December 14, 2018

Knowing Kaddish Helps Cantor Land TV Roles

Larry David with Kenny Ellis. Photo courtesy of Kenny Ellis via JTA.

Kenny Ellis has been a cantor for 27 years, but before he got into Jewish liturgy, he was an entertainer — and he maintains a thriving side career as an actor and singer, which will be on full display in the coming days.

Ellis, who serves Temple Beth Ami in Santa Clarita, can be seen in a pair of television roles for which he’s perfectly suited: He portrays rabbis officiating at funerals on episodes of HBO’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and NBC’s “Law & Order True Crime: The Menendez Murders,” airing Oct. 22 and Oct. 24, respectively.

It would be nice to get something steady. Gotta pay those college bills. –Kenny Ellis

Being able to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish gave him the inside track at his auditions, he said.

Shooting the “Curb” scene last December was a reunion of sorts, reconnecting him with Larry David, the show’s star and creator, for the first time since the late 1970s. In those days, Ellis was a young stand-up comic in New York, and he became friendly with David, Richard Lewis, Elayne Boosler and others on the circuit.

“It was a chavurah of comedians. We’d share taxis to go from the Improv to Catch a Rising Star and go to delis after to hang out,” Ellis said. “I had not seen Larry in all these years, and I wondered if he would recognize me.”

On the set, Ellis said, David “looked at me kind of strangely and said, ‘Do I know you from somewhere?’ I said yes and told him who I was. We talked about all the people that we knew. I stayed in touch with a lot of people and was able to catch him up. He was very kind to me and I was very excited about that.”

While shooting the “Law & Order” scene of the funeral of attorney Leslie Abramson’s mother, Ellis got to spend time with star Edie Falco during breaks in filming.

“We were kibitzing the whole day,” Ellis said. “I felt like I knew her all my life. A lot of actors go back to their trailers, but she hung out and ate with us. She’s a sweetheart and an amazing actress.”

Ellis discovered his love of performing as a child when he and his sisters put on shows in their Philadelphia living room to entertain their parents. He sang in synagogue choir and took part in his high school’s band, choir and musical productions.

After his graduation from Temple University with a bachelor’s degree in theater in 1974, he moved to New York with his sights set on Broadway but ended up performing in the Catskills, Miami Beach and elsewhere. Jewish organizations like Hadassah, B’nai B’rith and ORT hired him for functions. He continued to pursue stand-up comedy and acting roles when he moved west in 1978.

Ellis was president of his United Synagogue Youth chapter and first went to Israel at 16. He credits his maternal grandmother for his “love of Judaism, Jewish culture and Yiddishkayt.” But he’d never considered becoming a cantor until a rabbi heard him sing at synagogue and suggested it.

He has been the chazzan at Temple Beth Ami, a Reform congregation, for eight years, and was at Temple Beth Haverim in Agoura Hills before that. But it was his first job at Valley Outreach Synagogue where he met his wife, Laura, who was in the choir.

“We’ve been married 25 years and have two sons,” he said. Adam, 21, is a UCLA senior and Aaron, 17, is a senior at Agoura High School.

Ellis, who grew up listening to Jewish music on the radio over lox and bagels every Sunday, deejayed his own Jewish music program while at Temple University, and currently he teaches a Jewish music class one Wednesday per month at American Jewish University. He released a big band-style album called “Hanukkah Swings” in 2005 and often performs his one-man variety show locally, around the country and in Israel.

Ellis hopes more roles are in his future, especially a recurring part, perhaps as a doctor, lawyer, neighbor or another rabbi. He worked with Mark Feuerstein in a movie two years ago, playing a rabbi who ordered a kosher meal on a plane, and he’d love to appear on Feuerstein’s new sitcom, “9JKL.”

“It would be nice to get something steady,” Ellis said. “Gotta pay those college bills.”

RIP Dennis Farina, aka Cousin Avi

To most people, Dennis Farina, who died Monday at age 69, may be best remembered as a tough-talking Chicago cop (which he actually was, for 18 years, before becoming an actor) or as a tough-talking New York City police detective, which he ably played for two seasons as Joe Fontana on “Law & Order.”

But I think of Cousin Avi, the foul-mouthed, kipah-wearing Jew that Farina played in “Snatch,” the delightful British comedy crime movie (2000) directed by Guy Ritchie. The film, which opens with Brad Pitt playing a jewelery thief disguised as a hasidic Jew, showcased quintessential Farina. Here’s a taste: