Ira Heller
The Voice of the 90's
by: Rochelle Maruch Miller

Make no mistake about it, Ira Hellerís got what it takes, and he knows how to use it. He has the voice, charismatic stage presence and boyish good looks to take Hollywood by storm. But for Ira Heller, there is nothing quite as rewarding as creating music thatís both contemporary and suitable for singing to Jewish audiences.

His amicable personality and universal audience appeal have earned him the distinction of being one of the hottest sounds in Jewish Music and indeed, Ira Heller is riding the new wave to an all-time high. Little wonder that he is in such great demand on the concert circuit and that his albums are such works of art. Iraís eclectic mix of songs combine eternal Jewish themes with issues of importance in the modern world, touching the hearts and souls of all those who come to hear him perform.

"I may not look like the typical religious singer, but I consider myself, first and foremost, to be precisely that. I consider it a challenge to appeal to a broad range of listeners, from Torah audiences to the unaffiliated. Of course, every audience must be treated individually - they are not all alike." Itís not well known that Ira did Doctoral Training in Clinical Psychology, but clearly, this training comes in very useful in his concert appearances the world over.

Although blessed with a beautiful voice, Ira had not thought of a career in music. After graduating from Yeshiva Day School in Long Island and Yeshiva High School in Brooklyn, Ira went on to Yeshiva University, two years of which were spent at a Yeshiva in Jerusalem. Although voices run in his family, as Ira points out that his father has a beautiful professional voice, it was not until he was in graduate school that he thought of switching careers. Until then, music was more of a "serious hobby," but once Ira began working as a part-time band musician, he realized that it was going to be more than a hobby.

Says Ira, "I chose Psychology because itís a Ďpeople field.í Itís great to be in a profession that gives so many opportunities to help people." Happily though, Ira does not regret his decision. "Music is the best therapy," he declares "it can heal and touch the depths of the soul." Ira continues, "By the time I decided to take a leave of absence from graduate school, I was convinced that I had made the right decision. Nothing made me happier than music, and it was there that I placed all my efforts. I went back to my music studies full time, and stopped taking club bookings. From that point on, it was only concert bookings, special appearances, and recordings."

"Límaan Yezamercha," Iraís debut album was release in 1989, and reflects a more traditional Jewish sound, bearing the influence of premier Jewish composer/arranger Moshe Laufer. One selection on this album, "We Are Not Alone" is the exception. This song diverts in style from the other songs, as it was written by Ira years earlier during a visit to Har Hertzl - the military cemetery in Jerusalem. As Ira thoughtfully tells the story, the scene involved a crowded day on Har Hertzl on "Yom Hazikaron" - Israeli Memorial Day. Amid all the people gathered around the sea of grave stones, there was one stone upon which sat a lone woman. After focusing his attention on this lone, mourning woman, Ira noticed the name on the stone - Cohen. "I made a simple deduction and realized that this was a family of ĎCohanimí - Priests - and the male members could not enter a cemetery, and this woman was left to mourn alone." So touched was Ira by the experience, and the symbolism that it evoked, that he was inspired to write this beautiful and touching song.

"Uvínei Yerushalayim" followed in 1990, a more contemporary sounding album done with stylish composer Yossi Green, established Iraís credentials as a contemporary artist. Later that year, Ira joined forces with one of the premier Cantors in the world, Moshe Stern, and co-starred with him in a major concert event at Hunter College in Manhattan. This concert was recorded, and was memorialized by what became his next album entitled "Moshe Stern & Ira Heller In Concert." Ira described this concert as "magical" and the album certainly captures this. Just by hearing Ira and Cantor Stern joining forces in their final number "Mizmor Shir" tells the entire story - the power is enormous.

