchen, 338 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles. R.S.V.P. required, (310) 481-3244. ” border=”0″ vspace=”8″ hspace=”8″ align=”left” alt=”pick”>Erudite composers Hans Gal and Robert Kahn were forced into exile when they fled Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. Their music was removed from libraries and destroyed, and they were stripped of their prominent posts. Tonight, contemporary musicians on cello, bassoon and piano will reclaim the banished music of their forbears during an evening of “Recovered Music by Exiled German Jewish Composers.” Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Stephen S. Wise Temple and Kehillat Israel are underwriting the program and proceeds will benefit the Alfred and Miriam Wolf Scholarship Fund of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. 4 p.m. $36. Second Space — The Stage @ Santa Monica, Santa Monica College Performing Arts Center, Santa Monica Boulevard (between 10th and 11th streets). (310) 434-3414. ” border=”0″ vspace=”8″ hspace=”8″ align=”left” alt=”pick”>Comedian Wendy Liebman confessed something during a Hillel fundraiser last summer that deeply shames her: “I have separation anxiety … so I can’t do laundry.” The fundraiser was so successful, it’s happening again. Hillel 818 Presents “Comedy Night” is a cacophony of L.A.’s most wicked, witty and wild talent: the handsome Elon Gold, Lisa Ann Walter, who’s not sure if she’s naughty or nice, and Liebman. With nights like these, the partnership between the Pierce and Valley Colleges Hillel and the CSUN Hillel seems like a match made in heaven. 7 p.m. (VIP reception), 8 p.m. (show). $10-$75. The World Famous Laugh Factory, 8001 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. (818) 886-5101 or

‘Purple’ actress cherishes her own colorful history

It’s not unusual for an actress to assume a professional name, but it was quite a stretch for the daughter of Haya Kapelovitch and granddaughter of Sofia Katz to become Stephanie St. James and star in the African American cast of “The Color Purple.”

St. James has the role of Squeak, an aspiring singer of mixed race, in the musical about racism and womanly fortitude in the South, now playing at the Ahmanson Theatre through March 9, 2008.

Taking a break from her eight-show-a-week schedule, St. James spoke with deep affection about her grandmother, Sofia Katz, a Holocaust survivor from Poland.

Katz was a small child when the Nazis swept into her village of Budslav and killed her parents and siblings, along with most of the 175 resident Jewish families.

St. James isn’t sure how her grandmother survived.

“She never liked to talk about it,” the actress said.

At age 12, Katz resettled in Israel, worked at the Kfar Harif moshav, married and had a daughter named Haya, who grew up and enrolled at the Hebrew University.

“One day, while standing in the cafeteria line, she met a South American student from Guyana. His name was James Smith, they married, and had a son, my brother Nicholas, who was born in Jerusalem,” St. James said.

In 1972, the Smiths moved to Miami, where St. James was born in 1974. Being raised in a mixed-race family in the South had its problems, but three years later the family moved to the more liberal environment of the San Francisco Bay Area.

“My parents spoke Hebrew at home, and until I was 6 or 7, I spoke it quite fluently, but then I lost it,” St. James recalled. “I can still understand quite a bit, but I don’t speak it.”

Her father was raised as a Seventh Day Adventist, but there is no doubt about her own identity.

“I am Jewish,” she said, and hopes one day to fulfill her grandmother’s dream that she marry a nice Jewish boy.

Her closest family relationship was with her grandmother, who died two months ago.

“My grandmother was a truly strong woman, who spoke six languages and went to junior college to learn English,” St. James said. “She wasn’t happy when her daughter married a non-Jew, but she loved us grandchildren and she lived for us. We talked to each other every day.”

In 1996, St. James visited Israel, where she has many cousins and friends.

Her mother recognized Stephanie’s talents early on and enrolled her in dancing, singing and acting classes. St. James applies her talents as a recording artist, spanning the genres of soul, rock and pop, and has performed in New York and with the European tour companies of “Grease,” “Fame” and “Footloose,” as well as in films.

When not touring, St. James lives in North Hollywood.

“The Color Purple” is presented by Oprah Winfrey and is headlined by the musical’s Broadway stars Jeannette Bayardelle, Felicia P. Fields, and Michelle Williams, former member of Destiny’s Child.

For tickets, call (213) 972-4400 or visit http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org

Stephanie St. James

Think you know ‘The Jazz Singer’? You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!

On Oct. 6, 1927, audiences attending the premiere of “The Jazz Singer” at New York’s Warner Theatre witnessed a revolution that gave voice to a medium that had lived in silence since its birth, more than 30 years before. With his double-barrel delivery of the improvised line, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothin’ yet. Wait a minute, I tell ya. You ain’t heard nothin’!” Al Jolson fired the ad-lib heard around the world, signifying the death of the silent era and the birth of the “talkies.”

It’s been 80 years, and now the American Cinematheque is celebrating the anniversary with a three-day tribute to Jolson that includes a screening of a new digitally restored print of “The Jazz Singer,” screening Oct. 5 at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. In addition, Warner Bros. plans to release a special three-disc DVD set including the restored film plus several of the first shorts produced by Vitaphone, Warner’s pioneer sound division.

“The Jazz Singer” tells the story of Jakie Rabinowitz, a cantor’s son who rejects his father’s wishes to follow family tradition and serve in the synagogue, pursuing instead a career in show business as a jazz singer. The music-based story afforded Warners the opportunity to produce a feature film using the sound-on-disc Vitaphone process they had recently licensed from Bell Telephone. Up to that point, Vitaphone had been used only experimentally on short subjects.

