New Isaiah cantor hails from Russian operatic stage

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Growing up in the town of Kazan, east of Moscow, Boris Kazansky watched his grandfather, who was an amateur cantor, lead secret prayer services and Jewish holiday celebrations.

"He had a great voice and a great love for Jewish music," Kazansky recalls. "He was a very passionate singer, a very passionate and strong man."

Early on, the older man's strength and talent instilled in Kazansky a desire to follow in his grandfather's footsteps. Becoming a cantor "was my childhood dream," says Kazansky, who at 49 is now the new cantor of Temple Isaiah in Lafayette.

While living in Communist Russia, however, fulfilling that dream was impossible. So Kazansky attended Moscow's conservatory of music and upon graduation established a successful career as an opera singer.

He traveled the country, lending his bass baritone to roles in such works as "Don Giovanni," "Il Trovatore," the "Barber of Seville" and many Russian operas. And he frequently performed operatic solos with the Moscow Philharmonic.

All along, however, the childhood dream persisted. Kazansky's "desire to be a Jew, a free man," spurred him to immigrate to the United States with his family in 1978. Once here, Kazansky spent two years performing with opera companies in upstate New York and Shreveport, La.

In New York, he won two awards for his opera singing.

Nevertheless, "before I came to the United States I knew I would be a cantor," Kazansky reflects. So "as soon as I had the chance, I started studying."

He enrolled in the cantorial school at New York's Hebrew Union College.

That study led to a full-time cantorial job at a Philadelphia synagogue. Kazansky's wife, Lilia, who is also a cantor and who also graduated from HUC, is still 3,000 miles away, leading services in the city of brotherly love.

Kazansky's younger daughter Rebecca lives with Lilia. His older daughter Miriam is a senior at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.

Being separated from his family is difficult for Kazansky, but he sees it as a temporary hardship.

"I've always loved California," says Kazansky, who has been here since June — time enough to have attended a handful of San Francisco Opera performances including "Madama Butterfly," "La Traviata" and the Russian work "Ruslan and Lyudmilla."

He sees his position at the East Bay Reform synagogue as "an opportunity to move here and move my family here."

Nevertheless, he says, "we have to do it gradually."

He is impressed by Northern Californian Jews' sense of commitment. Because there are fewer Jews here than in the East Coast cities where Kazansky lived, he observes that West Coast Jews must put forth a more concerted effort to live a Jewish life.

"They are, in a way, Jews by choice," he says of the Californians.

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.