Long, winding road brings new cantor to Temple Beth Am

“Let me show you the dogs,” Cantor Magda Fishman says as she excitedly pulls out her iPhone and scrolls through photos until she comes upon a candid shot of two gorgeous poodles. The dogs are not Fishman’s, but her enthusiasm in sharing the image is emblematic of her style. Her energy is evident from the moment you meet her — her mind races at a mile a minute, jumping from thoughts about Israel to Broadway musicals, to the mini-fridge she gleefully reveals hidden inside a cabinet in her new office.

But if any of this leads you to believe that Fishman is something of a lightweight, you’d be wrong. The same woman who jokes easily about her view of the ever-changing billboard outside her window is also a deeply soulful, thoughtful Jew with a beautiful voice who hopes to do justice to her predecessors as she assumes her pulpit at Los Angeles’ Temple Beth Am. 

Born in a hardscrabble area of Jaffa, Israel, Fishman knew from an early age that she was destined for a life connected to music. Her family was not particularly religious, though, she says, “Shabbat candles were there every Friday evening.”

As a child, she studied at Tel Aviv’s Ironi Alef arts school, acting, singing and playing the trumpet. Her talent led her to a stint with the Tel Aviv-Yafo Youth Orchestra, and eventually, once she’d turned 18, to a place in the Israel Defense Forces Orchestra.

Though she’s now known for her singing, Fishman originally tried to take a different path in the army orchestra. “I actually auditioned for trumpet,” she says.  After her audition was over, she hung around and “started singing ‘My Funny Valentine.’ ” The accompanist working at the audition called the conductor over.  Hearing her sing, the conductor told Fishman she could still play trumpet, but she’d be singing as well.

Fishman toured with the orchestra, relishing the opportunity to have some of the talented young composers in the army arrange songs especially for her. That time in the army orchestra is something that still sticks with her today. “I went up to Ramah,” she said of the summer camp in Ojai, “and there was a girl there who does exactly what I did, and some of the songs she sings were the arrangements that were written for me.” Fishman marvels at the smallness of the Jewish world.

Once her military service was done, she was lucky enough to be able to join the Tel Aviv-Broadway Musical Theatre Project, which gave her a chance to travel to New York. While there, she auditioned at the Manhattan School of Music and was later accepted. Fishman was unsure of what to do, but her grandfather, a musician himself, encouraged her to pursue her dreams. The only problem was, she had no way to pay for the schooling.

It was at this point that one of what Fishman calls her many “angels” stepped in. The late Janice Levin, a prominent philanthropist and friend of Israel who had seen Fishman perform and had taken a liking to her, offered to pay Fishman’s tuition. With no more excuses left, Fishman departed for America.

Arriving in the States with scant funds, Fishman worried about how she’d manage to survive in an expensive city like New York. “I remember calling my grandmother and saying, ‘I think I have enough money for 10 days of sandwiches.’ ”

But Fishman found herself uplifted by the kindness of strangers again, a pattern in her life. Host families invited her to stay with them. And it was with one such host family on Long Island that this mostly secular Israeli first discovered Reform Judaism. Growing up in Israel, she had only been exposed to the Orthodox Judaism of her grandfather, which had left her feeling isolated, as she had to sit up in the balcony, separated from him. For Fishman, the services here were something of a revelation, but her turn toward the chazzanut — the Jewish equivalent of classical music — was still to come.

Cantor Magda Fishman performs at the America-Israel Cultural Foundation’s 71st Annual Gala in 2010

After living in New York for a few months, Fishman received an invitation to breakfast at the home of Mary Rodgers, the daughter of famed composer Richard Rodgers, and a composer and author in her own right of such hits as “Once Upon a Mattress” and “Freaky Friday.” Fishman laughs as she recalls their first encounter. “I was wearing this velvet suit for breakfast, because I was so excited.” Despite being slightly overdressed, Fishman wowed Rodgers and her family enough that they invited her to live in their guest room as she sang and studied to be a Broadway star.

Soon however, Fishman found that just singing wasn’t sufficiently fulfilling, and with Rodgers’ blessing, she took a break from music to study acting and dance. Which is when the Israeli consulate, having kept track of Fishman’s progress in New York, began to pull her back in, asking her to sing “Hatikvah” at numerous functions. Around the same time, Fishman got a gig as a cantorial soloist at Sutton Place Synagogue. Suddenly, her Jewish identity and her musical identity were beginning to merge.

Transitioning to singing in the synagogue wasn’t hard, musically, for Fishman. “I read music, so it was not that hard to learn it.” However, the experience of connecting to God through her music was a big change. “I needed for a while to get used to the prayer mode. I feel like I’m in another sphere when I am praying, but still connected to the people around me;  like we are on this journey together and we are there to connect our souls.”

Fishman was introduced to Cantor Henry Rosenblum, then dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) cantorial school, a man Fishman calls one of her “greatest mentors.” Rosenblum saw the potential in Fishman and encouraged her to try studying to become a cantor. Fishman accepted the challenge and plunged ahead.

“I had to get used to it. It was a process,” she says of her time at JTS.  But through the guidance of Rosenblum, who was let go by JTS in a 2010 “restructuring” despite his popularity among the students, Fishman grew into her own as a cantor.

Fishman gravitates to a modern style of cantorial singing, but she still acknowledges that “because it’s where we come from … you build on your history, always.” Her voice betrays more than a hint of her Broadway past — she is dramatic and bold, but she also has a soulful punch that calls to mind a singer like Neshama Carlebach. 

She is also inspired by more folk-influenced artists. “I looked up to the late Debbie Friedman, who had light in her eyes,” she says, brimming with joy as she launches into “Oseh Shalom.” “I love singing;  I live singing.”

It was Fishman’s passion and energy that first caught the eye of Beth Am Senior Rabbi Adam Kligfeld. “Cantor Fishman blew into the room like a musical energy tornado,” says Kligfeld of their first meeting. “We knew instantly that it was something special.”

Kligfeld says he sees a new future for Beth Am and its nearly 1,000 member families with Fishman’s arrival. “Temple Beth Am should be a center for Jewish music on the West Coast,” he says. And congregants appear to share his rosy outlook. “I’m seeing it in my fundraising,” says Kligfeld, who hopes that Fishman will help “make Friday night a phenomenon here.”

For her part, Fishman is thrilled to be in Los Angeles. She drove cross-country with her husband, Zarin, an information technology specialist whom she originally met on JDate in New York. “Cue the commercial,” she jokes. As native Israelis, they’ve already taken a liking to L.A.’s weather and its beaches.

As for what she hopes to do at Beth Am, Fishman hopes that the community will “be a home that people feel happy to come to.” She says she already feels like it’s her home. “I love the people I work with. I step into the building, and I know that I have friends.”

Most of all, Fishman hopes to “pay it forward,” doing proud all of the angels who helped her along in life.  If early results are any indication, she’s well on her way to living up to their legacy.

The following video is Temple Beth Am promotional campaign.

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