August 17, 2019

Hillel Tigay: The Rock Cantor

This article was updated October 9: It’s 9 p.m. on a Thursday night at Apogee’s Berkeley Street Studio in Santa Monica, a state-of-the-art recording facility normally leased to musicians such as Mick Jagger or John Fogerty, or lately, Adele; artists whose grandeur requires the technical perfection and engineering genius a place like this offers. But tonight it isn’t classic rock blaring through the pitch-perfect speakers; it isn’t the vengeful, determined elegy for lost love rolling through this deep. It’s something wildly unfamiliar, even anachronistic for this setting: Jewish liturgy.

The composer, Hillel Tigay, is in the house, and he’s as giddy as one might imagine a one-time aspiring pop rocker might be, even though he took a different turn and became a kind of cantor instead. Kind of, because he inhabits the role of cantor for the popular Westside shul IKAR, even though he never went to cantorial school. He didn’t actually have to, because by the time he was 13 he could chant Torah and haftarah and lead Shabbat services “cold”; by 14, he had mastered the special tropes for all five scrolls — Esther, Eicha, Ecclesiastes, Shir HaShirim and Ruth; and by his senior year of high school, he was already being hired to lead High Holy Days services, making what he thought was a bundle at the time ($1,300), which he spent on his true passion: guitars.

Tonight, more than two decades after he gave up trying to “make it” in the music industry, he’s recording a cutting-edge imagining of what prayer might have sounded like in the ancient Temple. “When people think about the way our ancestors practiced, the thing that comes to mind is sacrifices,” Tigay said. “But people don’t understand that they were putting on an incredible spectacle of music and song and prayer — that was the emotional offering. The same way we were supposed to offer the best of our oxen or goats, we’re supposed to offer the best of our song.”

The new album, whose working title is “Judeo,” features liturgical chants and songs used during services at IKAR and sung by members of that community. It is so musically complex and sophisticated, a “Hallelujah” track combining nearly 80 separate vocal and instrumental pieces has just crashed an ostensibly un-crash-able supercomputer. “Can you believe it? This pisher little shul record!” Tigay said, plunking down for a rest on the couch. Usually more understated than ebullient, Tigay right now is plotzed with pride, which is more than a little out of character. Those who know him tend to focus on his wry humor, moderate cynicism and sometimes unconventional behavior (several years ago, though the rabbi and others strongly dispute this, he visibly nursed a Diet Coke while leading services on Yom Kippur). But this recording represents something more serious, a culminating moment for him, combining what he always wanted to do (music) with what he actually does (Judaism). “This is, like, the greatest mix studio in the world, and they couldn’t handle what we were doing!”

Although this is Tigay’s third music CD with IKAR, it is also the most ambitious. With the help of music executive and IKAR member Jeff Ayeroff, who helped launch Madonna’s career, among others, Tigay was able to fund the project to the tune of nearly $60,000. But despite his desire to create something professional and polished, Tigay said he isn’t aiming for absolute authenticity; rather, he selected texts and instruments that suggest fidelity to the spirit of our time. What he wants most is to move you.

Deep, emotional engagement is an animating force behind prayer at IKAR, the progressive start-up community founded by Rabbi Sharon Brous. And much of the fuss you may have heard about the soul-shattering davening that occurs there is largely because of the musical stylings and spiritual leadership of Tigay. Although you’d be hard pressed to tell just by looking at him: At 43, the 6-foot-tall musician is ruggedly handsome with pool-blue eyes and long, tousled hair, more rock star than religious figure, who rounds out his eccentric persona with a daring penchant for tweed.

How, exactly, someone who counts listening to a Beatles record as his first religious experience and whose crowning musical moment was jumping onstage during a U2 concert to riff with Bono, ended up as a Jewish prayer leader is somewhat puzzling. For Tigay, it was even disheartening at first. “I really wasn’t comfortable at all,” he said of the day Brous offered him the job almost eight years ago. “It was like, ‘Ohmigod, is this what my life has come to?’”

Not that it was so far from where he had already been. His first name alone suggests Tigay hails from a solid Jewish background (his brothers are Hanan, Eitan and Israel, and “our middle names are worse,” he joked). Their father, Jeffrey Tigay, is a rabbi, renowned Bible scholar, professor and prolific author, who co-authored the five-volume JPS Torah Commentary, a staple of the Conservative movement. Tigay’s mother, Helene, was also a Jewish educator and deeply involved in the Philadelphia Jewish community where Tigay and his brothers grew up. That is, when they weren’t living in Israel while his father took sabbatical at Hebrew University.

Given all this, a clerical role actually seems like a natural fit, especially since Tigay practically considers Hebrew his first language. But he insists the cantor thing was a big fluke, an accident of fate: “I was always trying to rebel against my parents’ profession; I was trying to go in the opposite direction. I always saw a [Jewish] job as something removed from who I thought I was.”

Seven years in, though, Tigay has found his calling writing and recording music that brings progressive pop sensibilities to classic Jewish texts, many of which he gets to “test drive” during services at IKAR, where his wife, Beth, and two daughters, Mila, 12, and Eden, 9, are often present. But when he first arrived there, in 2005, things were a bit mussy. He quickly picked up, for instance, that the community was aiming for an authentic, engaged prayer experience, but musically, he felt it was mired in a one-dimensional, predominantly Shlomo Carlebach style.

