Synagogue Songs and All That Jazz
Ira Heller is Manhattanís Can-Do Cantor
By: Carin M. Smilk

"What should I sing." Ira Heller states rather than questions. "What should I sing...I know!" With a surge of excitement, he begins a melodious Yiddish tune in a voice that rises and falls in perfect time with the notes. As the volume increases ever so slightly, passers-by stop and listen. And they start to smile.

Heller, 33, has the unique capacity to make people smile. He can fill oneís immediate surroundings with music, one of the oldest and purest forms of aesthetic pleasure. "Music is a very public thing; itís a beautiful thing," says the young tenor, who enjoys performing all kinds of music, such as swing, pop, classical, Broadway hits, Yiddish tunes and of course, Hebrew selections.

Music, once just a hobby for this young man, is today a career.

For the past six years, Heller has been a Cantor at The Jewish Center, one of the most prestigious Orthodox synagogues in Manhattan. His Cantorial skills have earned him "Cantor of the Year" honors from the National Council of Young Israel as well as designation, for several consecutive years, as the official cantor of the annual Salute to Israel Parade. Of his work at the shul, Heller comments: "itís been a fascinating experience, though I never envisioned this direction. But you know, sometimes, life just takes you in directions regardless of what you plan."

If itís been more captivating than Heller imagined, itís also been more diverse. In addition to his daily and weekly duties as a serious cantor, Heller performs regularly on stage at various local and international events. This is where his music ranges, where he is free to experiment with different selections in front of different audiences. The common thread of his music, however, is that itís Jewish-oriented, even though he appeals to non-Jewish audiences as well. "I often try to slip some Yiddish into my performances - a taste of the old country. My more modern audiences usually groan at first - they usually donít understand the power of such music - at least, not until they hear it. Then theyíre with me."

Heller makes sure his stage events - Sundays and weekdays about a half dozen times a month - donít interfere with his schedule at the Jewish Center. Weekends and Jewish Holidays, of course, are reserved for the synagogue. And congregants, in turn, reserve those days for Heller. The cantorís youth and vitality attract as many as 1,000 people, both families and singles, to the synagogue on Saturday morning. "Thereís been a boost in membership in the last several years," says Heller, who is quick to share the credit with his Ďpartnerí Rabbi Jacob J. Schacter, a dynamic young Rabbi with a wide appeal. "It seems that with the two of us there, the chemistry has been just right."

Born and raised in the Orthodox tradition, Heller projects a religious message through his work. Thatís his job, both personally and professionally. "I am, first and foremost, a religious singer," he says with a grin. "What I present is a package where music and my voice are tools."

And he doesnít stop with the synagogue and stage. Heller has recorded four full albums and one lengthy single in the past five years. The first, "Límaan Yezamercha" (1989), was done together with famed Israeli composer Moshe Laufer, and reflects the modern Chassidic style with a full orchestral backing. The songs on that recording quickly landed Heller on Jewish Radio in the New York area.

Hellerís rich voice has earned him another coveted spot - as a pre-game singer of the National Anthem at Shea Stadium before New York Mets games. Heller started singing the anthems four years ago and was the first to ever do so while wearing a Yarmulka. I do a couple of ball games a season and itís always a great thrill for me," says the cantor. "I loved sports as a kid; in fact, I wanted to be a ballplayer.

How does success feel for someone so young in his career? Heller smiles wide. "Being a cantor, you really have a constant recognition that youíre standing before G-d. This helps you keep perspective when you define the meaning of success. You then realize that success relates not only to your Ďaccomplishments and honorsí in life, but how much youíve given to others." Continues Heller, "the genuine challenge is whether you can reach other peopleís hearts - which is the real gauge of whether you are being true to yourself."

Life continues to bring a mixture of good things for the cantor/singer, who is getting married this summer. Heller takes it all with grace and poise, both the notoriety and the prospects for his immediate future. "Being in the moment is certainly important, and Iím very grateful for what I have, but one must always keep his eye on the future as well." Heller continues, "One must be constantly evolving, while realizing there are going to be turns in the road as well. For now, Iím just trying to be the best Ira I possibly can."