The Warners predicted, correctly, that “The Jazz Singer” would be “without a doubt, the biggest stride since the birth of the industry.” But the film’s importance may not rest solely on the fact that it was the first sound film. It was also the first film to boldly address the assimilation of immigrant Jews into American culture.

“It is basically a showbiz story, but in back of it is the big question of assimilation and, of course, the conflict of the generations,” Herbert Goldman, author of the book “Jolson: The Legend Comes to Life,” said in an interview. Goldman, who will be a guest panelist at the Cinematheque event adds, “There was a special appeal to the Jewish people, but the national audience was not Jewish, and yet it went over with them too. When you think about it, it’s amazing that for the first talking picture Warner Bros. chose a theme that was so overtly Jewish for a national audience.”

It may not be so amazing, considering the parallel between Jakie Rabinowitz and the Warners themselves. Like Jakie, the Warner brothers left home to enter show business, and like so many of the other Jewish studio moguls, they assimilated themselves into secular American culture. In his book “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” author Neal Gabler points out ‘”The Jazz Singer’ did something that was extremely rare in Hollywood; it provided an extraordinary revealing window on the dilemmas of the Hollywood Jews generally, and the Warners specifically.”

“The Jazz Singer” began as a short story called “The Day of Atonement,” published in Everybody’s Magazine in 1922. The author was Samson Raphaelson, who would go on to become a top writer in Hollywood, known for witty and sophisticated screenplays, many of which were directed by the legendary Ernst Lubitsch. Jolson, already a popular entertainer, read the story and was drawn to it because he felt the story’s conflict between an aging cantor and his “Americanized” son who yearned to be in show business mirrored his own life.

Jolson brought the story to DW Griffith, who rejected it because he felt it was too racial. The other studios in town passed for the same reason. Apparently, Raphaelson was unaware of Jolson’s efforts. When Jolson met the writer at a nightclub, he told him he wanted to turn the story into a musical revue. Raphaelson dismissed the idea and instead adapted his story into a straight dramatic play. Ironically, Raphaelson had been inspired to write his story after seeing Jolson perform in “Robinson Crusoe, Jr.” in 1917 at the University of Illinois, while the young author was a student there. Raphaelson recalled, “I shall never forget the first five minutes of Jolson — his velocity, the amazing fluidity with which he shifted from tremendous absorption in his audience to a tremendous absorption in his song … when he finished I turned to the girl beside me, dazed with memories of my childhood on the East Side … my God, this isn’t a jazz singer, this is a cantor!”

The original title of Raphaelson’s play was “Prayboy” but it was changed to “The Jazz Singer” before its Broadway opening on Sept. 14, 1925. The star of the show was vaudeville comedian George Jessel. Reviews of the show were lukewarm, and it got off to a slow start. But since the audiences were 90 percent Jewish, it picked up momentum around the High Holy Days and ran for 38 weeks, closing only because Jessel had signed a contract with Warner Bros. The day before closing, Warner Bros. purchased the rights for $50,000, presumably with the intention of having Jessel reprise his stage role. According to Jessel, in Neal Gabler’s book “An Empire of Their Own,” Harry Warner thought, “It would be a good picture to make for the sake of racial tolerance, if nothing else.”

The story of why Jessel was replaced by Jolson is a film history “Rashomon.” One version is that Jessel’s contract with Warner was for silent films, but when Jessel discovered it was going to be a Vitaphone production, he demanded $10,000 extra. Jessel would later claim the reason he did not do the film was not over money differences, but because he objected to the revised ending. In the play, the son abandons the stage and becomes cantor of his father’s synagogue, but in the film, he remains an entertainer. Jessel demanded they keep the original ending, but Jack Warner refused. Another version is that Jessel was upset over the casting of two non-Jews, Warner Oland and Eugenie Besserer, as Jakie’s parents. According to Neal Gabler in his book, “Jessel was probably too Jewish for the kind of assimilation story that Jack and Sam Warner wanted to make. To them ‘The Jazz Singer’ was more of a personal dramatization of their own family conflicts than a plea for racial tolerance, and they would want to cast a Jew that was as assimilated as they were.” Losing the film role plagued Jessel for the rest of his life.

The opening of “The Jazz Singer” lived up to the film’s tag line “Warner Brothers’ Supreme Triumph!” According to The New York Times, it received “The biggest ovation in a theater since the introduction of Vitaphone.” Variety called the film “Undoubtedly the best thing Vitaphone ever put on the screen.” But Miles Kreuger, president of The Institute of the American Musical, attributes the film’s success solely to its star: “It was Al Jolson, even more than the film itself, or even the content of the film that made it an international success. Just the fact that the whole world, which had heard Jolson on phonograph records, could finally see him in a movie, that is the key to the success of ‘The Jazz Singer.'”

Sitcom superstars, sultry songstresses, literary diamonds


Bob Saget will forever be remembered as Danny Tanner from “Full House.” Now, instead of guiding the household with his wise advice and calm demeanor, Saget is exposing the sitcom family’s sexual exploits on cable television. “Bob Saget: That Ain’t Right” was taped in front of a packed audience at New York University and will debut on HBO tonight. His wildly inappropriate stand-up comedy routine covers such dirty ground as animal sex, snuff videos, prison and the personal sex lives of his former “House” mates. Although his sense of humor might make your rabbi blush, word on the street is that he is very entertaining. And a mensch.

10-11 p.m. Also, Aug. 30, Aug. 31, Sept. 4, Sept. 7, Sept. 10 and Sept. 20.


