Performing the National Anthem before the start for a Major League baseball game is something not generally associated with a singer of Jewish Music. But on a June evening in 1990, a young man wearing a yarmulka stepped up to a microphone in front of 35,000 fans at Shea Stadium and, as his name appeared in huge letters on the scoreboard, heard the public address announcer introduce him to the crowd. For Ira Heller, it was more than the realization of a boyhood dream; it was confirmation of his wide appeal as a recording artist whose work strikes a responsive chord with religious and secular audiences alike.
"Some people may look at me and not necessarily see ‘religious singer’ written all over," Ira acknowledges. "But I am, first and foremost, a religious singer, as I try to draw attention to the music’s spirituality rather than to myself. And I feel very good about connecting with all types of listeners. My greatest challenge lies in creating music that’s both contemporary and suitable for singing at traditional Jewish events.
Actually, had others had their way, Ira would now be facing the challenges in a wholly different field. Singing might have been an interest - even a passion - stemming from sheer inborn talent, nothing more, nothing less. The decision to make it a career didn’t come until Ira’s third year of graduate school, after he’d already earned a Master’s degree from Yeshiva University’s Ferkauf School of Psychology and was well on his way to a doctorate.
Up to that point, music had been a spare time pursuit; a pastime often shared with his brothers and father - whose striking baritone marked him as a talented singer in his own right - and which later found expression when Ira performed as a vocalist with various simcha bands. By the third year of graduate school, however, the natural gift and inclination, which was not so much in evidence during his youth, could no longer be restrained. Against the advice (and much to the initial dismay) of many well wishers, he took a leave of absence from his studies and devoted himself full time to study of music.
"Nothing made me happier than performing," he says, "and I was ready to stake my future on it. I intensified my study of the basics - voice, theory, conducting, piano, guitar - and stopped accepting bookings other than concerts and appearances."
Ira’s first recording, "L’maan Yezamercha," was released in 1989. Notable for the unmistakable influence of composer/arranger Moshe Laufer, most of the album’s selections reflect a more traditional Jewish flavor - with the exception of "We Are Not Alone," a song Ira was inspired to write years before during a visit to Har Hertzl - the military cemetery in Jerusalem on Yom Hazikaron - Israeli Independence Day.
As Ira explains - as he does in the liner notes of his album, "there were people gathered around each gravestone," Ira recalls "but at one stone a woman was sitting all alone. The name on that stone was Cohen, and I realized that since Cohanim are forbidden to enter a cemetery, the male members of this family could not accompany her. I’ll never forget the look on her face or my own feelings at the time. I really wanted to tell her that she was not alone, and though I never told her, I did write this song which in my heart, I dedicated to her and her fallen son."
Ira’s next recording came out the following year, 1990, and it established his signature sound of timeless religious themes delivered with a more contemporary beat. On this album, Ira worked with the stylish composer, Yossi Green, and the very sophisticated arranger, Daniel Freiberg. Entitled "Uv’nei Yerushalayim," the album contains two songs which were particularly close to Ira’s heart (which underscore his song-writing ability): "The Promise," which is a snapshot of an Israeli father’s feelings, as he watches his son run out the door as he’s called up to defend his People, and Tallis, in which Ira imagines what the special Tallis he inherited from his Grandfather would say, were it able to speak to him.
A third album, Ira’s most recent, was released later in 1990. "Moshe Stern & Ira Heller In Concert" is a recording of a Hunter College concert that featured Ira and the renowned Cantor Moshe Stern. Because of the singers’ contrasting styles, the Stern/Heller collaboration offers something for everyone, whatever one’s personal taste and preference. At the end, the two men combine for a rousing duet of "Mizmor Shir Chanukas," the album’s closing number.
When he’s not in the studio or performing live (he gives about 40 concerts a year in the US and abroad), Ira still manages to keep his vocal chords busy, primarily as Cantor at the Jewish Center in Manhattan, a position he has held since 1988, and for which he was honored as Cantor of the year by the National Council of Young Israel. Although the Jewish Center, one of the most prestigious Orthodox Congregations in America, had a history of very traditional Cantors before Ira’s arrival, the new arrangement has proved mutually beneficial.
