Singing for entire families in first pulpit
Newly invested cantor makes journey from cabaret to hazanut
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Cantor Lois Kittner’s motto is “Come. It’s never too late.”
And she is serious. She encourages parents to join their b’nei mitzva students learning to chant Torah and haftara — in the same room, during the same lesson. She believes it helps the children to see their parents take it seriously, and gives the kids an ego boost — from her experience, they learn faster than their parents.
She knows what she’s talking about. For starters, she wrote her master’s thesis on using b’nei mitzva children as a portal of entry into Jewish life for the whole family, including parents and grandparents.
But she also knows it because she lived it.
After a career that included stints as a cabaret singer, a mom, and an administrator in a financial services firm, she has become a cantor. She puts her age at “Let’s gently say I’m over 50.”
She officially started her first pulpit job at Adath Shalom in Morris Plains in June after being invested at the Academy for Jewish Religion in May. “My certificate is so new I haven’t had a chance to frame it!” she said, welcoming a visitor into the freshly painted office that formerly belonged to her predecessor, Jack Korbman, who retired after 30 years with the congregation in December.
Although she acknowledged that Korbman is “one of a kind” and a “tough act to follow,” she added, “He’s a mensch and made it clear that I had his approval.”
She lights up as she talks about the community she has joined.
“Whenever I walk through the door, I just feel a big hug. That’s the environment here. We really care for each other,” she said. “I love the people here.”
She also has tremendous affection and respect for the rabbi, Moshe Rudin, who also received ordination at the AJR. Calling him “very talented” and “devoted to the Jewish people and to this congregation,” she said he brings “an intensity” to the davening so that “You’re in a holy space and you know it” when he is there.
She loves the way the congregation has embraced her. “They kept saying, “We want you to be you. We want you to do what you love and to share what you love. We want to learn.’”
Kittner is her own best example of the impact of adult education. “Because my [Jewish] journey started later in life, I have tremendous appreciation for people who start later,” she said.
Her role model for the cantorate is less Yossele Rosenblatt (1882-1933), the famed Ukrainian-born master of hazanut, and more, well, Lois Kittner. “I think it’s about sharing as opposed to delivering [a message] or being didactic.” She takes her cues from her own teachers, like Rabbi Stephanie Dickstein at the United Synagogue of Hoboken, where she was a member while she was still single and first married, and who used to tell Kittner, “You don’t have to know everything now. Just learn one more thing.” That’s the approach Kittner takes with adult learners today.
Kittner holds a bachelor’s degree from Hofstra University in French with a minor in drama and a master’s degree in French literature from Penn State University.
She received little formal training in Judaism as a child. She grew up in Seaford, NY, at a time when girls didn’t go to Hebrew school. Her brothers took her to services at Wantagh Jewish Center, and she recalled, “I loved going. I loved the singing. But I couldn’t read the words,” she said.
She became a cabaret singer, focusing on the Great American Songbook. She took her inspiration from the likes of Mabel Mercer, Margaret Whiting, and Julie Wilson, singing in New York City venues like Catch a Rising Star, The Duplex, Freddy’s Supper Club (closed), Once upon a Stove (closed), Eighty-Eights (closed), and even Town Hall for a cabaret festival.
But singing is not an easy way to make a living. Although she did it on and off while she married and raised two boys, now 30 and 28, she eventually became an administrator for a financial firm.
“But when I wasn’t singing, I felt it. One way or another, you have to get back to what feeds your soul,” she said.
It was when her father died in 1996 that she knew it was time to turn from the Great American Songbook to Jewish liturgy. She was saying Kaddish at the Jewish Community Center of Fort Lee/Congregation Gesher Shalom, and she realized she’d found a new musical home. “I no longer wanted to do cabaret. I poured myself into learning, doing more davening. I just wanted to be in the sanctuary. I didn’t want applause.”
She eventually switched to a Reconstructionist congregation in Maywood, which since moved to Ridgewood and changed its name to Reconstructionist Congregation Beth Israel, where she continued learning and became a lay leader and teacher. She declined their request to become their cantor because she had no formal training. But she accepted an invitation to join a women cantors’ network conference. “They had me at Hamotzi,” she said, explaining that at the first meal of the conference, “There were 90 females singing Hamotzi in 27-part harmony. That was radically beautiful!”
A short while after that, she enrolled in cantorial school. She has realized that for her, singing is praying, and perhaps it always has been. “Cabaret is bringing your own take to Gershwin and Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim. You want listeners to hear the message, and, more importantly, to feel the message.” As a cantor, she said, “You help people make a connection to the liturgy and feel what the davening is trying to express. It’s interpreting, delivering a message, and bringing your own take on the liturgy.”
She lives in Bogota with her husband Nathan. Her older son lives in Brooklyn and her younger son (and grand-dog Sababa) lives in Jersey City.