You’ve heard of Christmas in July … now you can have Chanukah in August! Grab your gelt and head to Thousand Oaks to take part in the creation of a real holiday treat cooked up by Harvey Shield, Richard Jarboe and Chayim Ben Ze’ev. “Maccabeat!” is a rockin’ musical take on the story of Judah the Maccabee and his cooler-than-thou Greek rivals. Forbidden lovers Judah and Allura force two different cultures to confront and learn from one another. A heated battle ensues and, well, you already know the rest of this tale. Hebrew hotties, Jerusalem Valley girls and a biblical boy band — it’s the Chanukkah story like you’ve never seen it before!

Part of the Thousand Oaks Festival of New Musicals, Aug. 25-26. 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. $24 (two-day pass includes admission to all four staged readings plus workshops, discussions and a festival party.) Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd. For tickets call Ticketmaster, (213) 480-3232. ” border = ‘0’ vspace = ‘8’ alt=”Sophie Millman” >

Sophie Millman’s golden blonde hair, sparkling blue eyes and delicate facial features recall the old days of Hollywood glamour. But this 24-year-old Russian Israeli Canadian beauty is no aspiring actress. She’s a jazz singer with a dark chocolate voice that’s set to take the U.S. by storm. Millman is touring New York and California in support of her new album, “Make Someone Happy,” and the predictions from jazz critics are that she’ll be making lots of music lovers very happy. Swoon to this chanteuse’s infectious crooning in “Rocket Love,” “Fever” and the particularly meaningful “Eli, Eli,” written by the Jewish Hungarian poet Hannah Senesh, who sacrificed her life to save her family from the Nazis.

8:30 p.m. $15. Catalina Jazz Club, 6725 Sunset Blvd., Hollywood. (323) 466-2210. ” border = ‘0’ vspace = ‘8’ alt=”Edward Schwarzschild’ >
“The Family Diamond” is a collection of jewels. Literary gems, that is. Early reviews for Edward Schwarzschild’s second novel, comprised of nine short stories, have been sparkling: “each story is as satisfying as a full moon,” writes one author. “An achingly beautiful collection,” writes another. To see the value of the diamonds with your own eyes, visit Dutton’s tonight and meet the author, his wife and maybe the rest of his family too.

7 p.m. Free. Dutton’s Brentwood Books, 11975 San Vicente Blvd., Los Angeles. (310) 476-6263. ” border = ‘0’ vspace = ‘8’ alt=”Dinah Berland”

If you’re a (Jewish) bookworm, this is your week! Not one, but two more book readings are taking place tonight. In Pasadena, teenybopper idol turned television director Robby Benson reads and discusses “Who Stole the Funny?” The satirical novel parodies the world of sitcoms and gives a behind-the-scenes look at the ditsy stars, meddling money-men and sexual escapades that Benson witnessed firsthand while directing more than 100 episodes of “Ellen,” “Friends,” “Dharma & Greg” and other hit shows. Back at Dutton’s, Dinah Berland covers a very different Jewish topic: prayers. She’ll be signing “Hours of Devotion: Fanny Neuda’s Book of Prayers for Jewish Women,” a restoration of a cherished 19th century prayer book.

Benson: 7 p.m. Free. Vroman’s Bookstore, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena. ” border = ‘0’ vspace = ‘8’ alt=”Clare Burson” >

Awarded one of 12 Six Points Fellowships for Emerging Jewish Artists in April, Tennessee native Clare Burson is hard at work on “Invisible Ink,” a 10-song album of original Jewish music infused with Southern Americana. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t diligently promoting her recent release “Thieves,” which showcases her warm voice and songwriting talents. She’ll be hitting up all the big towns, including ours, this summer and fall.

8 p.m. $8. Tangiers, 2138 Hillhurst Ave., Los Angeles. (323) 666-8666.

Rita, Israel’s reigning diva, plays intimate evening in L.A.

The Rita show in Rio de Janeiro this February

Only Rita could have pulled it off.

Her famous “One” concert was the first time any Israeli recording artist has attempted such an extravagant, multimedia performance. With its crew of 50 tumbling dancers, grandiose costumes, pyrotechnics and video art, the $5 million production looked like it came right off the Las Vegas Strip.

Last summer’s show at the Tel Aviv Exhibition Center, which took its inspiration from Céline Dion’s year-round Caesar’s Palace concert, “A New Day,” drew close to 100,000 fans over a period of one month. That’s a lot of concertgoers for a country with a population of some 7 million, especially considering the concert was held during the height of the second Lebanon War.

“It was like a miracle,” said Rita, who much like Madonna and Cher eschews her last name. “It was a huge success.”

The concert proved that after 25 years on the stage, Rita is Israel’s most beloved diva. And at 45, the daring performer shows no signs of slowing down.

This month, Rita has something more intimate planned for Angelenos. Only 500 tickets are available for her June 5 performance at the American Jewish University’s (formerly the University of Judaism) Gindi Auditorium.

“My desire in bringing Rita to this location, as opposed to a larger venue which we could have easily sold, is to provide people the unique opportunity to experience an intimate evening with one of Israel’s best,” said Gady Levy, dean and vice president of the AJU’s department of continuing education. “What I believe Rita does best is connect with her audience during a show. The close, informal setting will allow her to connect with the audience even more.”

The Tehran-born singer, known for her passionate love ballads, already enjoys a built-in Los Angeles fan club. After the Islamic revolution in Iran in the late 1970s, most of her family in Iran split between Israel and Los Angeles, and she maintains close ties with her Los Angeles family, not to be confused with her Jewish fans abroad, who she also terms “family.”

