January 22, 2019

A musical Steinasty

The Stein family communicates in music. Birthday parties were always marked by jam sessions. Instead of playing geography on family road trips, the Steins would play “repeat that harmony.”

Dinners inevitably turned into a cappella performances. And a severe blackout during a spring storm became the impetus for the formation of a family band, The Rolling Steins.

But the harmonious chords of communication do not only run between the five members of the Stein clan. They extend beyond the family’s cozy Woodland Hills home to their synagogue community at Temple Aliyah, where father Mike is a cantor and mother Kelley is actively involved, and also to the Westside Nashuva community, where sons Justin, 26, and Jared, 24, are key figures in the Nashuva Band. They even extend to New York, where oldest son, Jacob, 31, is music director at the Jewish Community Project.

Music brings the Steins close to one another, close to their communities and close to God. For them, music and Judaism always have been deeply intertwined. The fusion has its roots in Mike’s childhood in New York, where he went to shul with his father and was mesmerized by the voice of the cantor. At age 10, he picked up the violin and started singing at the shul.

When he took his love of music to the theater stage, an early mentor chuckled at his cantorial-style singing and said, “If you want to make it on Broadway, you can’t sing like that!” Mike did as he was told and landed several roles on Broadway, including the role of Peter in the original cast of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” At one point, Mike doubted the wisdom of pursuing a musical career — one of his brothers was a scientist, the other a dentist, and his parents often expressed their disappointment in his career choice — so he took a job as executive director of a small synagogue in Washington, D.C.

“It didn’t quite work out,” Mike said. “What can I say? I’m addicted to music!” And music is what Mike has been doing ever since: He joined the U.S. Navy Band and spent 17 years touring the world, playing fiddle for four presidents, including George H.W. Bush, who once remarked that Mike was his favorite fiddler; yodeling for the king of Sweden; and making an appearance on “Good Morning America” with a song he wrote in support of the armed forces during Operation Desert Storm. He won a Grammy for his performance on a tribute album to Ella Jenkins and was nominated for another Grammy for a children’s composition.

Eventually, Mike found his way back to his synagogue roots, with the help of his wife, Kelley, an African American who converted to Judaism five years into their marriage.

“Kelley is really responsible for leading me back to Judaism,” Mike said, admitting that, as a young musician in the ’60s, he rebelled and strayed from his “Conservadox” background. Passing a synagogue one day, Kelley noticed Mike glancing wistfully at the building. “You want to go in there, don’t you?” she asked. Slowly, with Kelley at his side, Mike reconnected with his faith, and when their children were born, the need for a strong identity became the impetus for building a Jewish home.

“We wanted our children to be 100 percent Jewish,” Mike said. “Black, white — it didn’t matter. But we felt that we better make sure they knew they were Jewish.”

The biracial family faced some discrimination, but none of it was ever experienced within the Jewish communities of which they have been members. Justin recalls being told by a non-Jewish classmate that he was going to hell for being a Jew and not believing in Jesus, and the boys remember being teased and bullied in their Maryland schools. Kelley, on the other hand, was welcomed warmly into the Conservative synagogue sisterhood by the rabbi’s wife and became an active and widely respected member.

In 2000, the family moved across the country to Southern California, where Mike had been offered the opportunity to finally reunite his passion for music with his love of Judaism. A friend and fellow musician, Craig Taubman, recommended him for the position of cantor at Temple Aliyah, a Conservative, egalitarian congregation in Woodland Hills that now has a membership of 950 families. 

“I thank Craig every day for bringing Mike to our community,” said Rabbi Stewart Vogel, senior rabbi at Temple Aliyah. “There are very few people who are able to create original liturgical music and make it sound authentic. Mike Stein is one of them. He is cantorial brilliance at its best.”

As cantor, Mike has been instrumental in making music a focal point of prayer services at Temple Aliyah, a trend that has caught on at many congregations in Southern California and throughout the United States over the past 10 years, with Craig Taubman’s Friday Night Live at Sinai Temple at the forefront of the movement.

“Music is a real tool for bringing people back to synagogue in a meaningful way,” Vogel said. “And Mike has been the perfect partner in doing that.” Temple Aliyah has musical services on the third Friday of every month, with Mike creating original compositions to fit the various themes — reggae, gospel, world music — and leading the congregation in spirited song.

On the other side of the Santa Monica Mountains, two other Steins regularly infuse religious services with spiritual song. Justin, tall and sturdy, plays the bass guitar and sings vocals in the Nashuva Band, and Jared, with his distinctive dreadlocks and quieter demeanor, plays the guitar, mandolin and violin, and sings vocals. The band is a critical component of the Nashuva community. 

“Out of all the experiences I get out of music, playing with my family is one of my favorite things,” writes Justin on the Nashuva Web site. Justin is the musical director of the Nashuva band, the musical specialist in the children’s program at Temple Aliyah — his father builds the curriculum and Justin implements it — and the musical director at Kadima Day School. Younger brother Jared is the instrumental music director at New Community Jewish High School and also teaches a songwriting class there. As if those jobs don’t fill the Stein boys’ lives with enough music, they also frequently join their parents on the Temple Aliyah stage, perform as The Rolling Steins at events, and accompany various bands at bar and bat mitzvahs and non-Jewish gigs.

The Steins incorporate a wide range of musical styles in their performances — funk, jazz, country, blues, Israeli, hip-hop — and they often work together to write original compositions, adding to one another’s lyrics, infusing a “too white” hip-hop beat written by Mike with some cool rhythms, and sparking pontaneous jam sessions in their living room, as they did one recent February evening. With Justin and Jared on guitars, Kelley on vocals and Mike on the violin, The Rolling Steins performed a song in Hebrew that Mike had written.

Smiling at one another, their voices blending effortlessly, the Steins were completely in their element. “When we play together, it’s like there’s blood flowing between us,” Mike said. “It’s so warm and comfortable and natural. It’s the greatest feeling in the world.”