Music as a life force

Music as a life force

Cantor Magda Fishman will spend a Shabbat with Temple Israel and JCC in Ridgewood

Cantor Magda Fishman
Cantor Magda Fishman

It never occurred to little Magda Fishman, growing up in Israel, that she might be a cantor someday.

In fact, it never even occurred to her that she possibly could be a cantor. Yes, she could sing — but she was a girl. And not particularly religious. So don’t be silly. That’s not possible.

When you hear Magda Fishman today, though — something you can do on May 31 and June 1, when she will be cantor in residence at Temple Israel and JCC in Ridgewood (see box) — you’ll hear someone whose voice, presence, and affect could have destined her for nothing else.

“I watched the movie ‘Yentl, and I became Yentl,” she said.

That’s not exactly surface-level accurate — Yentl is a woman who pretends to be a man so she can study Talmud. But Yentl is played by Barbra Streisand, whose love for Jewish learning and life is unstoppable, and whose voice is Barbra Streisand’s voice, so the deeper meaning is exactly right.

Cantor Fishman grew up in Jaffa. She was secular; “when you grow up in Israel, you get the tradition, no matter what,” she said. Her musical talent was recognized from the time she was very young. She played the trumpet — an instrument that’s not often associated with the cantorate — and one that she occasionally pulls out in concert and plays with obvious joy.

Cantor Fishman’s musical talent ensured that her IDF stint would be as a musician. Next, she came to New York, where she studied at the Manhattan School of Music, focusing on musical theater.

“My patron was Mary Rodgers, Richard Rodgers’ daughter,” Cantor Fishman said. Richard Rodgers is one of the brightest stars in American musical theater, the composer who worked with lyricists Lorenz Hart and Oscar Hammerstein to create such classics as “Pal Joey,” “Oklahoma,” “The King and I,” and “The Sound of Music,” to name just a few. His daughter Mary also was a writer and composer; her work includes “Once Upon a Mattress.” The family was American musical theater royalty (and perhaps not coincidentally Jewish).

Cantor Fishman started feeling the pull of Jewish music — not to the exclusion of other kinds of music, but still its hold over her heart and soul strengthened.

“A friend called me and said that he needed someone to sing with him on Friday nights,” she said. “I said that I didn’t know anything about it,” but still she tried. That friend was Dov Keren, the now-retired cantor of Sutton Place Synagogue in Manhattan.

“I started to go there once a month, and he looked at me, and he said, ‘Why aren’t you becoming a cantor?’

“So I met Henry Rosenberg of JTS, and I interviewed, and they said yes, and that was that.”

To expand — Henry Rosenblum, who lived in Teaneck at the time, was the dean of the cantorial school at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Cantor Fishman moved from the Manhattan School of Music, on the west side of Broadway, to JTS, a few blocks away on Broadway’s  east side. She graduated in 2011.“It was like the universe was calling me,” she said. “It chose me.”

Cantor Fishman is now at B’nai Torah Synagogue in Boca Raton. It’s a huge place, “a unique shul,” she said. Many members live in Florida year-round; others are snowbirds, “and they all come here from all over the country because they love to daven and engage in synagogue life. It’s a very active community. Going for three years now, we’ve had an extremely successful concert series, with four concerts a year. It’s wonderful.”

When she gets to Ridgewood, Cantor Fishman plans to daven as she always does — which means that she will join what she is feeling with what she senses from the community to make music that is spiritual, uplifting, and not entirely predictable.

“On Friday nights and Shabbat mornings, I feel like I am connecting to the universe, to God, and to people through the music and the prayer,” she said. “When we sing Lecha Dodi, and we welcome Shabbat, I say, ‘Forget your troubles,  c’mon  get happy.’ Because we’re all right there, and our focus is all on prayer, community, goodness, spirit, and music. I feel like in a way we’re protected from the world and its worries, so we can just focus on prayer for good.

“It comes from the soul. And I care about the words. ‘Let’s sing a new song to God.’ Or when we welcome Shabbat through Lecha Dodi, I feel the joy as I feel the deep, deep connection from generation to generation. For me the music is very strong, and so is the language.

“And I love to hear people sing.

“It’s about the spirit, and feeling included, and part of it.”

That doesn’t mean that an entire service that Cantor Fishman leads is all community singing. “I know that there are moments when people like just to listen, to close their eyes.

“And then there are other prayers, like one that is call and response,” she added.

Part of her job as cantor “is defining the mix” of the congregation, she said. “It’s making people feel included, and also giving time to listen, take time for themselves, meditate, and take it all in.” Finding that mix takes time and requires experience, she added.

This is one of many ways she finds her musical theater background helps. “When you perform in cabaret, you learn to read the audience,” she said. Leading davening is not at all performance — “it is very different,” she said — “but you want to be partners with your audience, and you also want to be partners with your community.”

Services on Friday nights and Saturday mornings generally do not feel the same, she said. Friday nights tend to be more joyful, and Shabbat mornings are a bit more formal. She uses melodies and styles from across the Jewish world. At home, at B’nai Torah, “I allow myself to change from one to three melodies a week. I look at who comes in, who I feel will be comfortable with a new melody, and whether there’s time to teach it. I do have a plan at my own shul, but I will change it if I see the need.

“And sometimes what works in one community will be different in another,” she continued. “Sometimes at the spur of the moment you change things because people react differently. You have to constantly read the community and be able to engage with them, for them to get the best from you as a spiritual leader.”

Cantor Fishman often comes to the New York metropolitan area to sing; just last week she was at the Staten Island JCC. Last summer, she sang at the National Yiddish Theater Folksbiene’s Summer Stage, where her charisma billowed off the Central Park stage and into the audience, warming the chilly night. She brought her son, Yair Keydar, with her. Yair, who now is 11 years old, was a vibrant presence, gifted in a way strikingly reminiscent of his mother. Yair will be at Ridgewood with Cantor Fishman during this visit.

Zalmen Mlotek of Teaneck is the Folksbiene’s artistic director. He has worked with Cantor Fishman, including for her Summer Stage performance last summer, and he raves about her.

“Magda is a phenomenon,” he said. “She is a musician, with the highest sensibilities, but it’s more than that. She sings straight from her neshama.” Her soul.

“She’s extremely musical, but more than that, she performs without a net.”

That combination of skill and spirituality will animate the Shabbat services at Temple Israel and JCC in Ridgewood very soon.

Who: Cantor Magda Fishman

What: Will be cantor in residence

Where: At Temple Israel in Ridgewood

When: Shabbat parashat Shelah, May 31-June 1; Friday night at 6, and Saturday morning at 9.

What about food: Shabbat dinner after shul; it’s $12.50 per person. Register in advance for dinner. Kiddish lunch after Shabbat morning services; it’s free.

To reserve dinner and for more information: Go to and click on the link for dinner reservations.

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