Born in 1962, Rita Yahan-Farouz dreamed of performing from the time she was 4, when she sang into a microphone at her uncle’s engagement party, while standing on a chair.

“While singing, I remember it very clearly … very, very, very clearly…. I knew that that’s what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I felt like I was home,” she said.

Her Zionist father felt it was time to pack their bags in 1970 after Rita’s sister came home crying because she refused to recite a Muslim prayer at school. The singer moved to Israel with her family at age 8.

As a teenager in Israel, Rita worked her way through dance school, acting school and voice lessons. The day after performing one of her singles for the Israeli Pre-Eurovision Song Contest, the Persian beauty was mobbed on the bus by new fans.

“It was a Cinderella story,” she said. “I didn’t know that it became that I could never go on a bus again. I got out after two stations. The entire bus was on me, touching and asking, and I didn’t know what happened. It was strange, very strange, very new, very frightening.”

But Rita didn’t set out to be the Israeli idol she is today.

“You don’t think big,” she said. “You’re innocent. It’s not like now that everyone sees all these contests, like ‘American Idol.’ It’s much more something that burns inside of you that you want to sing to people — you don’t think about big success, fame, nothing like that. It’s much deeper.”

Rita is flattered by her comparison to Canadian American legend Celine Dion, although when asked who her American idols are, she answers with little hesitation: “Beyonce. I don’t know whether to kiss or hit her because she’s amazing. She’s really something. She sings, she dances. I like very much the last record of Christian Aguilera.”

She counts Kate Bush and Barbra Streisand among her earlier influences for their multifaceted talents.

Of Dion she said, “I think [she] has a great voice — a great, great voice — but I never sat and cried when I heard her.” Nevertheless, it’s hard to deny the similarities.

As a thespian, Rita has starred in Israel’s stage musicals of “My Fair Lady” and “Chicago.” Despite the occasional provocative, sexy dress, Rita, a mother of two (Meshi, 15, and Noam, 6) radiates a pure, “put together” image.

Rita married her teenage sweetheart, singer-songwriter Rami Kleinstein, who has written, arranged and produced many of her albums and who has performed at American Jewish University in the past. Their musical marriage is one of the most celebrated and enduring in Israel.

Rita’s attempt to break into the international market was cut short, in part, by her commitment to her family. She became pregnant with her second daughter while on tour in Europe promoting her English album, “A Time for Peace,” which sold just 20,000 copies.

“I think this is a very important decision to make,” she said. “I decided that I didn’t want to be famous and miserable when I come home alone. That’s why I had to decide that my main career will be in one place, so I could build a family with children and a husband.”

Old-school Rita at Eurovision 1990

Debbie Friedman, L.A. Opera, Norman Mailer and David Mamet

Saturday the 3rd

Debbie Friedman strums and sings old and new favorites from her Jewish folk repertoire tonight at Shomrei Torah Synagogue. Twenty bucks gets you in the door, or splurge on the $100 patron seats for preferred seating and parking, plus a copy of her new CD, “One People,” and entree to the exclusive meet-and-greet with the artist herself.

7:30 p.m. $10 (ages 18 and under), $20 (general), $100 (patron). 7353 Valley Circle Blvd., West Hills. R.S.V.P., (818) 346-0811.

‘ target=’_blank’>www.ticketweb.com.

Tuesday the 6th

Psalm-Thing to Sing About in New Album

Have you ever thought about what makes a good song? The Virginia-born Miri Hunter Haruach, who lives in Los Angeles, is a folk singer, playwright, student of Judaism and proud purveyor of a doctorate in women’s studies, and she believes that to make a good song, you need a little some of this and a little Psalm of that.

Haruach has always used her art to discuss the strengths and plights of women, but this time, with the release of her second album, “The Ways of Love,” she takes the strong and ethical messages of the Book of Psalms and sets them to music for a new audience to discover.

Haruach sings with a modesty and softness that enhances the simple and good-natured spiritual messages of her songs. That, in itself, is an unusual trait, because audiences have come to expect artists who make spiritual/new age, religious music to have overproduced studio performances.

Haruach doesn’t make herself the main attraction of the album. The verses are intertwined with laid-back melodies and sparse, single-riff drumbeats that add an interesting feeling of emptiness and sorrow to the otherwise uplifting words of wisdom.

In the title track, “Teach Me the Ways of Love,” Haruach chants, “Open your eyes, let your ears hear the cry, unchain your mind from the bondage of shame, deliver your spirit, and set your soul free.”

The nuances of her delivery are accompanied by a rhythmic rap in Hebrew by an Israeli poet, known only as Ofer, who translated the meaning of the song into an interesting lyrical loop.

“The album is actually based on the Book of Psalms. I have been reading the Psalms since I was a child. The ideas and themes stick with you. They cover all of the aspects of life, including joy, sorrow, ecstasy, repentance, confusion, acceptance, marriage and separation,” she says.

The song, “It Would Be Enough,” is the only one based on the Song of Songs, and Haruach was given it to read as a punishment in the 11th grade, she says. In the process, she “fell in love with it.”

Haruach did take the liberty of interpreting the Psalms, not singing them verbatim, but updating them in hopes of reaching more people. Many of the songs are not gender specific, so she could be as inclusive as possible with the audience. None of that sentiment of inclusion is really surprising when you learn that Haruach is not only a converted Jew but also a mix of African American, European and Native American cultures.