Ira, himself, is a very renowned as one of the fine Cantorís of our time. Though more "contemporary" and less "traditional," his services are in great demand, and he has commanded a number of very prestigious Cantorial positions. He currently serves as the Cantor of the Jewish Center in Manhattan, one of New Yorkís most prestigious congregations, a position which he has held for the last six years. When he applied for the position, he was overwhelmed with the splendor of the edifice. This synagogue was previously known for its older and dignified membership, and questioned whether he was the man for the job. Ira questioned the Rabbi, Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, if he was really what the congregation was looking for. Rabbi Schacter replied that Ira was exactly what they were looking for. Since then, the congregation has received him with open arms, and loves to boast of its "famous Chazan." The general Manhattan community has responded as well, as since Iraís arrival, the congregation has transformed from half empty to standing room only. It is no surprise, therefore, that Ira earned "Cantor of the Year" honors from the National Council of Young Israel, and for several consecutive years, served as official Cantor for Manhattanís annual Salute to Israel Parade.

Be it Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, Ira Heller mesmerizes audiences and brings them to their feet. Recognition for Iraís talent has come not only from within the Jewish Community, but he has also fulfilled a boyhood dream of being invited by his favorite baseball team, the New York Mets, to sing the National Anthem at Shea Stadium. The Mets have also come to see him as somewhat of a good luck charm, as the first six games that Ira sang - the Mets won them all!

What does he consider to be the most challenging aspects of his career? "For me, itís really a continuing challenge," he admits. "I feel that I have my feet in a lot of different kinds of music, and itís a constant challenge to synthesize the different styles of expression. But the results make for something considerably more interesting, and more suitable for personal expression. What is most important though, is the purpose and message - Iím a religious singer in modern times."

Despite Iraís great success and growing fame, he seems unaffected by all of it. His greatest priorities, he says, are his family and friends, "theyíve always been there for me. My family is always my first priority, and my friends are the same friends that Iíve always had. Success is not a reason to leave my past behind, but rather an opportunity to share it with those who have always been there." Has he made new friends? "Sure I have, particularly in the entertainment world. The Jewish entertainers have much in common - and we spend a lot of time together backstage. It makes good press and gossip to report rivalries between entertainers, but actually, thereís a great rapport among all of us." When you speak to the other entertainers, Ira seems to be a particularly popular item. In the words of a very popular entertainer who spoke to me anonymously, "people are always amazed by Ira, heís an entertainer who seems to approach his work with no ego, and more concern for the others." This jives well with a story I heard about Ira while performing at a telethon. When one of the other entertainers, who had traveled quite a distance to be at the telethon, was not given a respectable performance spot, Ira refused to perform until it was rectified.

Where does Ira Heller see himself in ten years hence? "One can make plans, but realize that your plans will not necessarily reflect where youíll be. My goal is a Jewish message, and it seems that Jewish Music is the vehicle. But things are sure to develop in unexpected ways, and the only thing thatís guaranteed is change. Iíd say thereís a good chance that in general, Iíll still be doing what Iím doing now, though hopefully better."

"Personally, I find performing very fulfilling - Iím very at home on the stage. One has to understand that the audience is an entity that must be related to as if it were an individual, with a character and personality. Therefore, thereís much for me to give and much to gain, but I must read my audiences properly in order to open the gate of communication between us. This is my challenge, but I think that Hashem has given me the natural gift to do it well."

Ira is very strong on the subject of personal responsibility. He feels that if he can "wake up even one person with a song or a message, then every effort is worthwhile." Judging from some of his songs - the optimistic "Just Believe,"or "Flight 103" a memorial to the victims of Pan Am Flight 103 and an indictment against terror, or "March of the Living" a haunting Holocaust memorial march, Iraís efforts are ever present.

On a lighter note, Ira has an "exclusive" for Country Yossi readers. His upcoming album includes not only the producing talent of Sheya Mendlowitz, but also the composing talent of Yerachmiel Begun of Miami Boys Choir fame. "Yerachmiel has not worked with any solo artists in over a decade - this should be pretty spectacular."

Weíll all anxiously await Iraís new release, "Shomer Yisrael," but in the meantime, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with a truly gifted artist and consummate performer.