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The KALEIDOSCOPE Interview - September 2018
It’s unusual enough when two rabbis or cantors decide to share their lives as a married couple.
But how about two rabbi-cantors?
Dan and Shirah Sklar received both their rabbinic and cantorial ordinations at Hebrew Union College in New York. The couple met at HUC while studying for the cantorate and now serve as cantors in the area Reform congregational community, Dan at Temple Israel in Westport and Shirah at Temple Shalom in Norwalk. The couple lives in Westport with their three young children.
“When we were in school, we would never have believed that we would be fulltime cantors in neighboring towns at friendly Reform congregations,” Dan says. “It’s really a dream situation for us.”
Rabbi Evan Schultz of Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, host of the Really Interesting Jews podcast (reallyinterestingjews.com), sat down with his colleagues to learn how they decided on this unique career path.
Listen to the complete KALEIDOSCOPE interview with Rabbi-Cantors Shirah & Dan Sklar, conducted by Rabbi Evan Schultz, by clicking the Play button below.
Evan: Cantor Dan Sklar and Cantor Shirah Sklar, I'm so thrilled to sit with you here in [Dan’s] office in Westport. I had the opportunity to learn a little more about the two of you, and we’ll talk about music and what it’s like to be a cantor and some of your personal joys in this work that you do. We can begin – if each of you can just share a little bit about each of your story, your upbringing, how you came to both be cantors and find yourself in this work.
Shirah: I grew up in this community. My father, Mark Lipson, was first a cantor before he became a rabbi, and was ordained as a cantor at Hebrew Union College in 1978, a week before I was born. My mother [Alice Lipson] always likes to tell that story – she wears it as a badge of honor – that I was with her at my father’s ordination. He had already been serving as student cantor at Temple Shalom in Norwalk for five years before that, so he's been at Temple Shalom since 1973.
I grew up at Temple Shalom with cantors around me, with cantorial music around me, with the joy of what it meant to be Jewish and those two really, really important parts of my identity were the music and the Judaism. So I knew from a very young age – from when I was bat-mitzvah – that this is what I wanted to do. Growing up, I watched my dad and I was involved in everything the synagogue had to offer, from the youth programs to the teen programs, and I had a special place at the synagogue. There's still a plaque in the entranceway that marks my birth: “Shirah Lynn Lipson, daughter of Shalom.” I still very much feel like a daughter of shalom.
I don’t know that I ever envisioned that, when I became a cantor, I would work at Temple Shalom and have the honor to serve Temple Shalom. But it was fortuitous the way that it worked: I began cantorial school right after college, in June 2000, and when I came back after that first year in Israel, in 2001, I began as student cantor at Temple Shalom, working with my dad and other student- rabbis and cantors from Hebrew Union College and the Academy for Jewish Religion and it was a new capacity for me to be involved at Temple Shalom and I really embraced that and the congregation truly embraced me. When I was ordained as a cantor in 2005, I was offered the position of fulltime cantor there and I've been there ever since.
In mid-July, I was ordained as a rabbi after completing a two-year course of study. It was a bigger thing than I’d anticipated for my family and for the growth of my Jewish leadership, but a very natural thing because my role as a cantor – especially at Temple Shalom – has been all-encompassing. I've been involved in every facet of Jewish life at Temple Shalom. Because we’re a smaller congregation, all of the leadership wears a lot of hats and I'm involved in virtually every aspect of synagogue life, which has been a huge blessing for me. That led me to the place where I felt, “I can do this and I can pursue rabbinic ordination and I be both, with the tremendous support of my husband and my family.
Dan: We met at HUC-New York. Shirah was a year ahead of me in school even though I'm seven years her senior in life. She was the daughter of a cantor; she kind of knew that this was something she wanted to do. She was 11 years old when she was tutoring bar- and bat-mitzvah kids.
Shirah: It was a terrible position for a parent and a rabbi-cantor to put a child in, but I was tutoring bar- and bat-mitzvah students before I became a bat-mitzvah. It was very confusing for a lot of people.
Dan: Part of the back story is that she's a graduate of Bi-Cultural Day School [in Stamford] and she basically speaks Hebrew like a second language and it was just so natural for her and she was way beyond the curve on many levels.
