In 2009, Patti Linsky, now cantor emerita of Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge, conducted services for the High Holy Days with a low-grade pain in her abdomen that had been throbbing for months. The cause was a small stone in her bile duct that required a simple two-hour laparoscopic procedure. But during the ensuing operation, which took place around the time of Simchat Torah, Linsky’s pancreas was nicked, and she spiraled into a medical nightmare that would end her pulpit career and forever change her life.
“The pain was off the charts,” said Linsky, 57.
She tells this harrowing true story and others in her new cabaret show, “Altar EGO,” which will play to a sold-out house at Upstairs at Vitello’s Jazz and Supper Club on July 25 and reprise on Oct. 23 and 24.
Two days after the damaging medical procedure, a different surgeon told Linsky, “You’re a very ill woman, and without another surgery, I cannot guarantee your life.” A day after that she woke up in the ICU. “They had to rebuild my core stomach muscles, which is not great for a singer,” she said.
After three and a half months of bed rest, Linsky attempted to return to work, but during her first bar mitzvah service she found herself overwhelmed by exhaustion and pain. For the rest of the weekend, she prayed for guidance, and the following week made the difficult decision to retire, leaving her professionally adrift.
“I never thought I would be anything but a cantor; it had been my identity for so long,” she said while sitting at her piano in her Valley Village living room. “But then I realized that being a cantor was just part of what I do; it’s not all of who I am. It became clear that act two of my life was coming, and I needed to trust God that I would be taken care of.”
“Altar EGO” was born when Linsky, who studied jazz vocal performance at the University of Miami, wrote a “bucket list” during a women’s spirituality workshop in 2010 and realized that her new dream was to write and star in a one-woman show.
Created with Bob Garrett, the show’s director, and performed with a backup band consisting of piano, bass and drums, the piece features songs ranging from ballads to bossa novas — some spiritual, some amusing and edgy, and all based on the various chapters of her life. A lyrical ballad titled “I Am Enough” sets up the theme of her show; there’s also a lullaby to her son as well as a number, sung to the tune of “Maria” from “West Side Story,” which describes Linsky’s hypoglycemic yearnings during Yom Kippur services: “Suddenly I hear the growling in my stomach blast, T’Kiyah!/I’d kill for some chips and sangria.”
Hilariously satirical numbers recount the lousy men she dated before meeting her husband of 21 years, psychologist David Rubin, as well as her devastating hospital stay and the time she visited a fat farm and actually gained weight.
When Linsky sings the soulful “My Mother’s Daughter,” written by one of her friends, she draws on her own painful relationship with her late mother, who at 17 was accepted as a soprano with the prestigious La Scala opera house but prevented from going by her parents.
“As a result, my mother vicariously lived through my voice,” Linsky said. “Yet everything was a judgment, and nothing was ever enough. But I understand her now, and I have forgiven her. She was a single parent, and she had a very difficult life.”
Linsky found her own voice as the junior cantor of her childhood Reform congregation in Coral Gables, Fla. After moving to Southern California with her first husband, at the age of 21, she became the cantorial soloist at Temple Beth Torah in Ventura before arriving at Ahavat Shalom in 1986. In 1993, the soprano received her cantorial certification from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Since becoming cantor emerita at Ahavat Shalom, she continues to teach, to conduct lifecycle events and to substitute for other cantors around town.
Her unabashedly honest show also recounts an especially dark chapter of her life that began after she suffered back and neck injuries during a car crash in 1996, followed by another botched operation, this one for a hernia, in which a doctor accidentally cut a nerve in her leg. Linsky found herself in chronic severe pain: “So I started on Neurontin, Oxycontin and other medicines that made the pain go away — and also made the emotional pain go away,” she said.
What followed was a decade of abusing prescription drugs and, in the later years, a descent into alcoholism. Nevertheless, Linsky, a mother of two, managed to maintain her hectic schedule as the cantor of a thriving congregation, plus duties at home and with the American Conference of Cantors. “I felt this pressure to be Superwoman,” she said. “I did it all until I couldn’t do it anymore.”
Finally, Linsky had what she describes as a nervous breakdown and checked herself into a rehabilitation center in Malibu in 2007. “For the first time, I was experiencing my authentic feelings,” she said. “There was shame and self-judgment: I had been working in this very public arena, and I had been leading a double life. But it was also very liberating.”
Linsky said her relationship with God deepened and she returned to work a month later “a much more deliberate woman with a purposeful intention to really stay on this course. I went into a recovery program, and since that time I have been repaid a million times over with blessings, with love and with God.”
In her show, she recounts her years of drug abuse in an irreverent song, “Addiction!” sung to the tune of “Tradition!” from “Fiddler on the Roof,” that asks, “Who day and night must take an Oxycontin, chase it with Neurontin and a Xanax, too/And who do you know who thinks Vicodin’s a food group/Could it be this Reform Jew?”
How does Linsky — now clean and sober for years — feel about congregants learning about her addictions through “Altar EGO”? “I’m sure the word is going around, but what matters to me is that people leave the show feeling like they are ‘enough,’ and that there’s no shame in being human.
“This piece is teshuvah [repentance] in a lot of ways,” she added. “There are many ways of making amends and forgiving ourselves, and it’s never too late for that.”
For tickets and information about Linsky’s October performances, visit http://www.vitellosjazz.com/event/patti-linsky-altar-ego-4.