November 19, 2019

The ‘Chronicles’ of the musical rabbi

In his mid-50s, after nearly three decades teaching in his native Baltimore at the Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University — part of that time as head of the music composition department — composer-pianist Moshe Cotel decided to become a rabbi.

He thought he was giving up classical music — one of his first loves — but his curiosity and daring were such that he found a way to take life lessons from the Torah into the recital hall. By combining rabbinical monologues and great music by Gershwin, Scriabin, Schoenberg and The Beatles, among others, Cotel, who is now 65, has won over both Jewish and Christian congregations.

Cotel’s “Chronicles I: A Religious Life at the Classical Piano” comes to Beth Shir Sholom in Santa Monica on June 14, and “Chronicles II” arrives a day earlier at University Synagogue in Irvine (he performed the first one there last year).

Additional upcoming recitals in Atlanta and Seattle bring the number of times Cotel has performed both sets of “Chronicles” to 82. And the invitations from various religious organizations continue to grow. This, while maintaining his full-time job as rabbi of a Conservative congregation in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Dubbed the “Maestro-Rabbi” by the Los Angeles Times, Cotel is as surprised as anyone by how his dual career has taken off.

“It’s a blessing within a blessing,” Cotel said via phone from New York. “Being able to blend the two loves of my life — Judaism and music — is thrilling.”

According to Cotel, he “started late,” arriving at the Peabody Conservatory Prep School at age 9. Later, Cotel wrote a full-length 200-page symphony. He was 13. At 23, he won the prestigious American Academy in Rome Prize for music composition, studying in Italy for two years before being asked to join the faculty at Peabody.

Raised in an Orthodox family, Cotel says that early on “music became my religion. I lived my own private inner life,” he says. “Even as a boy, I went my own way and let the adults talk. I grew up in a deeply dysfunctional family and was deeply unhappy. Music was my secret world, and I disappeared into it. It saved my life.”

When he was old enough to leave home, Cotel recalls boarding a Greyhound bus for an audition in New York.

“I never looked back,” he says. “Fearlessness grows out of despair, and also out of faith.”

The decision to move from composer and esteemed teacher to rabbi came with some apparent sacrifice.

“I thought my music career was over,” he says. “It wasn’t in my game plan, but I knew I had to become a rabbi.” When he told his wife, Aliya, who has since become his agent, road manager and publicist, he recalls her listening in silence, then saying, “Moshe, if that’s what you need to do, then I’m with you 100 percent.”

He explains what prompted his sudden career change. Looking to brush up on his German before conducting performances of his opera, “Dreyfus” — based on the notorious case of institutionalized French anti-Semitism — Cotel took lessons from an elderly German widow who lived nearby. Some months later, he heard a voice on the street addressing him — in Hebrew. It was the elderly widow, who had decided to take lessons with a rabbi.

“I didn’t even know she was Jewish,” he recalls. She was raised as a Catholic after her parents were forced to flee Germany during the Holocaust. She was left in the care of “good Catholic sisters,” living her life as a Catholic. But now, in her old age, as she told Cotel, “she was coming back to Judaism, because of you.”

“Kabbalah says there’s no such thing as a coincidence,” Cotel says, recalling that he “changed her life without knowing it.” He quotes a biblical text: “I will send my angel before you to guard you on the way and to bring you to the place I have prepared.”

“The angel’s not a winged creature as in Renaissance paintings,” he adds. “The literal translation is, send my ‘messenger’ before you. It could be a little old German lady.”

Cotel’s recitals are imbued with a sense of fun. He admits a serious approach doesn’t suit him. In one selection from “Chronicles II,” “The Beatles Meet Kabbalah,” Cotel offers a rabbinical commentary on, and then performs, his own transcription of a Beatles song. Hint: Love may not be all you need.

“The deepest spirituality doesn’t need heaviness,” he says. “Religion should buoy you up; it shouldn’t weigh you down. It’s a way of discovering who you are in the limited time we have on this earth.”

Cotel expresses surprise at how the demand for recitals has grown in the last few years.

“It grew by itself, almost as if I had nothing to do with it,” he says.

After he was ordained in 2003, invitations to perform “Chronicles” came in from as far away as Hawaii. He’s doing 25 recitals this year and says, with some regret, but no doubts, “I’m a pulpit rabbi. I can’t squeeze in any more.”

Perhaps even more unexpected for Cotel was the number of requests to perform “Chronicles” that came from the Christian clergy.

“It never occurred to me at the beginning I’d be playing for Christians,” Cotel says. He adds that this interfaith project has taken him across America, and it also “works well by involving congregants in the church down the street” in Brooklyn.

Even with such a crowded schedule, Cotel says sometimes a rabbinic idea just pops into his head. He asks, “What piece can I use to illustrate a point? What’s Jewish about this?” He’s thinking about a “Chronicles III: A Rabbi Looks at Chopin” but realizes he’s already booked for the next two years.

“My house shall be a house of prayer for all people,” Cotel quotes. “The Torah is the greatest vehicle of hope in human history, saying you are a human being first,” he adds. “J.S. Bach was a devout Protestant, but he reaches all people because he went into his roots deeply. I firmly believe that’s the way to go. I can only achieve self-overcoming by going straight into my Judaism with all my heart, soul, and might. If you do that, you’re bound to touch other people.”

Rick Schultz writes about music for the Los Angeles Times and other publications.