Dan: I grew up very Classical Reform in the northern suburbs of Chicago. It was a wonderful place to grow up, it was a wonderful Jewish education; it’s just that I don’t think I had quite that level of inspiring music.
My rabbi was very inspiring. I did junior choir and stuff like that; it was something that sort of kept us out of trouble and it was fun and we had friends, it wasn’t so inspiring. I don’t mean to disparage it in any way; it just didn’t light that fire. I did Confirmation but I wasn’t like a rah-rah NFTY kid. I went to Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute for a couple of years but I wasn’t a lifer. I have friends from those days. I found fulfillment in other areas of my life and I was starting to come into my own in other areas and the Jewish piece was a part but it was not my whole.
That continued on through undergrad: I went to Oberlin and I studied voice and electronic music. I was very interested in musical theater but I was – dare I say it? – a bastard child of the voice program there because at the time, it was a very serious opera program and they weren't really into musical theater, and I had a very prestigious teacher who gave me an ultimatum: I know you're doing student of musicals [affects a slightly condescending tone]: Daniel, if you pursue that path, I can’t in good conscience teach you, because that’s not what we’re about.
I didn’t say anything at the time, but a week later, I came back and I said, “Thank you very much. I really appreciate who you are as a teacher and what you’ve given me but I think I'm going to make my living doing musicals” and I continued on with electronic music. I was really just hell-bent on getting to New York City. I loved Broadway, I loved theater, I wanted to get there already, I was in a rush. At the time, I was interested in the history of religion and I sort of backed into all this and I got my toe in the water through a famous lecture seminar on the New Testament that was hard to get into. My roommate said, “You have to take this class; this professor is unbelievable.” This Gospel class opened my eyes to the world of crit-lit when it came to sacred texts; I didn’t know that you could do critical literary analysis of the sacred texts. It felt somehow easier to do with the New Testament and it opened my eyes to think, “We can do that with the Hebrew bible as well.”
My first trip to Israel was with this professor, with a consortium of colleges including Oberlin and we did a dig in Caesaria up north and I was part on land and part under water and I was very fascinated by the history of it all.at that point, I still could never have seen myself in this role; I just wasn’t there yet on my journey.
I took a break from all that when I graduated because musicals were always my passion and my interest in life. I had almost 10 years in New York City doing wonderful things: I was a secretary for Hal Prince and I got to see things from the inside, on the production side of things,and do crazy stuff like run tickets for Elaine Stritch over at Show Boat. The people in that business are still some of my best friends to this day. I did get to tour with Disney’s Beauty and the Beast for almost three years and 1,000 shows. I was Gaston’s little sidekick, LeFou, the guy who gets punched. It was a great experience, the acting experience was wonderful and I was fortunate.
It’s just that, when I came back to New York, as many actors find out, you think that New York is missing you and it’s not, and I was getting very particular: I wanted to stay in New York, I wanted to do things in New York. As that was happening, I was getting hired to do Jewish music because a Jewish tenor was just great around the Holidays. For one of the first times in my life, I was singing really sophisticated, unbelievable music that really inspired me, under the direction of Matti Lazar. I started doing jobs in Park East Synagogue singing with the ultra-Orthodox guys (and I emphasize guys because that was a boys’ club and we were the boys’ choir and I understood that role. It wasn’t how I grew up but I had exposure to a whole different musical language that I had never heard before, old-school cantors coming in from all over the world and we were singing in Lincoln Center, doing "Cantors World" concerts with Naftali Hirshtik and Yitzchak Helfgot and Moshe Stern – luminary, amazing cantors and we were the backup guys. That was a real education and it gave me an appreciation for a traditional Judaism that I just didn’t know growing up. I always knew I was a Reform Jew. Matti was the one who started utzing me a little bit; he’d say, “Hey, there's a career for a nice Jewish boy like you.” It took me a while but then I realized that he had a point and that HUC would be the place for me. I think it’s a wonderful music school and seminary and trade school rolled into one.
