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Personal Song



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; totally un-Peggy-Sue.

     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."

– Patricia Wright

 
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