Mar. 24, 2008
Daniel Friedman stops the music to correct me again.
"This is a prayer to God," says Temple Beth Sholom's cantor. "This is not a rock concert."
It seems there's a little problem with my delivery during rehearsal. Perhaps I shouldn't have pointed the microphone toward the empty synagogue seats, like Bono does during the last chorus of "With or Without You."
"These are not songs," Friedman continues. "They're prayers. You're using music to unlock people's souls, so they can connect to God."
I approached Temple Beth Sholom not only because it's the oldest and largest of the valley's 18 synagogues, but because it's Conservative. That presents more of a challenge for me than a Reform temple, which quite possibly would have allowed me to go-go dance on the pulpit while mixing milk with meat.
"I think it's a big responsibility," Friedman said of his job. "It's all about demystifying Judaism, making it accessible to people so that it's not just about these prayers in Hebrew, but that you can actually participate in it.
"I don't think (just) anybody can do it."
Judaism's main denominations are just as separate, and sometimes just as at odds, as Christianity's. Most members of the original Judaism (which we now call Orthodox and which they still call the only Judaism) believe that Jewish life should be lived entirely by The Book, and that God hates automobiles (at least from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday), pork and razors.
By the 1850s, Jews who had enough branched off into the Reform movement. But a separate group of Jews who also had enough thought that Reform Jews branched too far by only attending temple on the high holy days of Christmas and Easter and by not always adhering to the core Jewish laws: keeping kosher, observing the Sabbath and never paying retail.
These Jews founded the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism in 1913.
"Let's rehearse it the right way this time," Friedman says.
Temple Beth Sholom wasn't as tough a sell as I imagined.
"Normally, we would not do this," Friedman explained earlier. "But this is Adar."
The Hebrew month of Adar is when Purim falls. This holiday is kind of like the Jewish April Fool's.
"We're supposed to joke and make fun of ourselves," Friedman said, "and laugh and drink until we can't distinguish good from evil." (I'm hoping they can't distinguish good from awful, either.)
Friedman, 44, came to the synagogue stage from the secular one. After earning his theater degree from the University of California, Los Angeles in 1988, he acted in the first national tour of "Les Miserables."
"At a very young age, I wanted to be a performer," said the Studio City, Calif., native. "I remember seeing 'Oliver' and wanting to be in it."
In 1991, Friedman moved to New York and wound up playing Sparky in "Forever Plaid." It was that Broadway musical that brought him to Las Vegas in 1998 (and that earned him his temple nickname: Cantor Sparky).
"Now," Friedman mouths, motioning for me to approach the microphone that's usually his.
Friday night has arrived, I am decked out in the traditional cantorial beard, talis (ceremonial scarf) and yarmulke (beanie), and I'm about to attempt my first public Hebrew since my bar mitzvah.
Being a Lutheran minister last year may have been more of a religious stretch for me, but at least the singing was in English. Every memory cell that once helped me read from right to left is long since overwritten. And, before two weeks ago, I never heard two of the three melodies I've been assigned. (My parents raised me and my younger sister in the Reform movement, which favors entirely different melodies for the same prayers.)
D.J. Sinai, my spiritual Paul Shaffer, plinks out the piano introduction to "L'chu Naranana," which translates to "Come Let Us Sing."
"Remember, you want to get them to sing with you," Friedman whispers into my right ear as he backs away, visibly worried.
Friedman -- who married Steve Wynn's daughter, Kevyn, in 2003 -- quit "Forever Plaid," and acting, a year before the Flamingo Las Vegas production closed.
"I wasn't feeling fulfilled in that path," he said. "There, I played at emotions. It was play. Here, it's real. I get to be with people for joyous occasions and for very trying moments.
"I look at it as a privilege."
Cantors generally earn between $40,000 and $200,000 per year for their privilege, depending on the size of congregation and how much training they've received. (Friedman won't reveal his pay, but, considering who he married, how much can it really matter?)
In addition to singing prayers, cantors conduct funerals, teach music to children, visit hospitals and counsel congregants.
"If the rabbi's not available," Friedman said in his best Alexander Haig, "I take over the congregation."
"Oseh shalom bim'romav," I begin my third and final prayer, which translates to "God, make peace in the heavens." (Confession time: I Scotch-taped English transliterations of all the Hebrew words into the prayer book I'm holding, just like I did at my bar mitzvah. Sh.)
My first two numbers were, as Friedman jokes, "serviceable." They suffered from a general nervousness -- not only on my part but on Sinai's, who flubbed chords while worrying about whether I would respond correctly to his cues.
During "Oseh Shalom," however, something mystical transpires. Singing even louder than mine fills the room (just like during "With or Without You"). And I could swear a wave threatens to develop in the crowd. (Oops, I didn't mean to swear.)
"Did you hear them?" Friedman enthuses afterward. "They loved you!"
The compliments flow like Manischewitz in the lobby.
"I admit it," Friedman says. "I was worried."
Not everyone is converted, however.
"I'm very confused," says Helene Shea, a 74-year-old temple member whose reaction reminds me of my grandmother's when I told her I decided on journalism over law school.
"You're obviously not a cantor," she continues, reporting that she and the woman seated next to her wondered, "Is this a joke or what?"
I'm not exactly sure how to answer that.
Fear and Loafing appears every Monday in the Living section. Levitan's previous adventures can be found at www.fearandloafing.com.