“I was born a Southern Baptist, and I was really into going to church, because I liked to participate in the music aspect of the religious experience,” she says. “Then I had 12 years of Catholic school and moved around a lot, writing plays, getting degrees and teaching Israeli folk dancing at Berkeley Hillel.”

In fact, it wasn’t until 1994 that Haruach became interested in Judaism, a move provoked by reading a book on kabbalah.

“I was drawn to Judaism because I felt that it was a religion of life rather than death,” she says. “Through the music, dance and teachings of the Mizrachi Jews, I found a roadmap for living in this world.”

And although Haruach refers to herself as a convert, she has not yet taken the big plunge of being bat mitzvahed.

“But that’s coming eventually,” she notes. “I did a Conservative conversion, although now I consider myself a Reconstructionist. I am considering cantorial studies, too.”

In addition to her interest in music — psalms or otherwise — Haruach has also devoted much of her life to writing plays. The strong and determined women in her performances range from her own slave ancestors to the mysteries surrounding the enigmatic figure of the Queen of Sheba. “As much as we’re engaged in the media, we don’t see a lot of strong women. It’s important for us as women to portray ourselves as strong so that the strife of our ancestors won’t have been in vain.”

It would be an interesting twist, if someday Haruach’s descendants were writing plays about her.

Miri Hunter Haruach will perform on July 19 at 8 p.m. at the Derby, 4500 Los Feliz Blvd., Silverlake. Tickets are $10. For information call (323) 663-8979.


Rising Singing Star Pitches New Sound

Many young girls dream of a life on the stage, but few could have envisioned the career now enjoyed by Hila Plitmann, a Jerusalem-born soprano who these days makes her home in Studio City. Plitmann, 32, is not famous in the way that, say, sopranos like Renée Fleming, Deborah Voigt and Anna Netrebko are. She is not a star. But she is making a name for herself, and not by singing music by Puccini, Mozart, Strauss and Wagner.

Instead, Plitmann is building a career based largely on new music by composers like David Del Tredici, John Corigliano, Roger Reynolds and Esa-Pekka Salonen, the latter the longtime music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and something of a Plitmann champion. Indeed, Plitmann was one of two featured soloists in the premiere of Salonen’s “Wing on Wing,” written for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in 2003 and dedicated to its architect, Frank Gehry.

That work — for orchestra, two sopranos and Gehry’s voice sampled on tape — has become something of a calling card for the soprano, who most recently sang it at Disney Hall on May 31. That concert came on the heels of another at Disney Hall on May 9, in which she participated in premieres of Unsuk Chin’s vibrant “Cantatrix Sopranica” and Reynolds’ sprawling, multidimensional “Illusion,” two works commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group.

On June 7, she’ll appear in a less likely space, at Valley Beth Shalom synagogue in Encino, joining two other singers — mezzo-soprano Alma Mora Ponce and tenor Mark Saltzman, cantor at Congregation Kol Ami synagogue — for a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s “From Jewish Folk Poetry” and a selection of Yiddish songs. (The trio gave the same program at the Jewish Community Center in La Jolla on May 24.) She’s doing this in part, out of friendship for Neal Brostoff, who is producing the concert and accompanying the singers.

Though Shostakovich, who died in 1975, used Russian translations of the poems for his song cycle, musicologist Joachim Braun restored the original Yiddish texts in the 1980s. And it’s that version Plitmann and her colleagues are singing.

“From Jewish Folk Poetry” doesn’t require Plitmann to enter the vocal stratosphere, but her ability to do so has served her well and marked her for distinction. A coloratura soprano with a silvery tone who seems utterly at ease projecting high notes, Plitmann says, “I was always a screamer.”

She describes her father, an academic, as having “a beautiful voice” and her mother as a classical music enthusiast, but neither was more than a hobbyist. Both remain in Israel, as do the singer’s sister and brother.

Early on, Plitmann was an ambivalent pianist, and though she sang in a youth choir, she gave it up for athletics, particularly gymnastics, dancing and running — something her needle-thin dancer’s body still attests to. But she missed singing and soon found herself taking private lessons and enrolling in a music high school.

Unable to find the advanced vocal training she needed in Israel, Plitmann, at her teacher’s urging, enrolled in New York’s Juilliard School, where she earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees. But talented singer or not, she still had an obligation to the Israel Defense Forces.

“I did my basic training for the Israeli army in the summers, during my second and third years at Juilliard,” she says. “I learned how to shoot Uzis and run around in the dirt. It was very bizarre.”

Juilliard is also where she met her husband, Eric Whitacre, a composer.

“He wouldn’t leave me alone, so I married him,” she says. They now have an 8-month-old son, Esh.

Whitacre is composing an opera for his wife. Titled, “Paradise Lost,” and described as “opera electronica” on Whitacre’s Web site, the work is an amalgam of styles, including, techno, rave and ambient. Plitmann likens the music to that of Bjork and the Postal Service (the band, not the letter carriers).

Often, classical artists come to appreciate the rigors of modern music once they mature, but not Plitmann. Her interest in the new dates back to her childhood. That youth chorus her mother sent her to emphasized contemporary Israeli music. At 14, she appeared in her first opera, singing the role of Flora, the bewitched little girl at the center of Benjamin Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw.” And while still in high school, she sang Leonard Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” with the Israel Philharmonic.

Plitmann describes her specialization in new music as “an accident that turned into a choice,” noting that she likes “the challenge of learning something difficult, whatever the era,” yet singling out modern works for their “many dramatic elements.”

She says that audiences can’t be forced to love new music but insists that committed performances from artists like her can help sway them to be more open-minded.

