Cantor Jack Mendelson describes himself as a “nusach [style of prayer service] kind of guy” with jazz-inspired improvisational instincts.
Growing up in Brooklyn, Mendelson felt that cantorial music was in the air — and witnessed the dwindling of the Golden Age of Hazzanut. In the film A Cantor’s Tale, comedian Jackie Mason says, “Every Jew felt like [cantorial music] was his music. People loved it just like people love pop music today.”
Holding on to the essence of sounds evolved in the historic synagogues of Eastern Europe, Mendelson has retired from the pulpit but can be heard in the concert circuit, film domain and tutorial world of helping aspiring cantors and perpetuating the genre.
Cinema fans might recognize Mendelson from last year’s movie Deli Man, which held strong feelings for the cantor because his father owned a kosher New York deli (Mendelson also was the focus of the 2004 documentary A Cantor’s Tale). He has “a voice that heralds a culture,” the New York Times has said. But Michigan Cantors Daniel Gross of Adat Shalom Synagogue and Neil Michaels of Temple Israel identify him as mentor and friend since refining their vocal talents under his direction.
The two local cantors have brought their congregations together for a series of programming starring Mendelson and his musical approach — “Weekend With Jackie.”
On Friday evening, Nov. 4, Mendelson will be part of a Kabbalat Shabbat service at Temple Israel. The next morning, Mendelson will join in for Shacharit and Musaf with some improvisational singing at the synagogue. On Sunday afternoon, the cantor will present his touring show, The Cantor’s Couch, which musicalizes his very personal experiences aspiring toward a cantorial life and developing his career.
“Quite some time ago, Cantor Michaels and I had the idea of partnering and bringing Cantor Mendelson to our community for a weekend of camaraderie for both our congregations combined,” Gross says. “To our knowledge, a Conservative and Reform congregation had never done such a thing in this community.”
For The Cantor’s Couch, Mendelson will be joined by another cantor, Jonathan Comisar, the accompanist who wrote the music and collaborated on the lyrics for this production — another instance with student becoming colleague. Mark Bieler wrote the script, and Eleanor Reissa directed.
“I get the best of the entire palette of what a cantor can do,” says Mendelson, who recalls an appearance for Temple Israel, then appearing with his wife, Cantor Fredda Mendelson.
“On Friday night, I get the excitement of doing something I rarely do — singing in a Reform setting. On Saturday morning, I get a chance to do for the people of Michigan what I’ve done with my own congregation in New York. On Sunday, I get a chance to be an actor and a Broadway guy, which I’ve been doing for the past year and a half all over the country.”
When Mendelson is in a Reform setting, he emphasizes melodies that are modern and American-sounding while also bringing in traditional music. He gets congregations to participate by humming the parts reminiscent of Eastern European conventions.
When he is in a more traditional setting, Mendelson enjoys bringing in American sounds. He does it in a way that defines the traditional music as the host and the American music as the guest.
“I love teaching nusach, mixing it with other sounds and showing students how to do that so they have the best of both worlds,” Mendelson says. “Cantorial music is a unique classical music form where you get to improvise.”
Mendelson, who has taught at both the Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College, served as cantor of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, N.Y. He has been president of the Cantors Assembly.
“Getting into films wasn’t my fault,” he jokes. “One day I was doing a concert in Manhattan, not just singing but also telling stories. A film director seemed impressed and asked how I would like to be in a documentary about me.
“We raised the money and launched A Cantors Tale, which played on PBS, and we’re doing a sequel about how I entered into retirement and what I’m doing these days. We shot footage around the world.”
Other Mendelson films include100 Voices, a documentary about the Cantors Assembly 2009 mission to Poland, and Journey of Spirit, a recollection of singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman.
The weekend programming surrounding Mendelson’s visit is a reflection of friendships that go beyond introductions as teacher and students and reaches out to the wider Jewish community.
Michaels knew about Mendelson through a cousin, the late Cantor Edward Fogel, who trained with Mendelson and was best man at Mendelson’s wedding.
With Michaels and Gross married to professional vocalists, the couples had introductions through New York studies: Stephanie Michaels and Daniel Gross attended the Manhattan School of Music, and Neil Michaels and Lauren Skuce Gross attended Juilliard.
“Our lives are very similar, and we get along very well,” Neil Michaels says about the two couples whose work happened to bring them to Metro Detroit. “Dan and I perform together as the Bari Brothers [Bari for baritone] doing theater music with some Yiddishkeit.
“What makes our Jewish community special is the feeling of mutual values and the sense of being close-knit. Shabbat is always special for us, and it’s great to be celebrating it with a special guest.” *
The community is invited to join in for the “Weekend With Jackie.” Services are at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 4, at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield and 9 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 5, at Adat Shalom Synagogue in Farmington Hills. There is no admission cost for The Cantor’s Couch at 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 6, at Temple Israel, but reservations are required by registering at temple-israel.org-couch, email@example.com or (248) 661-5700.
By Suzanne Chessler, Contributing Writer