At the age that Shirah knew this was a path she would pursue, I was doing other things: living in a world of theater and still playing Peter Pan a little bit. I remember having a conversation with my rabbi when I was considering all this and I was doing a lot of stuff to earn a living in New York that didn’t necessitate waiting tables – I was very lucky. I worked at a dot-com at the height of the industry, just as the bust years were coming, and I left the dot-com to go to Israel for my first year.
At the time, I had a conversation with my rabbi and we talked around it and he said, “It sounds like you're looking for more out of life, you're looking for real meaning.” Being in theater and having friends in their 40s, 50s, 60s, and even 70s, you have a range of characters that need to be played and folks shlepping all over the country and touring at that age, and I was fortunate – I did that in my early 20s – but I did not want to be in my retirement years and having to live that life. I wanted eventually to put down roots and have a family and all these pieces started falling into place and that’s when I went off to Israel.
When Shirah was there, it was just as the second intifada was breaking out so her class had the shock of – wait a minute, it looked like peace was around the corner and it was like a splash of cold water. Our class knew what we were getting into but it didn’t make it any easier. Those of us who feel comfortable walking the streets of Jerusalem or anywhere else in Israel, we have the places that we like to go and we know our way around and it gets to be like your neighborhood. What was hard about my year, 2001 to 2002, was that the safe spaces were utterly, completely gone. When a suicide bomber blows himself up in front of the school, the school is no longer a safe place, Ben Yehuda Street is no longer a safe place.
Shirah had the double trauma of having that break out over there and then come home to a 9/11, where you thought you were home and safe and boom, that happened, and my class was there. That was a trauma of, “Wait a minute, I thought New York was our safe space and now the towers are falling on Israeli television.”
Shirah: We both suffer from a fair amount of PTSD, in all candor. Dan has a hard time even with Fourth of July fireworks.
Dan: Wilton is harder than Westport, because it's in your face; Westport's fireworks are over the water.
Shirah: For both of us, it was certainly a very unique and very interesting time. We both spent a year in Israel in our first year of cantorial school before they built the security wall. Say what you want about the security wall and the way it divides the West Bank, but it provided a tremendous amount of security in Israel that was not there when we were there. Our families also had a very difficult time with what was going on when we were there, obviously for good reason. We were really not safe at the time.
Time heals some wounds and we've been back to Israel many, many times.
Shirah: People often ask us, “Wouldn’t you love to work together?” and the answer is, “Absolutely not.” We have found the sweet spot in our marriage, our family, and our life. We both are very intense about our work and about the seriousness with which we take our roles in this work. I often say that it would be too much and too encompassing and we would have a very hard time creating a work-life balance at all if we worked together.
Dan: For a long time, we were both in formation. We often opine that when students call themselves rabbis and cantors and they’re still students, they still have such a way to go to understand that it’s not you just tacking a title on; you earn that title and it takes a long time. So being in separate places really helps be able to find our own voice and that’s been wonderful and now to see Shirah develop her rabbinic voice is an amazing thing.
Shirah: We have very strong independence and very good ways of working together. I've been at Temple Shalom working in a clergy team with my father for the last 18 years and people say to me, “How does that work?” and it really works so beautifully because we both have a tremendous amount of respect for each other but there is also a genetic link there where we have a unique communication that very few people have. Even non-verbal communication.
Dan: Any family band where they’ve been singing together their whole lives – that’s what they have. They can instinctively know who’s going high, who’s going low.
Shirah: With a glance or a look, we can change up the program entirely – even in the middle of a service.
Dan: Shirah was a year ahead in school but we had enough of a shared experience -- anybody who was there during those years had this bond of “It wasn’t exactly the year in Israel that I had hoped for” – but we met and bonded over classes that we liked, classes that we didn’t like so much, and we were now into the melting pot of the cantorial program writ large.
Shirah: Dan later became an honorary member of my class and very close with my cantorial classmates and he was very beautifully embraced by all of them and they are some of our closest friends.
Dan: I was always drawn to the rabbinic literature; even when I was in Israel, I loved that class, and I had more than a passing interest in it, I just didn’t know if I had the wherewithal to do a double degree. As Shirah and I got serious, I started thinking more about it and my father-in-law, Rabbi Cantor Mark Lipson, was the one who said, “If you're thinking about it, do it now while you're in school.” Her whole family was very supportive of the idea, and I was at Hebrew Union College for seven years.
