February 22, 2020

Music in a Universal Key

A Turkish-born cantor will bring tunes of his Sephardi heritage to a festival next week celebrating Southern California’s religious diversity. Haim Mizrahi, who sings at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood, will be the Jewish representative at "A Universal Harmony of Souls: An Evening of Sacred Music and Prayer," hosted by the Self-Realization Fellowship at its Lake Shrine in Pacific Palisades on Sept. 22.

Mizrahi will sing synagogue music in Hebrew and Ladino on a program that also includes recitations from Christian and Islamic traditions and music and dance performances from Baha’i and several Asian cultural groups.

Born and raised in Istanbul, Mizrahi, 62, grew up in the synagogue, steeped in the music and liturgy of his Iberian ancestors. His path as a cantor was laid out in childhood. Even as a teenager, Mizrahi led services in small Turkish towns. "It came naturally," Mizrahi told The Journal. "When you have a nice voice and you can read Hebrew nicely, you begin to learn chazanut [cantorial music]."

He and his wife, Rachel, made aliyah in 1971 and reared their two children, Esther, 32, and Isaac, 30, in Israel. Both children are pianists; Isaac will accompany his father on Sept. 22.

Unable to find a year-round pulpit in Israel, Mizrahi brought his family to San Diego in 1980, after singing High Holiday services there. He helped start a Sephardic congregation in Chula Vista and led it for 10 years before taking his post in Westwood; he and his wife still live in San Diego.

Mizrahi seemed less interested in the multicultural nature of the festival and its goals of bringing together people of many different faiths and traditions than in the simple joy of singing the tunes of a career that has spanned almost 50 years. "Everyone who sings, it’s to make himself and other people happy," he said. "This is the best thing you can do: to make them happy."