Beth Hillel presents ‘The Russians,’ singing classical Jewish and popular music
By Ellen Braunstein, Special to Chicago Jewish News
For three cantors, all refugees from the former Soviet Union, music reconnected them to their Jewish roots that were long suppressed because of state-sanctioned persecution.
Cantors Pavel Roytman of Beth Hillel Bnai Emunah Congregation in Wilmette, Sophia Falkovitch of Synagogue Copernic in Paris and Itzhak Zhrebker of Congregation Shearith Israel in Dallas are presenting a concert of classical Jewish and popular music called “The Russians” at Beth Hillel Bnai Emunah Congregation at 7 p.m. on May 23. Chicago’s Kol Zimrah Jewish Community Singers will also perform that Thursday evening.
The three emigres started their music training in the then Soviet Union and went on to study cantorial music abroad to eventually become global performers and spiritual leaders to their own faith communities.
“The uniqueness of this event is there are three Russian Jews who started their journey in a situation that was sort of unimaginable here in the U.S.,” said Roytman, the organizer of the concert. “Neither one of us went to Hebrew school. Neither one of us had a bar mitzvah. But here we are in the job of being cantors, being carriers of Jewish culture, the representatives of our community. The musical and cultural base that we received in Russia and in America and in Europe creates a unique mix and unique cultural experience for everybody.”
Paris-based mezzo-soprano Sofia Falkovitch from Moscow is the first woman trained and ordained as a cantor in Europe and the only one in France. Instructed by professors and cantors in Israel, Europe and the United States, Falkovitch researched and acquired a vast knowledge of this musical heritage. Cantor at Synagogue Copernick, Falkovitch performs across Israel, North America and Asia.
“She has a unique mezzo soprano that is very deep and sonorous, just a beautiful voice,” Roytman said.
Shrebker hails from Odessa and has been a cantor at Congregation Shearith Israel since 1996. He has performed as a guest cantor for various synagogues around the world and with the New Israeli Opera. He has recorded numerous albums for a wide audience and has an innovative approach to High Holy Days and Shabbat melodies. He has taken part in several radio, television and movie productions.“He was a child prodigy with a very unique counter tenor voice that people will enjoy,” Roytman said.
Roytman is a native of Nikolaev, Ukraine. At age seven he was accepted as a piano student to a specialized music school for gifted children. He continued his studies in piano and conducting at the Kaliningrad Rachmaninov Music College in Russia and later at Petrozavodsk Glazunov State Conservatory. In 1994 Roytman immigrated to the U.S. where he obtained his bachelor of music degree in voice performance from DePaul University and a master of music degree in musicology from Northwestern University. Throughout this time, he also studied hazzanut with well-known masters of cantorial art Hazzans Shlomo Shuster, Henry Rosenblum and Alberto Mizrahi. In 2006 Roytman was certified as a cantor through Hebrew Union College. He completed his certification as a Conservative cantor and became a full-fledged member of the Cantor’s Assembly. Eventually Roytman became a cantor at Beth Israel in Skokie and later a hazzan at Beth Hill Congregation Bnai Emunah in Wilmette.
In Chicago, Roytman has performed as a conductor and soloist with Kol Zimrah Jewish Community Singers. Roytman’s creative work includes liturgical and secular compositions for voice and choir. In 2017 Roytman wrote and produced “The Singing Yid” – a musical show based on his life and experience in Russia and the United States.
Roytman’s father was a Soviet Naval officer who loved music and taught his son to appreciate his passion. His mother was a teacher of language and literature. “I did not do anything Jewish until I was in my late teens at the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.” At that time, ethnic communities had the opportunity to express themselves spiritually.
On his Naval tour of duty, Roytman’s father brought the family to Kaliningrad, formerly Konigsberg, a German territory annexed by the Soviets. It was here that Roytman became acquainted with Jewish music, recordings and sheet music. He dodged the military draft because he became a graduate student at one of the few conservatories that would accept Jews far to the north. In mainland Russia, Jews weren’t admitted to major educational institutions.
At Petrozavodsk Glazunov State Conservatory, Roytman made Jewish
friends and they organized a klezmer band. Klezmer Shpiel got a contract with a
Finnish production company for a two-year tour in Northern Europe and Scandinavia.
Of his early years, Roytman said, “Even though we did not have religion in the house, there was a lot of Yiddishkeit.” His grandparents spoke Yiddish. “My parents would always remind me I was Jewish. We always looked at the subtitles of movies to find Jewish actors and musicians. We felt proud to have such talented people who are Jewish.”
As a boy, Roytman endured name calling and bullying because he was Jewish. Stationed on the Black Sea, his father was sent to the Pacific fleet, an exile of a kind, after he made a remark in support of the Israelis during the Six Day War: “The Israelis will kick their asses.” The Soviet Union played a crucial role in arming the Arab states and instigating the Six-Day War.
Today, Roytman is affiliated with the Russian Jewish community in Chicago. He speaks Russian and sometimes provides services, funerals and weddings for the community. “But my main life is really as an American and cantor of an American congregation.”
The concert, he said, dispels stereotypes about Russians that appear in mass culture — “from cab drivers to crazy mad scientists,” Roytman said. “We want to say that Russians are amazing musicians, spiritual leaders and cantors. We are very well versed in various cultures around the world, very cosmopolitan.”
Beth Hillel Bnai Emunah is located at 3220 Big Tree Lane, Wilmette.Tickets for the 7 p.m. May 23 concert “The Russians” are $22 in advance and $25 at the door. Purchase tickets online at the synagogue website www.bhcbe.org/event/the-russians-cantors-concert.html