“I find there’s more in contemporary music that can be used expressively than both musicians and audiences realize,” she says. “People think contemporary music is cold and intellectual, but that’s not always true.”

Plitmann is certainly no snob when it comes to music. Her personal interests extend to various forms of pop music, and even professionally, she makes choices that some might consider too populist. Her limited discography will soon include a song cycle to Bob Dylan texts called “Mr. Tambourine Man” by Corigliano, who won an Oscar for his score to the film, “The Red Violin.” And though she isn’t exactly getting star billing, Plitmann is the vocal soloist on Hans Zimmer’s soundtrack to “The Da Vinci Code.”

She got the job through a close friend of her husband’s and made the recording in London, an experience she calls “amazing.” The lyrics, she says, are meant to mimic Latin, though no actual language is being sung. The soprano admits that the score is “not the most complex music,” yet it has another virtue: it sounds good.

“I love singing beautiful music,” Plitmann says.

The “Shostakovich at 100 Concert” will be held at 8 p.m. on June 7 at Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. For information, call (818) 788-6000 or visit

Sweet Sixteen and Ready to Rise

Even though 16-year-old singer Liel Kolet was born on a kibbutz in northern Israel, she’d prefer to be called an international artist rather than an Israeli one. That largely explains why many of the younger generation of Israeli rock/pop buffs would know little about her. Nor is she routinely counted among the growing crop of Israeli pop princesses, such as Shiri Maimon, who also will be performing in Los Angeles later this month. She hasn’t released an album in Hebrew for wide distribution, and her English songs don’t get Israeli radio play.

And that’s just fine with Kolet. While the dark, curly-haired singer remains deeply connected to her Israeli roots — even while trotting the globe in America, Europe and Canada — she has her sights on the big leagues.

“From the start the idea was to build me as an international singer,” she said.

And there are parallels with her idol, Celine Dion. As young singers, both set their sights on international stardom with the backing of a dedicated manager (Kolet’s manager is Irit Ten-Hengel). Kolet, like Dion, has a clean and wholesome image, singing heartfelt songs about love, humanity and “the children.” On May 20, Kolet will represent Switzerland at the Eurovision singing contest, just as Dion, originally from Canada, did in 1988. The title of Kolet’s debut album is “Unison,” also the title of Dion’s hit debut.

“I’m not trying to be Celine Dion — we don’t have same kind of music — but what she achieved in her career and the steps she’s been through and what she represents are an example to me,” said Kolet in a very slight Israeli accent during a telephone interview. “She is an example of what an artist should be: She has an amazing voice and presence on stage that really touches to the heart of people. People come to hear her voice. That to me is what an artist is about.”

Kolet has a powerful voice and range, but Israeli-born female vocalists have notoriously failed to make a successful U.S. crossover. With the possible exception of Ofra Haza, another of Kolet’s favorites, Israeli divas usually fare better in Europe, which is generally more open to musical diversity.

Still, Ten-Hengel, Kolet’s international manager, left her prestigious career as a music executive at Sony Europe to focus solely on Kolet, because she has little doubt that Kolet will achieve her dreams.

“Mark my word: When she’s 18, she’s huge in America,” said Ten-Hengel. “She has the whole package — voice, personality, love for music, passion and angelic beauty.”

A select audience will judge for themselves when Kolet headlines the May 24 black-tie award dinner of the International Visitor’s Council. Music industry bigwigs are expected to be there for their own look, including Grammy-award winning producer David Foster, who has produced several of Dion’s hits. Ken Kragen, Kolet’s U.S.-based manager, is the dinner’s honoree for his production of humanitarian projects, including We Are the World and Hands Across America.

A veteran manager of such artists as Kenny Rogers, Lionel Richie, Olivia Newton John and the Bee Gees, Kragen came across Kolet two years ago when he saw a video of her performance at the 80th birthday celebration for former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. At the star- and diplomat-studded event, Kolet spontaneously called Bill Clinton to the stage to sing a duet with her of Lennon’s “Imagine.” It happened to be one of her best career moves.

“I realized this lady had amazing poise and ability and was a wonderful singer with an amazing voice,” Kragen said.

Two years ago, Kragen introduced the aspiring starlet to American music industry executives in Los Angeles.

With no major American record deals were in the offing, Kolet spent the last two years building up an impressive resume of performances in Europe, particularly in Germany, where she has won several awards. Her management believes that she’s now poised to conquer North America, making her upcoming visit to Los Angeles all the more significant.

“It’s not easy,” Kragen said. “The record industry today is much less inclined to sign new acts. The difference now is that there’s a track record in Europe.”

Kolet’s participation in charity events has put her onstage with artists such as Elton John, U2’s Bono and, most recently, Andrea Boccelli. She has developed a close working relationship with Klaus Meine of the legendary German rock band, the Scorpions, having performed with him last year in Israel.

Her first international album, “Unison,” is a potpourri of ethnic-tinged love ballads, upbeat pop songs and music with a “message”; it includes three duets with Meine. Their take on Naomi Shemer’s “Jerusalem of Gold” is the most Israeli song on the album, reflecting the Israeli pride she says she’ll always carry with her.

As Kolet put it: “Singing for peace and everything that I do and my charity events are because I grew-up in Israel.”

For more information on Liel Kolet, visit www.liel.net.

L’Chaim to Kitsch!

On a dark spotlight-lit stage, a man in a long, black suit; yarmulke; and tallit slung over one shoulder fervently sings into a microphone, while a dance troupe in similar — but sexier — garb twirls behind him.

