|Son of duty: Richard Schwartz '84
at Tifereth Jacob
For a moment it seems
strange, entering the sanctuary and finding this guy in a leather jacket
and Buddy Holly glasses, noodling on a guitar. Congregation Tifereth Jacob,
in Manhattan Beach in southwest Los Angeles, is a contemporary building,
a former branch-bank. But its renovated interior all blonde wood
and blue and gold fittings is a serene, cerebral, high-minded space;
But here's the shy, slightly startled-looking
grin as he puts down his guitar and says hello. There's the purple-and-black
yarmulke, secured by a bobby-pin. Rich Schwartz is an integral part of
Tifereth Jacob, where he's been the part-time cantor since 1998. Before
that he was at Temple Menorah in Redondo Beach, his first cantorial post
after moving to Los Angeles in 1985. "Being a cantor wasn't really
the idea," Schwartz says. If it had been, he'd probably still be
in Boston, or in New York, where he grew up. But his sweet, strong voice,
trained while at UMass under such faculty as Jon Humphrey, fitted him
for the role. Family, friends, and mentors "the cantorial
trade is passed on through mentors," he says have encouraged
him to pursue it, and so has circumstance.
It's a role with real satisfactions. Tifereth
Jacob is a young congregation, with perhaps 200 children among its 250-odd
families. For the cantor this means, besides a leading role in regular
services, an unusual number of youngsters to prepare for their bar mitzvah
ceremonies. (While the rabbi provides religious instruction, the cantor
is, as it were, the voice coach for this pivotal ritual. The bar mitzvah
from the Hebrew phrase "son of duty" takes place
when a boy reaches thirteen: the age of responsibility.) The congregation
is mostly young professional people, says Schwartz, and while he's "not
sure they're the kind of people I'd make friends with if I weren't the
cantor," there is "definitely a feeling of community here."
And yet and yet. Schwartz admits
to being at "a kind of confused point right now." He's thirty-nine,
married. He and his wife would like to start a family. He wonders whether
it makes sense to commit full-time to being a cantor. Yet the reason he
came west was "to be where the music business was." And that
was because like how many others, he says wryly "I'd
always dreamt of being a songwriter-performer."
He still dreams that, so he still works
on his songs ("personal songs, confessional songs - in the acoustic
folk tradition, I guess you'd say") and wonders how he might possibly
crack the huge and impenetrable edifice of the music business. Money is
such a factor, age is such a factor, he says. On bad days, especially
when he first came to LA, the nature of the business could seem bound
up with the nature of the city. "I can remember walking down La Brea"
one of the raucous commercial avenues cutting south from the Hollywood
Hills - "and the cars were zooming along; and I just had this sense
of the city as a snake."
He picks up his guitar and sings one of
his songs establishing, good performer that he is, a sort of sweetly
impersonal eye-contact with an imaginary audience. "Butterflies fly
when they're ready to fly," runs the refrain of the song he chooses.
"The wind blows. Tears dry when they're ready to dry. And so it goes."