How to describe Michelle Azar?
Perhaps by noting the seeming dichotomies that make up her life.
First, the mix, though certainly not the clash, of cultures. The singer/actress/rebbetzin — who will present her one-woman show, “From Baghdad to Brooklyn,” at the JCC of Fort Lee/ Congregation Gesher Shalom next week — describes herself as “a product of intermarriage” between her Iraqi-born, Israeli-raised businessman father, Shaul, and her Brooklyn-born-and-raised singer-performer Ashkenazi mother, Marsha. Her show, she said, tries to balance her Middle Eastern heritage with her own American upbringing.
“Middle Eastern culture has a sort of through line where we take care of each other,” she said. “Having an Ashkenazi mom helped balance my understanding that not everyone is here to help.” In addition, while bartering and bargaining are hallmarks of Middle Eastern society, that approach does not work here. “You can’t trade yoga lessons for Prada shoes,” she observed.
“On a day-to- day basis, I feel more Sephardic,” she continued. “I have a sensibility of community around me all the time. My hairdresser is Israeli, and I prefer going to a market with people speaking Hebrew. I feel more connected.” On the other hand, she said, she works daily to tamp down her Middle Eastern temper — embodied, she said, in her father’s “black stare.”
Then, of course, Ms. Azar has to balance the widely divergent worlds of stage and shul.
Her husband, Rabbi Jonathan Aaron, senior rabbi at a Reform synagogue, Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, is definitely a moderating influence on her temperament, she said, coming as he does from a “docile” German background and, as it happens, from solid cantorial stock. His uncle, Samuel Adler, wrote, among other things, the catchy melody still used for motzi, while his grandfather, Hugo Chaim Adler, was a respected chazzan.
Music is a family passion, she added. Ms. Azar and Rabbi Aaron have two daughters, 16-year-old singer/songwriter Adina and 12-year-old Sela, whom her mother describes as a talented guitarist. As for Ms. Azar herself, one of her proudest memories is of singing on stage with Placido Domingo.
“My Ashkenzi mother pushed me into the Lyric Opera of Chicago,” the Chicago-raised Ms. Azar said. But “I didn’t want to sing and learn another language,” and anyway she preferred high school plays. Still, the young girl sang “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” and obviously “they liked my voice. I sang with them for years. I had a tiny little role in La Boheme.” The then 15-year-old got to take her bow standing next to Placido Domingo.
While singing clearly has continued to be a major focus of her life, so too is Jewish involvement. She was not only a longtime attendee of Habonim-Dror’s Camp Tavor, “but it’s as though I never left,” she said. “I spent eight years as a camper and two years as a counselor.” And with her sister a past leader of the national movement, she was involved there as well. In fact, she said, when she comes to New York, she’ll stay with camp friends.
“Last year, around 300 of us came together for the camp’s anniversary,” she said, describing it as a place where she made lifelong friends and learned about the “community aspect” of Jewish life, “our connective tissue as Jews living outside of Israel. “
Also, while she now spends much of her time on stage, she takes her role in her synagogue very seriously. Indeed, no matter what else she accomplishes, she said, her father insists on calling her “rebbetzin.”
“I volunteer, read Torah on Shabbat morning, deliver meals, and sing in the choir,” she said. She also teaches yoga there. “It feels very appropriate,” she said. “We’re forming a little chevruta.”
Her connection to Israel remains strong, and she recalls spending most summers of her young life in the Jewish state. Her father left Iraq in 1942, headed for Israel. Although his siblings returned to Iraq subsequently for business reasons, ultimately “everyone was kicked out.” When they left, on a Friday night, “my father’s father, a devout Orthodox Jew, at first said he wouldn’t go. But because they were going to the Holy Land,” he relented.
Her mother, born on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, met her husband there, his first week in the United States, where he was “dying to make money. He wanted to go back to Israel and buy land.” As it happens, he did buy a textile factory in Israel, “but they never made it back to live.”
Ms. Azar describes her show as having a “unique spirit, seeing this American grappling with these very different worlds. She tries to embody her grandmother and her father, among others. “My dad is funny — his accent, his line of reasoning. There’s a great amount of humor and some pathos, as well as interesting music,” including Broadway songs, Iraqi prayer melodies, and Hebrew and Yiddish songs. Her original goal, she said, was to “protect some version of my father’s honor” while acknowledging the fears some Americans harbor of people from the Middle East.
Ms. Azar also is deeply involved in a joint project with her sister-in-law, Melissa Greenspan, whom she first met at NYU when they were both studying acting. Later, Ms. Azar managed to arrange a shidduch between Ms. Greenspan and her brother. Called “How to Beat Your Sister-in-Law (at everything), “it’s really going great,” Ms. Azar said of the project, which will premiere on June 9. “The networks are beginning to meet with us.”
While Ms. Azar is hard to sum up in a few words, she would describe herself as “a deeply investigative, inquisitive person, searching for truth to go deeper in all my connections, in every relationship I have, to myself and to my past. What do we want to keep, to tinker with? People think I’m a bright, funny, positive person, but I have shadowy sides I want to bring into the light.”
Has anything surprised her as she put her show together? “I’m surprised by how many songs I learned from my father, the non-singer of the family, and by how many we’ve shared, and by how important that thread has been.”
Who: Singer Michelle Azar
What: Will perform her one-woman show, “From Baghdad to Brooklyn”
When: On May 22 at 8:15 p.m.
Where: At Gesher Shalom/JCC of Fort Lee, 1449 Anderson Ave, a project of the CSI Scholar Fund
Free to the public. No reservations required.