Three Divine Divas broadening image of cantors

Sequins, feathered boas and songs with an attitude don't exactly fit the image of cantors.

But cantors can cross over.

Maybe not at services. Maybe not on Shabbat.

But it can happen on a bimah. It has happened on a bimah. And it will again on Sunday, Nov. 8 at Oakland's Temple Sinai when three sopranos join voices in a non-cantorial cantor concert.

It's the Three Divine Divas — Cantors Ilene Keys of Temple Sinai, Linda Kates of Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air and Alisa Pomerantz-Boro of Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Diego.

"It started in the shvitz [steam room]," says Keys of the genesis of the Three Divine Divas. That was several years ago at a cantors' convention. "The three of us were sitting in the shvitz, which cantors usually do. It has great acoustics. We were singing and came up with the idea to do a concert together."

So they put together a repertoire and debuted at Stephen S. Wise Temple in June 1997. This summer they performed in San Diego, and now they're bringing their show to Oakland.

According to Keys, the music is a departure from the usual cantorial fare. Instead of an organ, the trio will be accompanied by a piano, flute, saxophone and drums. And the music is eclectic, including pop, contemporary, Broadway, Yiddish and Ladino songs. There will, of course, be some traditional cantorial music. That is, after all, their day job.

Shedding the clerical vestments of day and taking to the mike at night is a time-honored cantorial tradition.

"Cantors have always been more than bimah people," says Keys. "They are also entertainers. The person who did services also entertained the congregation on Saturday night."

They may not have worn sequins, but then again, those were the days when only men were allowed to serve as cantors. But no more. Kates estimates that today, 80 percent of the cantorial graduates in the Reform movement are women.

And gender isn't the only change in the cantorial profession.

"In the golden age of cantors, they were showmen," says Keys. "They had incredible voices. They would travel around the country and concertize. They were such great talents they didn't have time to do other cantorial duties."

Today cantors function much more as members of the clergy, training b'nai mitzvah students, conducting funerals and performing weddings as well as other clerical duties.

And when Kates sings "Take God With You," composed by her husband David Kates, the singers will be engaging in another cantorial tradition — the cross-fertilization between the theatrical and the theological.

"A lot of cantors crossed over to and from Yiddish theater," says Keys. Not only did cantors come from theatrical or operatic backgrounds, but many mainstream Jewish composers like Kurt Weill, George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein also composed Jewish music.

And so it is with David Kates, executive director of the Jewish Music Commission of Los Angeles and composer of television and movie scores. His credits include "The Brady Bunch Movie" and an animated series for Disney.

So, what's with the name, Three Divine Divas?

"It's almost a parody," says Keys. "We're the antithesis of that. People have the image of cantors being divas. We're not the typical cantors who just show up for services."

But that doesn't mean that the performance by the three divas won't be divine.