Even before he became a cantor, Jeff Warschauer’s professional life was steeped in music. From age 17 he performed professionally in a variety of musical styles, and for more than 30 years he has been a klezmer and Yiddish music performer.
Warschauer’s latest gig is full-time cantor at The Jewish Center in Princeton, where he began this month. He replaced Joanna Dulkin, who left in 2017 to become the chazzan of Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Minnetonka, Minn.
Though he grew up unaffiliated, in adulthood he started keeping kosher and attending services. He also developed a Jewish musical philosophy that drew him to a career in the cantorate.
“I think almost everyone needs some transcendence in their life,” he said, and Warschauer saw in Jewish settings the potential for “using music to help people grow spiritually.”
Services, he said, should be “something different from and beyond your normal daily life; it should be a transcendent event if possible.”
Coming to the clergy as a second career, he admitted, meant that he had “an awful lot” to learn. But he felt that the advantages of a new vocation outweighed the effort he had to expend in order to catch up.
First, he said, “you have a very fresh take on everything, including not carrying certain kinds of baggage.” Second, “I know what it feels like to feel ignorant.”
Having had similar experiences, he is able to empathize with people who walk into a synagogue not knowing the language and choreography of prayers. “I think it gives me a certain insight to help people become connected with their Judaism.”
Warschauer grew up in Newton, Mass., where music, not Judaism, was central to his identity. His father was an atheist who “really discouraged connection to the Jewish community,” he said.
The younger Warschauer played a variety of instruments — the recorder, trumpet, guitar, ukulele, and mandolin — and immersed himself in musical genres ranging from folk and blue grass and country and jazz to Aretha Franklin and Marvin Gaye. He once played front man (the person who precedes a name singer on stage) for rockabilly musician Sleepy Labeef. In defining his musical identity in those days, he referred to himself as a “folkie” and a “Jewbilly.”
But after several years on the musical circuit, Warschauer said he felt that something was missing.
“I started to feel this wasn’t feeding my soul, because what I realized was that music had always been deeply spiritual for me,” he said. “I was trying to daven through the music I was playing.”
He also noticed that he needed more musical training, so he applied — and was accepted — to the New England Conservatory of Music at age 23. The curriculum included a mix of classical, jazz, and ethnic music, and he studied classical guitar, mandolin, and voice.
“The idea was by giving students extremely strong musical-ear skills, students were encouraged to develop a highly personal style,” Warschauer said.
As it turned out, the conservatory was a hotbed for klezmer music, and it was there that Warschauer developed his own personal style of klezmer, which blended solo guitar and mandolin.
He got serious about Jewish music — specifically klezmer and Yiddish music — and moved toward doing it full time. He spent 13 years with the Klezmer Conservatory Band; 13 years as artistic director of KlezKanada, an international Yiddish and Jewish arts and culture festival; and was on the faculty of KlezKamp in New York.
He also sang in Yiddish and studied the language at Tufts University, the Oxford University summer program, and YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. His fluency in Yiddish improved through his visits to the Yiddish Club at Boston Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly in Brighton, Mass., where a combination of survivors and immigrants from the former Soviet Union would meet for conversation, singing, and dancing to music that he played. “I called them my 50 bubbes and zaydes,” he said.
In 1994 he formed The Strauss/Warschauer Duo with Deborah Strauss, a singer, violinist, accordionist, Yiddish dance teacher, and educator; they married three years later. The couple have taught and performed at the Jewish Cultural Festival in Krakow, Poland; the Philadelphia Folk Festival; and in communities all over the world.
While their joint career was “great, wonderful, exciting,” Warschauer said, “I started to crave the experience of working with one community over a long period of time. I started feeling like there were things I wanted to do to help people, using music to open a whole range of doors to Jewish expression.”
The next step for him was the H. L. Miller Cantorial School at the Jewish Theological Seminary, which he graduated from in 2015. Before joining the Jewish Center he was cantor at Congregation Keneseth Israel in Allentown, Pa. He is also on the faculty at Columbia University as coach of the Columbia Klezmer Band.
Warschauer has many ideas about attracting unaffiliated Jews through classes, learners’ minyans, one-on-one sessions, and, of course, lots of diverse music. Even the Hebrew language, he suggested, can be approached through music: “Sometimes Hebrew is hard to say and to understand, but the combination of words and music in itself makes it more accessible.”
Warschauer’s goal, he said, is to “encourage a sense of extreme participation.” One way he plans to do this is through his signature “big Jewish music jam,” for “anyone who wants to sing or play any instrument at any level.” He includes everyone — children, Jews, non-Jews, Yiddish speakers, non-Yiddish speakers, and others.
“It’s extremely participatory. The door should be wide open.” He would also like to incorporate duos and trios (singers or instrumentalists) into Friday-night services, and singers only on Shabbat morning.
Because singing is a path to spirituality for Warschauer, he’s “always encouraging people to sing, whether or not they know Hebrew,” and in doing so he hopes to create transcendent experiences in the Jewish Center’s sanctuary.