Jewish Journal


October 4, 2007

Ritual, worship and love: A rabbi/comic and a cantor/actress


"Let me take you on the tour," cracked Rabbi Ira Rosenfeld, 48, a former standup comic, whose cherubic cheeks and broad smile suggest a better-looking and younger version of Al Lewis' Grandpa on "The Munsters." The tour of Congregation Beth Shalom (CBS) in the Santa Clarita Valley is quite brief.

A one-story structure nestled beneath the mountains 25 miles north of Los Angeles, CBS looks a bit like those temporary schools on blacktop that dot the Southland. But it is in fact spiritual home to 220 families, 150 of whom were involved in the focus groups to choose the new rabbi and cantor: Rosenfeld and his wife, Beth Wasserman Rosenfeld, the latter a former stage actress and singer. The pair began their tenure on July 1, though they were not officially "installed" until Aug. 24.

CBS is a family-oriented congregation, with 180 kids at the religious school and 80 children in preschool, and it wanted two people who had the ability to both strengthen the base of the Santa Clarita Jewish community and to help draw in some of the 3,000 to 4,000 unaffiliated Jews in the area. What the congregation saw in the couple was two energetic, resourceful individuals whose backgrounds in entertainment had served them well previously in many suburban and rural communities, where they succeeded in drawing large crowds despite small Jewish populations.

Inside the CBS sanctuary, a low-ceilinged room with metal chairs, Rosenfeld -- who goes by Rabbi Ira -- pulled up a chair at an angle to one row and started talking about his days growing up in Brooklyn.

"We were Modern or Centrist Orthodox.... There were a lot of different shuls ... I would always find a different shul" to go to, he said, so that his father wouldn't know where he was. "I didn't want him to know that I wasn't there sharp, or that I was late or in some cases walked out on a service."

As much as Rabbi Rosenfeld joked about himself as a delinquent student, he did attend Yeshiva University high school, became fluent in Hebrew and retained much of the Talmud and Torah, even during his boyhood

Still, Rosenfeld had other interests as a youth. For one, he loved the Jimi Hendrix band.

"His drummer would just go nuts," said Rosenfeld, who began his entertainment career by playing drums. He called himself "a lazy musician" because he hated carrying all the equipment. "There was too much shlepping involved with all those drums."

So, he switched to comedy, where all he had to do was "bring a notebook."

Rosenfeld, who cited Jackie Mason, another comedian from a rabbinic tradition, as an influence, performed in such far-flung places as Butte, Mont., and Elk City, Okla.

"I had some good limited success.... [I got] my first gig as featured actor and then as a headliner."

His father, still a furrier at 86, said, "Look, what are you doing? You're running around like an 18-year-old gallivanting!" Although his father thought his son was "legit" once he filmed his first national commercial, Rosenfeld said he sensed "something was missing. I got to realize that I could take all these talents and do it for a higher calling. [Before] I was going for the lowest common denominator."

If Rosenfeld has had quite an odyssey on his way to becoming a rabbi, the same has been true of his wife, who yearned to be a Broadway star.

When asked if there is still a side to her that would like to act, she interjected, "Yes. Do I still desire to play roles? Absolutely. Mama Rose is a role I have to play."

Cantor Rosenfeld's perfect diction reflects her vocal training at American University, and she said that years ago she resisted her current calling. Back then, her view was, "If I become a cantor, I have sold out, I have failed at trying to become Barbra Streisand."

She performed as a singing waitress, in summer stock and on cruise boats.

"Doing 'West Side Story' over and over eight times a week, it lost its luster very quickly," she said. "Maybe in a snotty kind of way, I thought I'm not using my brain enough."

She returned to the cantorial work that she had begun when she was a child in Richmond, Va., where her father was president of the Conservative synagogue. The cantor at that synagogue did not think that women should be cantors; nonetheless, he gave the young Beth portions of the haftorah, Torah and megillah to sing. He'd say, "Come back next week and lead the services."

As a child, though, she did not understand any of the Hebrew she was singing.

That has affected her approach as a cantor. After working at Kehillat Israel, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Pacific Palisades, she realized that she would need to "make [the music] fun and exciting" for kids so that they would be interested in Judaism.

She characterized her and her husband's philosophy as, "The prayers, but with some meaning behind them. More English. More explanation. More flexibility."

Both want their congregants to be comfortable, so they do not insist that anyone stand or sit at any particular juncture in the service, and they want people to understand the prayers.

As Rabbi Rosenfeld said, "It's not so much about my agenda, but to find out what the needs of the community are within certain bounds" of acceptable Conservative tradition.

To illustrate the point, he told a story about meeting a comic who had performed "subway material" in Florida.

"'They don't laugh,' said the comic. 'They're idiots.'"

"'They're not idiots,'" Rosenfeld responded. "'They just don't relate to it....' We need to talk about things people relate to.... I hope I can do that as a rabbi, as well."

But he added, "Here in Santa Clarita, I don't think I'll be doing a lot of subway references."

For more information, visit http://cbs-scv.org

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