You can put something in the graduation book, so in 2008, for the rabbinic smicha, I put in the book, “Jacob had worked for seven years, but they seemed as but a day because of his love for her.” That was my tongue-in-cheek way of giving honor to Shirah.
I wouldn't have done it any other way. I was very fortunate: after school, I went to work at Westchester Reform Temple and Rabbi Cantor Angela Buchdahl was leaving WRT for Central Synagogue and Rabbi Rick Jacobs was a great mentor and I was walking into a role that they knew as a rabbi-cantor. When you do the full rabbi-cantor thing, it’s really not half and half; it’s full and full. That was hard and I was looking to come home and that’s what Temple Israel afforded me. Never in our wildest dreams when we were in school would we have ever believed that we would be fulltime cantors in neighboring towns at friendly Reform congregations. We get to share some services – Selichot, Shabbat Shirah…
Shirah: and we’re in the same Federation so we do things when the Federation calls upon us.
Dan: It’s really a dream situation for us.
Evan: When you're leading people in music or prayer, what are you hoping to create, where do you want to take them?
Dan: I think the reason that we click so well is that we do generally have a similar outlook on the modern cantorate. What is old becomes new, what is new becomes old. Even though we have a little age difference, we both did come up just as the Golden age singers were kind of entering sunset, and I mean that with love and respect, as Debbie Friedman and the guitar were coming to the fore in the ‘70s. With all this pop influence, a trained voice was on its way out and more folk music was bubbling up in congregational life. It was always there in the camp movement and then as campers grew up, they wanted to hear that because it’s what was very meaningful to them. It’s not to value one music over another; it’s just very clear how the trends happened. When opera was a popular art form, people wanted to hear opera-like music in the sanctuary. As folk was coming up and Baby Boomers were coming up, they wanted to hear their pop influences in a spiritual way. That’s what really got them going spiritually.
I think we've arrived at a moment in time where we have cantors who want to be able to preserve some of a cantorial art that’s really going away largely. We have an interesting task of trying to bring a little bit of the Golden age of cantorial into a pop medium and also recapture some of the grand German composers who were Classical Reform. It’s amazing to think that you had cantors at one point wandering all over Europe and bringing their little troupes of backup singers, and you had these unbelievable choir lofts of Germany that were responding to the amazing church music, and hundreds and hundreds of singers in a choir loft singing the most glorious Sulzer and Lewandowski – I can’t even imagine what that must have sounded like. Then, of course, this opera trend, where a solo voice can carry a lot, with an organ, and then the pop and folk music coming up, and now where we are is to try to preserve something that’s authentic to each and every one of those modalities. It’s silly for us to try to speculate what the music sounded like at Sinai or in the Temple, because they weren't writing music down, they didn’t have a five-line staff; they had a different way of dealing with music.
Shirah: Rather than just thinking of what is a particular prayer or song trying to create in an environment or in a room or in a congregation, I think of what the entire experience is as an arc; I think of it as programming. I think that the best use of music in Jewish worship is an eclectic mix of music that takes you on an emotional journey. What I hope to get out of any one of these experiences is that what I can offer with my talent, my skill, and my voice, brings people to a place where their spirits are elevated, where they're having an emotional moment of connection to Judaism through the music. That’s where my mind goes every time I'm designing a service or even a concert – we design concerts all the time: I look at it as almost – and you'll excuse the reference – programming a television show. Where are the moments of introspection, where are the moments of grandeur? I think it’s a really big mistake when cantors, as they often do, try to plan a service all in one vein or one genre or one style of music, because I think that it’s robbing people of an emotional arc that goes through a natural flow of a service.
Dan: Larry Hoffman at HUC is the one who phrased it as “liturgical drama” and it is: it’s dramaturgical and you have to have a sense of theater to understand that journey, especially come the High Holidays.
Shirah: I get this comment often from people who come to us as guests on Friday night, for Shabbat services, for mitzvah services: “That was the most amazing, beautiful service I've ever been to.” This is a regular occurrence, and why is that? Is the music so different than what they know? No, not really, but we take the time to make the entire experience something special, something with heights, something with depths, something that moves people. Even the pacing of when we end the speaking as opposed to when we begin the next piece of music – it’s a flowing, living, breathing thing.