"The shul was looking for a more modern style of chazanus, and that’s certainly my forte," says Ira. "At the same time, my association with the Jewish Center has brought opportunities, such as performing at organizational functions, that might not have otherwise been as readily available."
The genuine success that has come to Ira at a relatively young age - he’s only 31 - doesn’t prevent him from laughing at circumstances beyond his control. He tells a story about a frustrating situation he found himself in a while back when he ran a little late for a hotel concert.
"I had to change my clothes, so I ran up to the counter in the lobby and said to the woman there, ‘Please give me a room right away - I’ve got to get to the show!’ She gave me a sharp look and said, ‘young man, we’d all like to get to the show; you must wait your turn.’ I then told her ‘let me explain, I have to get to the show immediately bec- as she cut me off and said in a rather loud tone: "Did you not hear what I said? You’ll just have to wait like everyone else!"
"At that point, she turned to someone else and refused to listen to anything else I had to say, so I simply waited. After about fifteen or twenty minutes she finally turned to me and asked for my name. When I told her I was Ira Heller, she did a double take and turned the brightest shade of red I’ve ever seen."
And then there was the time Ira ran into the infamous Israeli Bureaucracy, and not even the fact that his music is featured on El Al flights could ease his predicament. He was about to begin a concert tour in Israel, and he had brought along a few hundred tapes which were promptly held up by airport customs officials who assured him he could pick them up the next day.
"When I returned," says Ira, Picking up the story, "I was sent from one bureaucrat to another, needing a signature from each just to get to the next. Finally, I reached the proper official, but before I could get a word out of my mouth he slammed his glass door shut in my face. ‘Come back in half hour,’ he told me, ‘I’m having my tea.’ Well, I’d already wasted several hours, and I had a rehearsal scheduled for later that afternoon which I was already in danger of missing. As you might imagine, I was not in the best of moods, so when a young woman walked out of his office, I pushed my way in and attempted to persuade ‘Mr. Tea Break’ - in forceful terms I don’t usually employ - to turn over my tapes immediately. Not seeming threatened, he asked me just what I was going to do about it - to which I countered with a very convincing offer to redecorate his office, and warned him that he would not be pleased with the results. I got my tapes."
"I love Israel with all my heart," says Ira, "but perhaps one day soon I’ll write a song about the Israeli bureaucracy - if you know what I mean."
On a more upbeat note, Ira expresses his gratitude for the support of his family. Their tentative response when he first spoke of becoming a professional singer has blossomed into a whole-hearted acceptance and pride.
Even when they weren’t yet convinced I was doing the right thing," he says, "they followed me far and wide - sometimes out of State - to hear me perform. I know it sounds like a cliché, but they’re my biggest fans. I recently sang at Avery Fisher Hall, and after the concert, my dressing room was mobbed by my Parents, my brothers and their kids, cousins of all ages - a flood of people. I really have a lot to thank G-d for."
Having devoted most of his energy last year to live appearances (his one disappointment: the last-minute cancellation, due to the short-lived August coup, of his long-awaited concert in Russia), Ira’s immediate plans call for more time in the studio working on recording projects - with no letup in his busy concert schedule. "Dividing my time and creativity between recording and concerts requires some persistence," he says, "but it’s worth it, because I receive an equal amount of gratification from both."
Speaking of live appearances, how does an Orthodox Cantor and singer of popular Jewish music some to sing the National Anthem at Shea Stadium? "It was easy," says Ira. "Someone from the Mets’ public relations department saw me in concert, and I was invited to sing. It was that simple."
As the Mets were to learn, Ira Heller doesn’t disappoint. His rendition of the National Anthem that evening in June two years ago received such an overwhelming response that he’s been invited back as a repeat performer - and when Ira sings, the Mets always win!