Hot New Jewish Musician
Is a 29-Year-Old Islander
by: Elizabeth Wissner-Gross

A doctoral candidate in psychology from a family of professionals who grew up in Woodmere, Long Island, and lived there 20 years, attended college and graduate school in New York City, lived in Israel for two years, and now resides in Queens.

From the sound of it, not the most likely profile to become a hot pop-music figure in Israel. But then again, Ira Heller is the Ďmiddle child.í And we all know that middle children are capable of hearing a different drummer.

The drummer that Heller has been hearing lately is an Israeli musician, as are his other accompanists. In fact the string, woodwind and trombone players on his new album are members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

On the album "Límaan Yezamercha," Heller sings works by two of the biggest names in the Jewish music business - Moshe Laufer and Yossi Green.

Within Israel, the 29 year old Long Islander is becoming known simply as "Ira," a name that isnít very common there. While heís a rising name in the Jewish pop music scene, he has a larger mission. He sees himself as a bridge between Jewish cultures.

In the States, he says, people who listen to Jewish music also often enjoy rock music or other secular music. Thereís no conflict. "Whereas in Israel, thereís less of that gray. Youíre either in the secular world or the religious world as far as music goes."

But Hellerís music has been well received in both worlds. Hasidic people who heard him interviewed on the radio related to his music, and took to him immediately.

His songs quote directly from religious texts, so the lyrics were an instant success. But the style of was something other than what most were probably accustomed to. His sound is soft and soothing, similar to folk-rock, a bit along the lines of a James Taylor.

But when he made his first live concert appearance, Hasidic fans were visibly shocked to see this radio star for the first time. He didnít wear the customary black hat or black coat and didnít have long side-curls. He was a modern-looking young man, with a blow-dry haircut and tuxedo.

"Nobody walked out, everyone was polite," he recalls. When he sang "Al Kol Eleh," a secular, somewhat nationalistic ("Donít Uproot That Which Was Planted") song of appreciation of the efforts of the Jewish People in building the State of Israel, there was complete silence.

His audience didnít know how to respond at first, but in the end there was whistling and stomping. His other more religious songs were also well-received.

The sound appealed to secular audiences in Israel as well. Hellerís most popular song on Israeli radio so far has been "Sameach" ("Joy"), a religious song that made the Israeli hit parade.

Whatís different about Hellerís message, and the reason for his appeal, according to Heller, is that the music has a way of over-riding the differences between the different outlooks in Orthodox Judaism. What they respond to is the sincerity, and the differences melt away.

In any case, Hellerís following has been gaining. On his most recent concert tour in Israel last month, he performed before a full house of 2,800 at Jerusalemís main concert hall, Binyanei Haíumah together with the "The Miami Boys Choir." The show was sold out, and rumor has it that many were turned away.

In New York, his concerts this summer have been filled to capacity. (At one in the Catskills before a Hasidic audience, a group piled up outside the window just to see.)

Heís planning another Israel tour, with a television appearance this time, in September. In the meantime, his music has been playing frequently on American radio, including WEVD in New York City (The Art Raymond Show") and stations in New Jersey, Connecticut and Florida.

When not on the road, Heller performs Friday nights and Saturdays as cantor for ĎThe Jewish Center" on West 86th Street in Manhattan, where he lends a modern touch, incorporating some of his songs. But much of the time heís appearing elsewhere.

Among his upcoming engagements in the New York area is a Labor Day weekend concert at the Homowack Hotel in the Catskill Mountains. Heíll also be the featured performer on October 16th in the day long "Succoth Experience," which is expected to draw more than 10,000 people, on Empire Boulevard in Brooklyn.

What does this mean for the psychology degree?

"I havenít shut the door yet," says Heller, who hit the road to sing after three years in the doctoral program at Yeshiva University. He says he liked the program, but his studies were somewhat confining - he needed "to get out there." Additionally, Heller explains that "work in the psychology field - though very rewarding and important - tends to be emotionally draining. By contrast," Heller continues "I find performing to be emotionally invigorating."

For a while, he sang at weddings and bar mitzvahs as a way of supporting himself through graduate school. But then came the realization: "I couldnít simultaneously give both psychology and music my heart and soul."

At first, Heller says, he wasnít greeted with "confidence and smiles" by his family. "It was an offbeat thing to do in a family of lawyers." But after a lot of serious thought and fear, he made the decision to pursue a career in singing, and found his family to be very supportive.

His understanding of psychology and belief in his own drummer taught him to live by self-honesty, he says. "If Iím not excited by what Iím doing, itís hard to attack the day."