March 30, 2020

Chabad Pesach concert with a Latin flavor

The Spanish word for a musical or theatrical performance is espectáculo. With its suggestion of spectacle, it’s an apt description of the show to be presented April 15 by Mor D. Hai, stage name of Marcos Cohen, an Uruguay-born performer who lives in Los Angeles.

“My show has rhythm, humor, a Latin beat and recognizable Jewish themes, like traditional Passover songs and Sephardi music,” Cohen told the Journal.

The elaborate, high-energy production, suitable for children and adults, evokes smiles and tears, hitting emotional buttons and serving as an introductory course in Jewish history: from the birth of monotheism as embodied by the struggles of Avraham Avinu to Sephardic songs composed in medieval Spain; from the hard-won triumphs of the State of Israel to the tragedy of the Shoah; from the Psalms of David to a musical number that brings Arab and Israeli together.

Cohen said he combines his Jewish and Latin roots in the show, with songs in Ladino, Hebrew, English and Spanish, as well as surprising and amusing stagecraft: desert tents, tinted wisps of smoke, film clips, silhouettes of dancing Chabad figures, lighting effects, choreography, audio-visual elements and Hebrew prayers.

Cohen’s talents came naturally. When he was growing up in Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital, his Sephardic father played a Hammond organ while his Ashkenazi mother performed with an all-woman Jewish theater group.

Though his parents are fiercely Jewish and Zionist, they are not religious. Cohen, on the other hand, is a modern Orthodox Jew who wears a kippah, keeps kosher and observes Shabbat: When he gets work as actor or singer, he stipulates that he won’t perform on Jewish holidays and Shabbat. “The rest of my family calls me ‘rabbi’ since I’m the only one that’s really gotten into Judaism,” he said.

“The show combines my love for music and for religion,” Cohen said. “There are themes with the particular flavor of Brazil; Argentina; of my country, Uruguay. My Latin- American background is always there, but I give everything a Jewish dimension. There’s a well-known tango called Cambalache. In the version that I do, I give it a Jewish twist. When I did it in Argentina and in Uruguay, it was a big hit. I have a Jewish version of Volver [a popular tango], and I also sing ‘My Beloved Jerusalem’ instead of ‘My Beloved Buenos Aires.’ ”

The show has dancing — Israeli hora, tango, samba, bouncy Chabad twirls — and many costume changes, even different head-coverings: When Cohen sings tangos, he wears a fedora, like the one used by legendary tango singer Carlos Gardel; when he
does music from Bukhara, where his father’s family is from, he sports a beige, flat-top kippah, which he made.

Cohen’s concert includes interaction with the audience, especially with children. “I think that the fact that I don’t have kids of my own makes it even more important that I have contact with them,” he said. Single and in his late 40s, Cohen teaches music at a Jewish pre-school and has been a volunteer with Jewish Big Brothers. “I always try to maintain contact with kids, so I can keep that part of me alive that’s always wanted to have kids… When I lived in Uruguay, I wrote plays for children and sang songs for them.”

Cohen said that 20 years ago, when he first came to Los Angeles from Uruguay, he eked out a living doing a clown-mime act at the Santa Monica pier. One day a little boy, with a dollar in his hand, asked him, “Where’s the balloon?” Cohen said he immediately bought an instructional tape and learned how to shape balloons into animal figures.

“I did very well with my balloon act,” Cohen said. “I went along that way for a long time, dressed as a clown and making animal balloons for kids, making good money, when one day a woman comes up to me and says, ‘You are an old soul. And you know you’re an old soul.’ So I challenged her, ‘OK, tell me what you think you know about me.’ And she said, ‘I know you’re a musician. Yes, you’re a musician.’ And she looked straight at me and said, ‘You’re not supposed to be here, doing this. Why are you afraid? Go pursue
your dreams.’ ”

Cohen said that was a turning point: Since then, he’s pursued his dream of being a singer and performer, in L.A., New York, Uruguay — and, for the last five years, again in L.A. Along the way he started using, he said, “a funky version of my Hebrew name, Mordechai, and that’s how I became Mor D. Hai.”

Cohen clearly feels that meeting that woman in Santa Monica was not a random event. In interviews, he often says his life has been blessed by divine touches.

“I feel a special relationship with God,” he said, “and I feel really blessed to be part of a Jewish community. This is important for me, since I came here from another country, without family, without friends. So it’s essential for me to feel that connection.”

His community, Cohen said, is Jewish life in the Pico-Robertson area, where he lives, prays, and where, this weekend, he’ll perform a show he created and stars in, an espectáculo that he calls “A Latin Revolution in Jewish Music.”

Chol HaMoed Pesach Concert, featuring Mor D. Hai Latin Jewish Band, April 15, at Chabad SOLA, 1627 S. La Cienega Blvd. 9 p.m. $13 in advance, $18 at the door. For more information, go to