January 19, 2020

Off the Bimah: A Concerted Effort

With her slender figure, long, shining strawberry-blonde hair and big hazel eyes, Alison Wissot looks more like a stage ingénue than most people’s conceptions of a cantor — not surprising, since that’s what she was 10 years ago.

Wissot’s cantorial career is off to a brilliant start: Less than three years after graduating from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s School of Sacred Music in New York, she is filling the largest Reform cantorial pulpit in the San Fernando Valley, the 1,300-household Temple Judea in Tarzana and West Hills.

But the girl who loves to sing pop music and theater pieces is only a step away from the bimah, and Wissot, a regular on the local Jewish concert scene, is preparing for two events during the next few weeks.

The first, an annual fundraiser for Temple Isaiah in Rancho Park this Saturday, features Wissot, Cantor Patti Linsky of Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge and Temple Isaiah’s Cantor Evan Kent singing music of the 1970s, in a program called, “What I Did for Love.”

The other, on March 21 at the Museum of the American West in Griffith Park, has Wissot on a roster with four other vocalists. In that concert, which celebrates Women’s History Month in March and the imminence of Passover and features selections by female composers, the performers will “weave the stories of the songs through Pesach,” said Ari Perelmuter, cantor at Temple Menorah in Redondo Beach and music director for the event.

There’s been a proliferation of cantorial concerts in greater Los Angeles and other American Jewish population centers during the past eight to 10 years, an increase that seems to correlate with the increase of congregational singing in synagogue worship and the decline of the cantor’s role as the main supplier of music in the service.

“Jewish music has become so much less ‘performative’ that we as performers need to get opportunities to perform somewhere else,” Wissot told The Journal.

Not that she thinks that’s a bad thing.

“I think it’s great that congregations are doing more singing,” Wissot said. “I think it’s equally great that we have an opportunity as cantors to find the things that fulfill us as performers off the bimah.

“Those of us who are doing these concerts, I think, tend to be more fulfilled in our jobs,” she continued. “If you’re a singer, you have to sing, and if you don’t get a chance to sing, you’re gonna feel as if part of you has been cut off. But if you get to express this incredible wealth of Jewish music and other kinds of music as a singer off the bimah … then you get to come to shul and really pray.”

Wissot, 32, a native Angeleno who grew up at Stephen S. Wise Temple, began her career as an actress in London, where she spent part of her final year of college. Returning stateside, she appeared in off-Broadway plays and regional theater, playing such roles as Eva Peron in “Evita” and Lily in “The Secret Garden.”

But Wissot burned out on life in the theater after only a couple of years.

“I loved theater, and I wasn’t burned out on the craft of theater,” she said. “I sort of flashed forward to my 30s and having done a lot of regional theater and not having done Broadway or having done a Broadway role and not gotten another one in a couple of years, and then what would I be doing?”

That revelation helped bring her to the cantorate.

“I want to make a difference in people’s lives, and I want to know that I’m making a difference,” Wissot said. “Part of my being able to do it again and again is looking into somebody’s eyes and knowing … that something I did mattered.”

Wissot, whose repertoire stretches from traditional chazzanut to songs sung by pop artists such as Celine Dion, said she’ll continue to concertize throughout her career.

“Concerts, no matter how much work has to go into preparing for them, put me on a high,” she said. “That high can last six months, a year. Concerts are like taking care of yourself, and it’s a great way to take care of yourself, because other people love to listen. Then once you do that, you feel full. The well has been filled, and other people can draw from that well for the next year or so because you have something to give again.”

For Herschel Fox, a generation older, participation in cantorial concerts is just as joyous an experience, but their success represents more of a loss to synagogue music.

Since his arrival as cantor at Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) in Encino in 1981, Fox has produced yearly concerts, in recent years featuring some of the most prominent names among traditional cantors from around the world.

This Sunday night, VBS will host a concert that includes Alberto Mizrahi, the Chicago cantor often billed as “the Jewish Pavarotti,” and Benjamin Warschawski of Boca Raton, Fla., a 28-year-old tenor who, Fox told The Journal, is potentially another Richard Tucker or Jan Peerce: an established cantor who will make the transition to opera. Fox and his wife, Judy, cantor of the Synagogue for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles, will also perform.

Fox’s concerts, in which most of the music comes from the traditional cantorial repertoire, leavened with opera arias and American and Yiddish theater songs, play to houses packed with the same fans who sell out halls for touring programs like “The Three Jewish Tenors.”

“I think it’s partly nostalgia,” he said. “The Europeans who come say, ‘Oy, I heard it when I was a child in Europe.’ But for many American Jews who did not grow up with it, they’ve come to realize that it is a phenomenal musical treasure of the Jewish people, and they love it. It’s as exciting as opera — in some ways more exciting, because the guy puts his heart into it and he can improvise within the piece.”

But the same people who love to hear chazzanut in concert, Fox said, aren’t looking for it in their synagogues and aren’t getting it. “Sadly, in the traditional synagogues, you hear less and less world-class cantorial music,” he said.

Fox attributes the decline to several factors. In Orthodox synagogues, he said, congregants want to speed through the liturgy, and cantorial singing takes time. Only a fraction of Orthodox shuls hire cantors any more, Fox added.

In the Conservative movement, he said, many small congregations can’t afford cantors, depending on the rabbi and laypeople to lead the chanting. Large synagogues have cantors, but on a typical Shabbat morning, there’s a bar or bat mitzvah in the main sanctuary, attended by people who aren’t especially interested in hearing the cantor hold forth, with perhaps an alternative minyan in another room, led by laypeople who can daven correctly and efficiently but are usually not equipped to scale the heights of the cantorial repertoire.

Fox, 58, was born in Uzbekistan, the child of Polish refugees who brought him to Winnipeg, Canada, at age 4. He learned his craft the old way, as one of a group of boys gathered around the cantor in his Orthodox shul; at 25 he moved to New York and studied privately with a leading teacher of chazzanut.

Now, he says, “the atmosphere of chazzanut, that European atmosphere which I grew up with in Winnipeg, does not even exist any longer in Winnipeg.”

Still, Fox doesn’t brood about the decline of chazzanut. He’s had a parallel career in Yiddish-flavored cabaret since he was 13, playing synagogues, clubs, resorts and cruise ships, solo and with his wife.

“Always a challenge for me: new audience, you meet with the band an hour before the show to put together the show,” he said. “I’ve been very lucky to have a dual career as a cantor and as an entertainer. I love both.”

Fox knows, after all, that there’s an audience for that old-time chazzones; he’s known it since his first all-cantorial concert in 1996 packed 1,300 people into VBS and turned away another 350 at the door.

“They’re not hearing it in shul, so at a concert, they went bananas,” he said, “and they go bananas year after year.”

Temple Isaiah’s fundraiser, “What I Did for Love,” will begin at 6 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 21, at the UCLA Faculty Club. Advance tickets required: call (310) 277-2772.

“And the Cantors Sing!” will take place Sunday, Feb. 22, 7 p.m., at Valley Beth Shalom, 15739 Ventura Blvd., Encino. For information, call (818) 530-4091.

“Scenes of Worship: A Musical Celebration of Passover”
is scheduled Sunday, March 21, 6:30 p.m., at the Museum of the American West,
4700 Western Heritage Way, Los Angeles. For reservations, call TicketWeb at
(866) 468-3399 or visit www.ticketweb.com .