Beth Abraham cantor bringing world beat to bimah

Cantor Richard Kaplan, who has been enlivening Congregation Beth Abraham in Oakland for two years with an international repertoire, is now the synagogue’s first full-time chazzan.

Kaplan, 50, was hired at the synagogue this summer after contributing to High Holy Day services for the past two years.

“He adds a tremendous and rare combination of musical ability and genuine fervor,” said Rabbi Mark Diamond, the Conservative congregation’s spiritual leader. “He has the rare ability to elevate people in spirituality. He certainly heightened my appreciation for my own davening.”

Kaplan, who lives in Oakland, arrived at the synagogue after a long and varied musical career. He first was exposed to Jewish music while growing up Los Angeles. At sing-along evenings with his family, he sounded out traditional Jewish songs as well as popular show tunes.

Once he decided to become a professional singer, he found himself exploring the gamut of the musical world. In 1975, he received a master of arts degree from U.C. Berkeley in musicology. He dabbled in jazz recordings and even composed a one-man show adapting Chassid tunes and spoofing shtetl life.

He’s also taught international music — everything from Japanese to Burmese to medieval songs — at area colleges.

After many years of wandering musically, he decided to become a cantor in the late 80s. “I realized it was always what I was looking for. Everything I was seeking was in the Jewish tradition. It’s nice to come back and start keeping Shabbos, and put that together with music.”

In the late 1970s, he decided to learn the Jewish liturgy, which he said another cantor aptly described as “like going to law school.” But in addition to studying the traditional songs, Kaplan supplemented his education by researching Middle Eastern and Sephardic music.

Since he joined Beth Abraham, he’s featured the Mizrachi and Sephardic music during a special liturgy on the first Shabbat of each month. The tunes are more participatory than Ashkenazic liturgy, inviting congregation members to sing to each other in call-and-response style, he said.

“I think it’s a great way to make services more energetic and spirited. Most warm to it quickly,” Kaplan said. “Even in the traditional Ashkenazic liturgy, there are actually quite a few Yemenite, Sephardic and Chassidic melodies. In some ways, [combining the traditions] is not that far of a stretch.”

Kaplan hopes to teach classes in the coming months at the synagogue on the varieties of Jewish music and the relationship between singing and Jewish mysticism.

He thinks the time is right to enhance the standard liturgy with lesser-known Jewish musical traditions.

“A lot of spiritual traditions got lost, maybe because of the Holocaust, and are now coming back. It’s great, very organic and extremely energetic. Traditional liturgy is fantastic, and needs to be taught, sung and renewed,” Kaplan said.

It’s also catching on with younger members of the congregation. Kaplan said he’s noticed that more young adults and families are attracted to the new sounds.

“It’s probably surprising to a lot of people how huge the world of Jewish music is. You can spend your whole life looking into it,” he said.

Joshua Schuster

Joshua Schuster was a Jewish Bulletin staff writer.