He may not have known it at the time, but Hillel Tigay’s future came calling in the early fall of 1987. It was then that a 17-year-old Tigay performed as cantor for the High Holidays services at Congregation Kesher Israel in Society Hill.
“My friend’s father was a Hillel rabbi,” Tigay, now the cantor at IKAR Congregation in Los Angeles, recalls. The congregation couldn’t afford a real cantor, so his friend’s father offered the job to Tigay and his son.
Tigay figured he could use the money to buy a new electric guitar, not to mention that “It was a bonding experience with my friend. We got to hang out in Philly, which was like a vacation for suburban kids,” even though, he says, “the congregation was filled with alte kockers who would stand up and shout at us when we would skip over stuff.”
Today, when people stand up and shout during his services, it’s from the joy inspired by his musical interpretations of prayers. Tigay’s cantorial work at IKAR has been called “the best free Friday night concert in Los Angeles” by the Huffington Post, and has led to the creation of IKAR Music Labs, which has produced three CDs of his work; the most recent, Judeo, was released in December 2012.
Tigay certainly had the background to run services as a teenager. Growing up in Wynnewood as a student at Akiba (now Barrack) and a member of Temple Beth Hillel (now Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El), he learned to speak Hebrew fluently and knew the five tropes by his early teens. And it didn’t hurt that he was the son of Jeffrey Tigay, the retired Emeritus A.M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages at the University of Pennsylvania and the co-author of the five-volume JPS Torah Commentary, and Helene Tigay, who spent 20 years leading the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education (now part of the Jewish Learning Venture). She was also behind the creation of the NESS program (Nurturing Education in Synagogue Schools), which was seen as revolutionizing the field of supplementary Jewish education,
But it would be another 18 years before Tigay returned to the bimah to seriously follow up on his debut performance. After leaving Penn’s musicology program in his senior year to seek his musical fortune in Los Angeles — “a producer heard my demo tapes, and told me he thought I had what it took to make it out there” — he got a recording deal from A&M Records.
Although his career ultimately foundered at A&M, Tigay regrouped to form one of the world’s first “Hebe-hop” bands, MOT (“Members of the Tribe”), with Tigay performing as Dr. Dreidel and his partner, Andrew Todd Rosenthal, performing as Ice Berg. Tigay explains that MOT allowed him to “exercise the comedic side of my brain” with songs like “Kosher Nostra,” “Oh God, Get a Job” and “Havana Negillah.”
While he enjoyed a modicum of success with MOT, Tigay couldn’t escape the feeling that it was time to do something different. “I got to a certain age where I realized, I couldn’t make a career out of this. I needed to look at other alternatives. Then I got a call from Rabbi Brous saying, ‘Let’s meet.’ ”
The 2005 meeting between Tigay and IKAR founder, Rabbi Sharon Brous, that led to his becoming cantor was a pivotal one. She gave Tigay the latitude to change the liturgy as he saw fit, and he responded by shifting the congregation away from its established Carlebach-inspired experience and toward a mash-up that included the Mizrahi and Ladino music Tigay had collected from other countries.
Even though Brous had reached out to offer him the role of cantor at almost the exact moment that he was ready to make a life change, Tigay flatly denies that the meeting was destiny. He says that came later, when the changes he implemented proved so popular so quickly, and so many people were requesting CDs of the services that IKAR Music Labs was created in order to record his music. “The beshert moment was not getting hired,” he says. “It was the process of making Judeo.”
The idea for Judeo, though, originated in Philadelphia, with Tigay’s brother Israel, who owned Shouk Restaurant in Queen Village. “He said to me, ‘I would love to hear Jewish music from the Temple era. I could play it in my restaurant.’ I didn’t think much of it until I realized that a lot of the songs I had been composing were from the Temple era, and they had been done in the Temple.”
His plans for a Temple-era album quickly hit a roadblock: Since the playing of instruments had been forbidden during services since the Temple’s destruction, there was precious little to go on for the typical researcher.
Luckily for Tigay, he could draw on the expertise of one of the foremost biblical historians in the United States — his father. With the elder Tigay’s assistance, he was eventually able to create a 10-song playlist that included his interpretations of prayers like Mah Toh Vu, Shema and Hallelujah.
The next challenge: trying to find the modern-day equivalent of reed flutes and lyres — and musicians who could play them. Situated as he was in the music recording capital of the United States, this turned out to be no big deal. Tigay was even able to find people who could play the santur, a steel-stringed harp, and the ney, the aforementioned flute. And in a bit of ecumenical dovetailing for Tigay, who felt strongly from the beginning that Judeo could hold appeal for an audience beyond the Jewish community, the only musicians who could play the instruments turned out to be Muslims and Christians.
Despite the fact that his album was composed of 2,000-year-old songs, Tigay was adamant that it not sound dated, but, rather, timeless. “I didn’t want this to be one of those records in the library at Penn, where my professors would tell me to go listen to what Renaissance music sounded like. You listen to it, and you say, ‘OK — boring.’ I wanted to make something that people would love, where they would feel the presence of something greater and, most importantly, that they could use to reanimate and reinvigorate the joy of the service.”
And indeed, the music of Judeo is intoxicating in an exotic yet familiar way. Tethered to the instantly recognizable words are soundscapes influenced by Ladino standards, Peter Gabriel, The Smiths — even traditional Sufi music, which Tigay likes to use because “their big, heavy, slow beats have a meditativeness that helps create a spirituality.”
The result is a collection that engrosses far beyond the confines of the synagogue — for fans of world music, Judeo will be a welcome addition to their collection.
The initial success of the album has accelerated the number of requests he receives from other congregations interested in playing his arrangements. “It’s a high compliment,” he acknowledges. Accordingly, he freely provides the arrangements to anyone who requests them. “I just want to spread the love. What happens at IKAR every week is just magical. It’s an outpouring of love, emotion and depth. I would love to see that spread.”
While he won’t be spreading the magic through concert performances anytime soon — a full live production would be prohibitively expensive at this point — Tigay has one performance circled in ink on his calendar: the Conservative Movement’s Centennial in Baltimore this fall. In the meantime, he continues to explore ways to raise funds to put on live shows, promote Judeo and to record his next album. “People are funding schools and programs, saying that they are really important — well, this can help synagogue life, and it can help unaffiliated Jews feel a connection to their heritage.”
Judeo is available at www. Judeorecord.com