Dan: I think the best metaphor is that it really is a dance; someone can lead the dance, we can learn the moves.
Shirah: There are moments of listening and moments of joining.
Dan: And that can be a real mistake too, to assume that the most spiritually uplifting service would be 100 percent congregational singing because it is moments of listening. There are things we've been trained to give uplift in a certain way.
Shirah: That gives us the expertise on how to deliver the music in such a way that touches people and makes their experience of a Jewish worship service or whatever we’re in that much more elevated.
Evan: Why has music been such a core piece of the Jewish experience, from the time we crossed the sea until now?
Dan: People often talk about what makes music Jewish and more traditionalists have bristled at the notion of pop music entering into the sanctuary space, but that’s what we've been doing since the beginning of Jewish time.
Shirah: And the notion that we haven’t borrowed from the indigenous cultures in which we've lived is totally false.
Dan: It’s nonsense. Even some of the tunes that we would call mi-Sinai tunes – from Sinai – our esteemed professor, Dr. Eliyahu Schleifer, said, “If it’s called mi-Sinai, you know for sure the one place it didn’t come from.”
Shirah: You ask any Orthodox congregation, “Sing me the Shema.” What do they sing? [sings the melody]
Dan: Most people don’t know that that was written in the 1800s…
Shirah: by an Austrian Reform Jew…
Dan: …in waltz time, the time of the Viennese Waltz. In fact, I think it was Dr. Werner who said, “Any time a Jew hears the ‘Shema’ in waltz time, it should send chills down your spine because we’re singing the waltz tempo of Vienna.”
The point is that even things that we have taken as the most sacred tunes… Debbie Friedman’s Havdalah service is known the world over, in all denominations. Little do some folks know that that was written by Debbie Friedman. That’s the power of music: if it strikes that nerve and people can relate to it on that spiritual level, then it transcends time and space and language.
Shirah: Especially in our more liberal communities, people don’t have the facility with Hebrew that people did in generations past and might feel alienated in a space where they couldn't access the text just through text. But for some reason, through the magic of music in our brains, we can all access music and that speaks to people, that allows them access into a place where they didn’t have access before – that’s so powerful. It’s something that we feel very passionate about because it brings people closer to what it means to be Jewish, to celebrate our humanity through a Jewish lens.
Dan: I've spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about the sounds that we make. A niggun is a wonderful thing because it frees us of the liturgy altogether and you don’t have to worry about words and people don’t have to get bogged down in the Hebrew and that can be a very freeing experience – I love to get away from the words too. Sometimes I’ll think about just how the syllabification of something speaks to people in different places. I've had requests from colleagues that I've worked with to take something like a Chassidic kaddish and set it with a modern Sephardic accentuation and syllabification and it never, ever, ever, ever feels right because that’s not what the Chassidic kaddish is about – it’s not meant to be grammatically precise for us modern Israelis; it’s meant to be Ashkenazic. Yisgadal v’yiskadash, not Yitgadal v’yitkadash – S, not T. So when my father is sitting next to me and he's saying kaddish and I hear those S’s, it has an unbelievably palliative effect on me. For folks who are accustomed to that pronunciation, they hear it and they feel like, “I'm home.” And I think that’s our responsibility too, as rabbis and cantors: we have to understand that sometimes we’ll put a little valence on it – this is correct or this is proper or this is how we do it now. But when someone comes up for an aliya and they’ve got their Ashkenaz going, I fully embrace it and I’ll try to let them know by mirroring the response and giving a little Ashkenaz back.
Shirah: We have to have tremendous sensitivity to that. I think that this topic comes up when, for whatever reason, at a Shabbat service, we don’t sing someone’s particular favorite melody of the “Mi Chamocha.” This can throw people off tremendously and you have to challenge and be warm and gentle at the same time, that that “Mi Chamocha”’s not going away forever; if you come next week, it might be here. But also, challenge their notion of what it is that’s traditional, what it is that’s sacred for them in this. Often I say, “Which ‘Mi Chamocha’ do you love?” and they’ll sing it to me and I’ll say, “Well you know, that was written in 1975 by this person” and that kind of shifts something. It gives them permission to understand and to grow and to learn in Jewish music, that there are a million settings of a million different prayers, of liturgy, and every minute that we’re sitting here, a cantor is out there somewhere writing a different setting to something.
