Ira Heller:
An Old Favorite
With A New Ta’am

Staff Reporter

July 6, 2001

       Two passions strive for top priority in Ira Heller’s life; his music and his family. This explains the look of awe that flickers across his face when he recalls a "defining point" in his career.
       "At the Ohel Concert 5758 at Madison Square Garden, I introduced my song "My Little One," inspired by my daughter who was then in the hospital. The response was simply magical. It’s very important to understand, however, that I wrote this song not to arouse pity, but to share a very important lesson about life.
       "At that moment, my daughter had a profound influence on the lives of 6,000 people. Quite an accomplishment for a little girl!"
       There has been much talk in Jewish Music circles over the last few years, in anticipation of Heller’s new album. Finally, the wait is over.

‘Inspiring and thought provoking
       The just released "Aguda!" is the sixth album for the singer-songwriter, and marks his debut collaboration with the acclaimed composer Yitzy Bald. (On previous albums Heller worked with such accomplished composers as Yossi Green and Moshe Laufer.)
       "I’m extremely happy with the product," says Heller. "The Yeshiva world has a certain style that they look for and expect from performers before they’ll buy their music. I’ve been around it all for a long time, and feel quite comfortable performing in that genre."
       Heller is filled with enthusiasm over working with Bald. "He’s a very popular composer, and really has his finger on the pulse. He manages to absorb it all. Together, we’ve tried to produce a multi-faceted album which preserves the simplicity and ‘taam’ of Jewish Music, while attaining a degree of simultaneous sophistication. We want to inspire thought as well as passion."
       The album springs to life with the title song "Aguda," which is an infectious, fast-tempo number that is sure to awaken your spirit and start your toe tapping.
       Other songs on the album include already popular songs like "My Little One," and "A Voice in the Dark." The very moving "Sh’ma Yisroel" contrasts a father’s whispering the Sh’ma into his child’s ear at birth, with the son echoing the prayer into the father’s ear just before he passes on to the next world.
       "If you view life as finite, it’s a very sad song," says Heller, "but the crux of the song is immortality, as the relationship between the father and son lasts for eternity. In this context, it reflects not the sadness in life, but its beauty."

Personal trials and tragedies
       Heller, a boyish looking 40, is himself all too familiar with the need for comfort. He and his wife Alysia have four children: Yehuda, 8 years old, Tehila, 5, and Aharon and Moshe, twins of just 4 months.
       Tehila, the inspiration for the song "My Little One," was hospitalized for more than three years, and still faces health challenges. "We need not leave our home to see miracles. We just look at our little girl," says Heller.
       The family endured another tragedy when one of their triplet boys, born this year, died as a result of a heart defect.
       Heller has developed his own approach to trying to overcome these hardships.
       "First and foremost, I always focus on my blessings, of which I have many. Second, I try to channel my feelings into my creative pursuits, more specifically, the music. I’m very careful though, to write my songs in a way that not only speaks to me personally, but leaves room for my listeners to relate personally to the songs as well."
       Heller clearly has not lost his perspective or sense of humor. He laughingly accounts for his youthful features, as he quips "I bathe in formaldehyde."
       His exceptional talent and playful sense of humor have been around the world, as he has enjoyed a busy musical career that spans continents.
       Singing was second nature in his family as both his Grandfather and Father were part-time Cantors.
       Heller also had prolific experience as a Cantor, and his work at The Jewish Center in Manhattan earned him the "Cantor of the Year" award from the National Council of Young Israel.
       Among his other notable engagements, Heller, a lifelong Mets fan, has sung the National Anthem at Shea Stadium on several occasions. He proudly points out that he was "the first one in history to ever do so while wearing a Yarmulka."
       He’s also a familiar face at numerous high profile Jewish events, including the Salute to Israel Parade and post parade Israel Day concerts in Central Park, as well as countless political events.

‘Born to do it"
       Heller, who attended Orthodox day schools in his childhood, studied pre-law at Yeshiva University before deciding to spend two years at a Yeshiva in Israel.
       Psychology became his next priority, after earning a Masters degree from Yeshiva University’s Ferkauf School he enrolled in the doctoral program. During that time, he supported himself as a band musician.
       "Then I decided to give music a real shot," he says. "I realized it would be criminal to pass up the opportunity. I felt I was born to do it, and had I let it pass me by, I may have regretted it for the rest of my life."
       Heller’s first break came in the Catskills when, at age 24, he spontaneously sang before a hotel audience. The result was a flood of calls from orchestras who needed a lead singer.
       Having already been studying classical singing for years, Heller intensified his musical studies with music theory, guitar, and piano training.
       In 1989, he released his first album "L’maan Yezamercha" ("Let us sing"), and quickly became a household name in Jewish music.
       His success took him around the world, and among his many fond memories is his friendship with the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach. "We performed many times together, and had the opportunity to form a warm friendship." At one such performance, which took place in Tel Aviv in 1991, there was an adoring 11 year old girl present. Her mother then promised her that when the time came, she would hire Ira Heller to sing at her wedding.
       Heller just recently returned home this past April after singing at a wedding in London. He tells of how he was greeted by the bride with a story of how she and her mother saw him perform at a concert in Tel Aviv in 1991...and yes, the rest is history.
       Heller’s own wife’s first encounter with him was when she was just 16 years old. "She came to a concert of mine. I signed a poster for her, and she kept it on her wall. Five years later, we met for real."
       Heller relies on his wife for her insights and that she is "very supportive, an excellent connoisseur of my performances, a very good consumer."

Stage as ‘extension of myself’
       Heller is constantly seeking to raise his standard and leave his mark on a wider audience.
       "After all these years, I know the life of a performer is not predictable, but in this business, longevity is what ‘separates the men from the boys.’ You must continually grow and develop your craft.
       "You hope that at the end of a performance, the audience leaves with something they didn’t have previously. Similarly, I try to learn and grow from my audiences as well.
       "I’ve come to view the stage as an extension of myself. Use it properly, and your power of communication increases dramatically. It is during these special moments that I understand most clearly why I do what I do."