|Guitarist Eitan Prouser will accompany Lois Kittner, inset, as she sings cabaret songs before Slichot.|
Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”
That’s a quote from Victor Hugo, the 19th-century French Romantic, via Rabbi Joseph Prouser of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes.
Rabbi Prouser has been thinking about music a great deal as the High Holy Days approach. “I am interested in maximizing the musical experience of the holidays,” he said. “I think that music and the cantorial arts, especially over the High Holidays, touch people on a different level than the purely intellectual sermon or academic lecture might.”
To that end, he is bringing Lois Kittner of Bogota, a fifth-year student at the Academy for the Jewish Religion in Yonkers, N.Y., to share her voice and her spirit with the congregation for Slichot, the Saturday night penitential service that ushers in the melodies, liturgies, themes, and preoccupations of the holiday season.
“Rabbi Prouser asked me if I would think about putting together a small program before the Slichot service, as so many congregations do,” Ms. Kittner said. “And I said, ‘Well, I would love to – but I don’t know if you know this about me, but I was a cabaret singer. So if you ask me to put together a musical program for Slichot, which is all about feelings and introspection and emotion, I am going to want to put together a cabaret show.’
“And he said, ‘That sounds great. Let’s do it!’
“What I found when I started putting the program together is that I had a wonderful opportunity – which I didn’t realize before the actual creative process began – to bring Torah into the show. So I started to choose songs that could be connected to what I call liturgical touchpoints.”
Instead of explaining liturgical touchpoints directly, Ms. Kittner used a traditional Jewish work-around to make her point. She told a story.
“In a regular cabaret show, it is perfectly acceptable – even expected – that a performer would share a personal story in introducing a song or group of songs,” she continued. “That is because you want to speak to everyone. If you speak about your own emotions, the chances are that you’re touching on someone else’s as well. So liturgical touchpoints – so Elul” – the month that ends with Rosh Hashanah, the month in which we find ourselves right now – “is our month for preparing ourselves for the yamim nora’im,” the Days of Awe. “For me, it is also the time of my father’s yahrzeit.
“He died 18 years ago, on the sixth of Elul, and I desperately wanted a Jewish ritual to help me through the sadness, the fear, the aloneness. I remember going to shul the Shabbat after he died – I wasn’t a cantorial student then, of course, just a congregant – and the rabbi said, ‘We will now turn to page whatever-it-was’ because we were reading Psalm 27. ‘For though my father and my mother have forsaken me, God will care for me,’ it said.
“I thought the rabbi had chosen it just for me, although of course he hadn’t.
“And then my coach and mentor, Cantor Sol Zim, wrote a beautiful song to the words from Hosea that we say when we wrap tefillin around our arm, to the words ‘I will betroth you to me forever.’ He wrote it for his son’s wedding. And now when I sing that, I am introducing a song, telling a personal story, and connecting it to our liturgy.
“I always think back to that Shabbat after my father’s passing as a turning point in my relationship to Jewish liturgy and to God. When I am searching for answers, for understanding, or just for some comfort, I know that I can turn to the psalms, to our sages, to the liturgy, because it is in there.”
“Liturgical touchpoints are my leitmotif because my mission is to bring people to experience Judaism in a way that works for them.”
And about the cabaret? “I look at ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ as a metaphor for Slichot, for teshuva,” Ms. Kittner said. “I have always experienced it when others sing it as being wistful, about something you can’t attain, but I have been looking at it anew.
“The Days of Awe are not about punishment, as many of us are raised to believe,” she continued. “It is not a negative, dark time. It is a serious time, even somber, but if you are willing to do the work of introspection, of asking forgiveness from others, from yourself, and then you are ready to ask for forgiveness from God, as you understand God – then, once you’ve come through it, you should definitely be on the other side of the rainbow.
“And ‘if happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow – why can’t I?’ There is potential for each of us.”
Ms. Kittner was a cabaret singer in the 1970s and ’80s, “and then I was a mom,” she said. As her two sons grew up, she left the uncertainty of a career in music to work as a financial planner, although she always sang whenever she could, and always has been Jewishly involved. Now, her cantorial studies bring her worlds together.
At Emanuel, her set also will include “Wilkommen” and “Meeskeit” from “Cabaret” – at least the first one is almost obligatory, she said – “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “Happy Days Are Here Again,” James Taylor’s “Secret of Life,” “When the Red Red Robin Comes Bob Bob Bobbin’ Along,” and “Try to Remember.”
Through most of it she will be accompanied by a keyboard player, but for two pieces she will work with a guitarist, Rabbi Prouser’s son, Eitan, who also will perform an original arrangement of the classic “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav.”
The arrangement, written in reaction to this summer’s violence in Israel, came to him oddly and insistently, Mr. Prouser said. “I started playing this strange thing, a really discordant thing, and I felt inspired to write an entire arrangement based on it. It came out of nowhere – it was exciting.
“I am trying to capture all the emotions that can be inferred from it, fear, the actual sounds of what was going on, the general mood – the Israelis as a people have had to incorporate everything. But as an artist, I never can tell everything I’m doing. I want people to take their own meaning from it themselves.”
The arrangement connects with Slichot because “it is very current, very relevant, and makes everybody feel a whole range of emotions. And part of this emotion is what Lois is trying so hard to convey. It seems the most logical direction for me to go in.”
Rabbi Prouser had not thought of incorporating cabaret into Slichot until Ms. Kittner suggested it, but he is delighted with it. It is a natural pairing, he said. “It is my hope that the unconventional combination of cabaret and cantorial music will pique people’s interest and they will find it a satisfying experience in both musical realms.
“Music has an indispensible role in the Jewish religious experience. The fact that Lois can be so versatile as to do cabaret and a liturgy of repentance and introspection in one evening really means that she is adept at reaching Jewish souls through the medium of music.
“In the same way, a rabbi can’t fully do his job if he is a master only of the Jewish sacred texts. You have to have your hand in a broader intellectual world than that.”
Slichot services at Temple Emanuel will be on the evening of Saturday, September 20. The cabaret performance will start at 9 and the service itself will begin at 10. The shul is at 558 High Mountain Road; for information, call (201) 560-0200.