Dan: That’s the point: everything was new once. The traditional wedding ceremony is the best teaching moment, because that was absolutely a Reform innovation. Even if you were to approach more traditional sources and ask them, “Why do you think you raise up that glass twice?” Could it have something to do with the fact that it used to be two separate ceremonies and they got stitched together because early rabbis saw that that was not tenable. That’s why I think, when you start getting into the denominations, it does such a disservice to who we were as a people. The minute we started identifying in those ways, we lost so much – we certainly lost klal Yisrael because you do it wrong and we do it right and there's no room for collaboration, unfortunately, politics aside. It’s a very visceral thing for people. They hear a couple of notes, they hear an organ, and they know where they are. The organ’s gone away but they hear guitar, and they know where they are.
Shirah: This summer, my accompanist recently retired and we had this kind of musical language with each other where very little communication was necessary so now I'm training someone new and I catch myself going piece by piece, telling the new accompanist, “If I didn’t sing this, I’d be fired.” This is the amazing power that music has to resonate with people for certain events and certain occasions.
Evan: What’s a melody that you're just loving right now?
Dan: We've got a clergy team with a new assistant rabbi who’s a wonderful musician himself, Rabbi Danny Moss, and it’s wonderful to have collaborator and colleagues where we can bounce things off each other. We’re a few years out of school so there are things that come down the pike and there are minyanim that we have no experience with. Danny was the one bringing the “Oseh Shalom” by Yoel Sykes with [band] Nava Tehila and I was like, “Oh, that’s groovy!”
Shirah: Right now, I'm digging Michael Ochs’s “Oseh Shalom.”
Dan: I was lucky to be asked by the Union for Reform Judaism to be part of the group that picks music for the new Shabbat Anthology CD and I got to hear a lot of new stuff coming out. For a little while, we've been doing Elana Arian’s “Yih’yu L’ratzon” and we have a pretty good musical sensibility; you can almost listen to something and say, “I wonder if this is just going to be flash-in-the-pan or if this is going to have legs.” There are things that I know that are modern standards – like a Richards “R’tzei” is beloved; Osborne’s “Samachti” is a beloved gem. I've been trying to write a little bit to try to hit that sweet spot. Who we are as cantors and composers and songwriters is only reflective of who we are at any moment in time. There was a time when I just wanted to write art song and have it be of a high level, as I saw it, musically, but it was rather inaccessible. So I wrote a Mi Sheberach during my Israel year that was more art song and less congregational, but I realized that it was going to have a very limited usage and then I wrote another Mi Sheberach for Temple Israel.
Shirah: My father has composed for his entire career but I've just started dip my toe into the composition side of things. The whole transition of becoming a rabbi or a cantor, you have to grow into it until you feel comfortable. Composing puts you in a really vulnerable position. You're putting something of yourself out there for all to see and like or not like in a very exposed way. That was a little bit of a hurdle for me and I wrote a L’cha Dodi that I use almost every Friday night exclusively. It’s funny: when you're a cantor and you write something, you tell the congregation, “We’re going to try out this new L’cha Dodi tonight, they don’t know it’s yours and when they come up to you later and say, “I love that L’cha Dodi – who wrote it?” and you say, “I did,” it’s a little bit of an odd thing. It’s nice because when you talk about those moments of coming together and congregations singing, that’s a really gratifying moment. When you’ve written something and composed and you’ve brought it out to the world and you’ve set it to liturgy, it makes the liturgy more meaningful to you, and then you hear an entire congregation singing it with you, there's something very special about that. Certainly what is unique at Temple Shalom, with my dad having created a musical legacy years and years ago, is the ownership of this community over the music – it becomes the Temple Shalom sound. Our Rock Shabbat is totally unique. People who go out and hear their cantor’s work at other congregations find it particularly thrilling.