He’s not a cantor. He’s not a rabbi. He’s not even religious. He is Evgeni Valevich, a performer whose repertoire includes a program of Russian Jewish music in the genre called Estrada. Estrada may be a genre unknown to Westerners, but to Russians, the term is immediately recognizable.

This glitzy stage entertainment was popularized in the Soviet Union during the 1960s and 1970s, and a modernized and glamorized version is still highly popular in contemporary Russia. Its format is simple: a singer in glittering stage costume — sometimes backed up by a dance crew or a music ensemble, sometimes not — performs pop music numbers on a stage with a backdrop similar to the ones shown on the American TV show, “American Idol.”

The format of Jewish Estrada is identical to the Russian version: a lit-up stage, sparkling costumes, emotional music. The only difference is that the singers choose themes that reflect their Jewish identity. With his dress, Valevich plays up his Jewishness, although for others, the Jewish link can be weak.

At “A Night of Jewish Music and Humor” held earlier this month at the 2,500-seat Rossiya Concert Hall in Moscow, Joseph Kobzon — once recognized as the “People’s Artist of the U.S.S.R.” — performed a song in which the main verse ran: “L’chaim to all / Pour more (vodka) into the glass / Raise the glass higher.”

The keyword designating this song as “Jewish” is “l’chaim.” Otherwise, the song is Russian through and through.

For many Russian Jews, Judaism is still an exotic form of cultural expression. Russian, or even Soviet, culture is still closer to heart. That’s where artists like Kobzon come in.

“We started to go to these shows rather recently,” said Yevgenya Abramovna, a pensioner who has lived in Moscow her entire life.

She and her husband were attending “A Night of Jewish Music and Humor” in which Kobzon, Valevich and a half-dozen other Jewish artists performed.

This couple’s interest in Jewish culture was a new phenomenon that developed as they reached old age. The mere fact that singers sang in Yiddish or their songs touched on Jewish symbols was enough for them.

“We never knew anything about Jewish culture,” Abramovna said. “Where else can we go to see something like this?”

In the northern Russian city of Arkhangelsk, Valevich recently got a standing ovation from the few hundred Jews — a large majority of the Jewish Estrada fans are Jewish — who gathered to watch his performance. It wasn’t to thank him for braving a three-day train trip from Moscow. Instead, the ovation was for the same reason the audience snatched up his DVDs after the show: They were excited by his rather unusual and simple stage presentation of Jewish culture intertwined with a familiar entertainment genre.

Valevich’s performance is interesting because he boldly uses stereotypical Jewish images. Other Jewish Estrada artists make do with Jewish themes in their music and lyrics.

He not only sings about Jewish topics, he also dresses himself and his dance troupe in clichéd Jewish garb. For most of his performance, he resembles a shaved Chasidic Jew who has just emerged from shul — tallit casually draped over his shoulder.

Valevich goes even further by openly incorporating religious rituals into his performance. His number, “Shabbat,” takes the Shabbat candle-lighting ritual and prayer, backs it up with three female dancers twirling with candles in hand, adds violin music and turns it into what fans see as an emotionally moving stage number.

Although some criticize his use of Jewish imagery for propagating Jewish stereotypes, there’s a market for the type of entertainment he offers. While he’s only been in this genre for five years, Valevich, 29, and his troupe have toured extensively in the former Soviet Union, as well as in the United States.

It comes as no surprise that Jews living in Russia and in Russian immigrant communities in the United States enthusiastically receive him. For many Russian Jews, Valevich’s repertoire combines the two parts of their heritage that are difficult to combine: contemporary Russian pop music and Jewish themes.

“The very fact that this musical genre is in demand shows that Jewish culture is healthy,” said Evgeni Hazdan, a professional musician in St. Petersburg actively involved in Jewish folk music.

He believes that the diversity in Jewish musical tastes signifies that Russian Jews are experiencing Jewish culture according to their own varied tastes.

Although the only attendees at “A Night of Jewish Dance and Humor” younger than 40 seemed to be young children or young adults accompanying their aging parents, Valevich seems to think that there is a future for his type of show. The trick is to somehow involve the younger generation. He’s willing to try to drag them out and buy a ticket to one of his shows. His new techno number of “Hava Nagila” may just do the trick.

Who knows, maybe next time that nice Jewish boy taking his grandmother out to the concert will also take his Jewish girlfriend along.


Wandering Jew – Music to My Ears

“In syngagyng a sangasongue … ” — James Joyce, “Finnegans Wake.”

Singing in synagogue is something I wish I were better at doing or at least less embarrassed about doing full-throated. At the Synagogue for the Performing Arts, the congregation doesn’t have that problem. They have David Coury.

A voice expert known for coaching singers and nonsingers, and working with deaf and autistic students and contestants for TV shows like “Extreme Makeover” and “American Idol,” Coury is unique and considered “revolutionary.”

When I heard about his “So You Always Wanted to Sing!” seminar, I knew it was time to put my mouth where my … or my money where my … whatever. Who isn’t a wannabe chazan from way back?

The Sunday afternoon workshop was held at the Howard Fine Acting Studios on Las Palmas Avenue, off a stretch of Sunset Boulevard east of Highland Avenue near Buckbuster (“Less Than $1 Many Items Sell For”) and the Hollywood Center Motel (“Electrical Heat”), which looks like an abandoned set from “L.A. Confidential.”

A few dozen singees sat nervously in the studio theater. Lee Miller, television director and president of the Synagogue for the Performing Arts, introduced Coury. The syagogue bills itself as “L.A.’s original entertainment congregation.”

“Isn’t there another shul like this in New York or Branson?” I asked.

