From cabaret to cantorate in Maywood congregation

From cabaret to cantorate in Maywood congregation

Lois Kittner, the new cantor of Reconstructionist synagogue Temple Beth Israel in Maywood, said this will be her first time leading High Holy Day services.

"I’ll keep my face in the book," she said, noting that she often does that with the siddur when leading Shabbat services. "It shows the congregation that it’s not rocket science. They can do it too. It’s right there on the page." Kittner has been a Beth Israel congregant herself for three years.

Cantor Lois Kittner

Maintaining that "there is no excuse for not participating in the service or learning something new," the Bogota resident, who said, "I didn’t even know ‘El Adon,’" a prayer recited on Shabbat when she first started attending services, described her journey from the Conservative movement to Reconstructionism and from cabaret to the cantorate.

"My cabaret background is my secret weapon," she said. "Cabaret is all about interpretation — it’s not ‘in your face.’ The message sneaks up behind you. It’s story-telling."

Kittner explained that "even when congregants don’t read or understand Hebrew, the tune of the prayers is part of their DNA — they’re connected to it." But, she said, some prayer leaders "have been doing it too long" and don’t bring a fresh, new, or meaningful approach to the liturgy.

The new cantor, who said she never felt it was appropriate to assume that title because she has not had formal cantorial training, noted that "they almost had to tie me up" to get her to accept the position. "The congregation said, ‘This is what we want. When you sing, we get it.’" The daughter of a "devout atheist father" and a mother who was not religious, Kittner said when she first began to attend services, "I was afraid to go to the bimah."

Up until now, she said, she has focused on leyning (reading Torah), chanting haftarahs, and leading parts of the service. She has also taught others to participate, preparing her two sons for their b’nai mitzvah and teaching others to read Torah.

"I want to create a cadre of Torah leyners," she said, noting that she had set herself the goal of being able to "do any haftarah, cold" within 10 years. She has met that goal.

According to Kittner, "If you understand why a line is in a prayer, then you can get that meaning across…. Once you understand the intent of the language, you must sing it in such as way as to share it with the congregation."

A French major in college, in her late ‘0s Kittner moved to New York, where she started working with musical directors. After marriage and a move to New Jersey, she began attending the United Synagogue of Hoboken, which "taught her everything."

"I didn’t even know how to accept an aliyah," she said, noting that then Rabbi Jeffrey Marker, and the succession of student rabbis who followed, liked her voice and made her cassette tapes so she could lead the service.

While she renewed her cabaret career when her sons were in elementary school — she had a fellowship at the Eugene O’Neill Cabaret Symposium and then opened two one-woman shows in NYC — when her father died in August 1996, she stopped crafting new shows and concentrated on singing in the synagogue.

Kittner remained a member of the Hoboken shul even after moving to Bogota. But with her father’s death — and the need to recite Kaddish several times a day — she began attending the Fort Lee Jewish Center, where, she said, then Rabbi Irving Spielman was very welcoming. She eventually joined the synagogue, became chair of the ritual committee, and, she said, "continued learning." Kittner said she treasures the opportunity she had to sing with the synagogue’s cantor, Paul Zim, whom she called a "mentor."

Three years ago, the new cantor visited Beth Israel. "It was totally different," she said, calling her exploration "a natural progression." The more she learned, she said, "the more I started to question my commitment to Conservative liturgy. I needed to investigate what else was out there."

Kittner said she loves singing at Beth Israel and is "intrigued by how much singing they do." To lead services there, she said, she has steeped herself in recordings of Reconstructionist liturgy. "I use headphones when I’m on the treadmill," she said.

She will lead High Holy Day services together with the shul’s new student rabbi, Jarah Greenfield. "I was asked to do this in May," she said. "I won’t be doing the entire service but will chant Kol Nidre" and some of the other prayers. She will also — as is her custom — chant the haftarah on Yom Kippur.

Kittner said that while her new job as cantor is not full-time, she spends many hours preparing for it. "When I practice, time stands still," she said. "It’s my life’s passion."

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