Chazzan Mike Stein never really considered himself a singer, but rather, he said, an instrumentalist who sings. But when an agent called and invited him to audition for the upcoming seventh season of NBC’s TV hit singing competition “The Voice,” something within him that had lain dormant since his teen years on the Broadway stage was ignited once again.
“I don’t think that I would have done it if somebody hadn’t approached me. Up until the day of the audition, I thought, ‘Why am I doing this?’ My wife and sons are the ones who said, ‘Dad, you should do this for yourself.’ ”
And they were right, Stein, 62, admits now: “There is a deep sense of satisfaction in this business that you can’t get anywhere else. It’s a totally different kind of satisfaction than what I get being a cantor — it’s total ego, and I really enjoyed every minute.”
Bound by contractual silence, in a recent interview Stein, a Grammy winner and, since 2000, chazzan at the Conservative Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills, had to tip-toe around sharing any stories of his TV experience. He is the first cantor to appear on the show — there have been a few music ministers, and a nun once won the “Voice” competition in Italy. Stein entered into the process openly displaying his affiliation, he said. “I was representing the Jewish people. I insisted that I could wear a yarmulke, and I talked about being Jewish a lot, in almost every interview.” At his first audition, Stein sang Romemu from the Friday night service, and he added a yodel to it. “I just want to be the Matisyahu [Jewish rapper] of country music,” Stein said with a laugh.
Stein has been singing since he was a young boy growing up in New York. One of his favorite things was going to the synagogue and listening to his cantor sing in the classical chazzanut style. In third grade, Stein started to play the violin and later picked up the guitar when the Beatles came to America. Even though his mother was a pianist and his great-uncle was the famous Broadway-musicals composer Jule Styne (“Funny Girl,” “Gypsy”), his parents weren’t supportive of his passion. “My parents didn’t want me to be a singer or actor, anything in the entertainment business — for them, that was a failure. The older actors on Broadway that I met became my surrogate parents; they adopted me. … Later, I learned from this, and that’s why my children have 300 percent of my support in the arts,” said Stein.
At 16, he entered Queens College, majoring in drama. He soon left to pursue a career in acting. It was really tough; he recalled living in a condemned building on the Lower East Side, selling everything in order to eat and sweeping floors in hopes of landing some kind of opportunity. Stein’s first break on Broadway came as part of the chorus in the rock opera “Soon.” Then, at 19, he landed a spot in the original cast of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and toured in the original road show of the rock opera “Tommy.” Then his journey took a detour.
“I felt that all the things I was doing on Broadway were amazing, but they didn’t have the substance for me. I left my career and went to live on a farm in Pennsylvania with my girlfriend, and we lived like hippies and grew our own food,” he said.
Eventually, Stein moved back to civilization and landed in Washington, D.C., doing street theater, entertaining people as they waited in lines for museums. It was there that he met his wife, Shelley (a trained opera singer); they married and started a family. (They now have three very musically talented, now-adult sons — Jacob, Justin and Jared — and a family band called the “Rolling Steins.”)
While in D.C., Stein also auditioned for the United States Navy Band, which needed a fiddle player at the time. Stein played with that band for 17 years, including numerous concerts at the White House, performing for four presidents, as well as around the world.
In the mid 1980s, Stein attended a Jewish music festival, where he met Cantor Arnold Saltzman, which turned out to be a pivotal moment in his life. He went on to study with Saltzman, and soon after answered an ad for a synagogue looking for a cantor on Friday nights — Congregation B’nai Tzedek in Potomac, Md. That’s where his career as a cantor got its start, and he moved from there to Temple Aliyah in 2000.
“Being a cantor is an amazing privilege,” Stein said. “I try to help people find another entrance into the synagogue through music. It helps them look at Judaism as something that they can participate in. … I enjoy being invited into people’s lives, in all stages of life, and being entrusted with their emotions.”
With the High Holy Days just around the corner, Stein noted, “It’s a great time. When I start on the first night, that first phrase that I sing in front of the ark emotionally opens me up in a place of awe and thankfulness. I work hard [at] not letting it feel like pressure, like work; and it is work. We do avodah — avodah is worship, and it’s the same word for work. Yom Kippur feels like a marathon, because I am very weak by the end; it’s hard.”
A few days before the holidays begin, Stein will be getting another call from “The Voice,” this one to let him know when his performances will be airing during the premiere week of Sept. 22.
Being on “The Voice,” he said, “gave me a lot of confidence and made me realize that I am worth a lot more than I think I am. It made me feel that I have so much to give, and people are ready to listen and accept what I have to give. … It gave me a big lift.”
Good luck, Chazzan Stein. We’ll be watching.