Miller shook his head.

“We’re it,” he said. Coury chanted “Kol Nidre” last fall with Synagogue for the Performing Arts’ cantor, Judy Fox, and, Miller said, “a lotta jaws dropped.”

I was skeptical at first, hearing how Coury’s accompanist on piano had just got the day off from studio work “with Natalie Cole.” Coury had that hipster headset and two bottles of Sparkletts at the ready, high energy that got me wondering: How will I know if he’s the real laryngo-glottal guru? This is Hollywood, after all. If you can fake it here you can fake it anywhere, right?

“How brave you are,” Coury butters up the attendees — each paid $75, which goes to Synagogue for the Performing Arts. The teacher is trim and dark in black sweatshirt, khaki slacks, sneakers.

“It’s a long road from the shower to the stage,” he says, rolling up his sleeves and diving right in. “I like to just get to things,” he tells us. “There’s no revving up.”

A fellow named Sky is the first actor ready for his voice-up.

Our music man’s method? It’s all about the mask.

“That’s where you sing from,” Coury says, gripping his face as we model him. But wait. What? No up from the diaphragm and below bellowing?

“That’s an old wives’ tale,” explains Coury. “A cave has resonance and an ant hole depth. You’ve got to use your mouth.”

Alternately praised and nudged, each vocalist eventually expresses more than he or she thought they ever could. Whatever their issue, Coury calms them into laughter or steers them back to the mask. Soon they’re singing “Moon River” like Mandy Patinkin or “People” like Barbra Streisand, bounding off stage to high-fives or applause.

OK, not like Streisand, obviously. But it is amazing to observe. Coury has no tricks or even a warm-up technique.

He can explain “pre-frontal rostrum medial cortex” like a speech therapist, but something else is at work, too. When Serena forgets her lyric and goes off into just sounds, Coury is laudatory toward her. “She has reached Yummyville,” he says, “where it feels good, and there are no nerves anymore.”

“Willingness and desire are everything,” he teaches. “So the challenge is just the nerves. Put yourself in my hands and meet me halfway.”

And darned if it doesn’t happen right before our ears.

A good listener with a wicked laugh, Coury stops one singer as soon as she starts.

“Favorite food, Denise?” he asks.

“Clam Chowder,” she replies, smiling.

“See how we light up when we talk about food?” he says with a laugh. “Singing and speaking are very oral. Singing equals speaking equals singing … the voice should be musical, symphonic.”

Powerful medicine.

“You can’t fake a blush,” he says to a woman named Stephanie. “You’ve had a transformation.”

Already full of fabulous pipes, Stephanie wants a “a fuller belt.”

In moments, Coury releases her “Tiger Song” from “Les Miz” out into the wilds of Sunset Boulevard somewhere. Teary-eyed, she thanks him.

And I know it may sound silly, but he’s got us all belting words like “I” and “you” over and over. No kidding. Love should be sung as “lahhv,” you know, and pronounced as in “va va voom.” The expert lets us in on the ins and outs of “eees” and “ooos” and how “eh” is a vowel, but they don’t teach you that.”

Well, that’s one way to praise Yahweh. But how does he get us to do it?

“You must risk three things,” Coury says. “Sounding weird, looking bad and being disliked.”

Um, do we have to? Why?

“Because the world worships the original. Take these tools and risk it.”

The tools are learned through little inspirationals, like the one he gives a lusty singer named Shelley, who gets up and growls, “Rock me, baby, like my back ain’t got no bone.”

Coury wants more.

“Be like a dog to a steak,” he tells the loungey bombshell. “Bite into it. Not with your voice, with your mouth.”

And for guys like Phil, afraid he can only drone a tone deaf “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” Coury teaches: “There’s no such thing as fearless. There’s being afraid and doing it anyway — that’s being extraordinary.”

So after hiding out fearfully as long as possible, I climb on stage. After a taste of Perry Como (“Just in Time,” a song I want to sing at my wedding), I’m convinced I’m no crooner.

But with the coach’s encouragement, I go for something even higher, recalled from the car radio while driving Sunset Boulevard to get here. It’s a ballad from a lame top-40 band, Foreigner. “I’ve been waaaaiting for a girl like you, to come into my liiife….”

I tell him I had my tonsils out when I was 10, but Coury takes no lip.

“Listening to yourself is not going to allow the magic,” he says. “Looking directionally at me will bring it. Use the human in the room. You’ll find your humanity immediately at play.”

Suddenly something comes out that I’ve never felt, not even while alone with the windows up and stereo blaring. I’m exhilarated. Euphoric.

He shakes my hand and I bounce off stage, hearing his final instructions to all of us:

“Dare to be heard. In this world of communication, you have to speak out to be heard. You can literally touch somebody with your voice. Who knows who’s there? And that’s magic.

“Do! Sing! Big! Not big voice, big mouth. It’s not the singing; it’s the learning. Your voice is greater than any song you’ve ever sung, if you’re working on your voice. So keep your yapper open.”

Sound advice. What else did I learn?

Singers should keep their eyes open and it’s quite all right to lick your lips. Pronouncing is what gives life. And when you run out of breath? Breathe. Listen for me next Friday night and Shabbat shalom, Los Angeles.

Synagogue for the Performing Arts has another seminar, “Journey Into Self-Discovery,” taught by Howard Fine, Feb. 17-19. For more information call (310) 472-3500 or go to www. SFTPA.com.

Hank Rosenfeld is a storyteller for “Weekend America,” heard on public radio stations every Saturday, including KPCC-FM 89.3 in Los Angeles.