“I immediately started to run through my head the melodies they had and wondered, ‘How would this sound if I added different harmonies, different instruments to make it more beautiful?’ I thought it would be fun to try to write my own melodies.” He jumped onto eBay and purchased an oud, a saz and a cumbus, Middle Eastern instruments that would help infuse the service with more textured, Sephardic sounds, and include the Mizrahi and Ladino music he was exposed to in Israel. “IKAR’s early service had spirit and joy, but it needed more color and texture so it was not just hora, hora, hora — Carlebach energy, or Oy! Oy! Oy! —shtetl music.”

Symphonic atmosphere? Good. Actual symphony? Not a chance. After the Temple was destroyed, music became one of its casualties; as an act of mourning, instruments were halachically banned from Jewish worship, so the issue of whether or not to use instruments during services brought about Tigay’s first and biggest clash with Brous, which he said almost derailed their partnership. “She had this image in her mind of Carlebach-style, singing your hearts out, closing eyes, banging on the tables, having this ‘real’ davening experience; and I was imagining this Peter Gabriel experience where you could create this mesmerizing soundtrack for prayer. I felt the whole thing about not using instruments was just one of those Jewish hamstrings.”

Rabbi and cantor duked it out for awhile; rabbi won. “In any partnership, two people coming together with different visions have to learn how to live together,” Brous said. “For me, not only was there halachic discomfort with instruments, I also felt like I wanted to sometimes start in the wrong key. I wanted to deal with the very human struggle of having to make something beautiful out of something ugly. I wanted people to feel cacophony; sometimes we make mistakes. It’s about giving people the experience of something messy that needs to be worked on.”

Out of that early conflict arose a very close, symbiotic partnership. “Sharon cares about every detail, every little melody and note. And in the beginning, it was a pain to have to run everything by her, but then I was turned on by her passion. Sometimes we get into these married-couple blowouts, where we’re going to kill each other and quit, but I think everybody knows we’re going to overcome them and that we’re solidly on the same page.”

Their dynamic serves the community well, explained Rabbi Brad Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at American Jewish University, and a member of IKAR. Artson points to their relationship as a reason for the uniqueness and quality of IKAR’s prayer service. “They think through every single step of the service together, and that’s very rare,” Artson said. “They bring a level of mindfulness and partnership that I’ve rarely encountered anywhere else.” Artson also added that what sets apart Tigay from other Jewish prayer leaders is his immense musical knowledge, a mostly innate skill that was honed with a degree in musicology from the University of Pennsylvania. “He knows traditional liturgy very well, and he knows world music really well, so in any given service, he manages to pull on different musical traditions in ways that break it open all the time. It’s always fresh; there’s always something new, always something you hadn’t expected.”

Tigay’s success at making music the guiding portal for IKAR’s prayer has surprised even Brous. “I never imagined it could be like this,” she said.

She recalled that last year on Rosh Hashanah, Tigay taught the community a complex, multiple-line melody for the “Hallelujah” that appears on “Judeo” — a challenge most rabbis would prefer to avoid during the High Holy Days. But by the end of Neilah on Yom Kippur, the community had learned it well enough to sing it. After the shofar service, Brous found herself stunned: “People stayed for 40 minutes after the fast ended, because they were caught in the grip of this ‘Hallelujah’! It was so incredibly powerful. And I remember watching the faces of a couple of the kids who were sitting on the shoulders of their parents, and I thought, ‘Hillel is a genius. He somehow figured out how to break open the hearts of a thousand people at once.’ It was one of the most moving spiritual experiences I’ve ever had.”

Tigay is quick to credit an entire davening “team” that helps him lead services each week, several of whom have been there since IKAR’s founding. Jaclyn Beck, 33, is a stunning chanteuse who has lent her voice to services for the past seven years. Ross Levinson, a founding member of IKAR, adds a husky baritone and skilled drumming. Both are accomplished, mature musicians in their own right (Levinson is also a co-producer of “Judeo”), yet they all seem to cling to the credo that prayer is not a performance. They see themselves as vessels not stars. “They came to this as musicians,” Brous said, “but they’re all spiritual leaders.”

Tigay almost sounds like a guru when he describes leading prayer: “It’s like climbing a mountain; you’re getting emotionally higher and higher until you go into the stratosphere, and you keep adding new things in, climbing even higher, to the point where you forget you’re climbing and you’re just floating.”

It’s a little weird to hear a rock guy talk this way, but it’s what makes his persona so compelling. Is he a rock star in a synagogue, or a spirit master with rock ’n’ roll skills?  

“Look,” he says, “I wasn’t hired for this job because I’m an incredible quarterback team leader. I’ve always been a lone wolf. My greatest strength, I think, is just creating the musical soundscape that makes everybody feel the power of the prayer. I try to make the music so good and so beautiful, to the point where everybody in the room is singing and something magical happens and everything else vanishes.”

“Judeo” is the embodiment of all that, a marriage of Tigay’s musical skill with his spiritual depth. Without the halachic restrictions: “This is my revenge,” he says with a mischievous look in his eyes. “This is what I always thought I would do in services.”

To hear the music, visit



NOTE: An earlier version of this story stated that Hebrew is Tigay's first language. Hebrew was the first language in which he learned to read and write with fluency.