U-turn takes music lover to the bimah as new cantor

As a music education student at Arizona State University, Aaron Alpert had no interest in visiting the campus Hillel. But after some prodding from his parents he decided he'd go — "for the food."

By the time he graduated in 1997, Alpert had made "a total U-turn." The skinny trombonist, who previously thought he "had all the answers" to religion and life, had begun a love affair with Judaism, where "most questions are answered with other questions," he said, and nobody knows it all.

"It's an obsession," avowed the 26-year-old during an interview in Sacramento, where he took the reigns this week as cantor at Mosaic Law Congregation.

Tonight, after Alpert and his wife, Kamala, make the 5-minute walk to the Conservative shul located conveniently down the street from their haimish abode, he will lead the congregation's Shabbat services as chazzan for the first time.

"It will be very emotional for me," he said, admitting that there have been times when he has been "moved to tears" by the sound of an inspired cantor's song. "Cantors have always stirred something in me."

He would be honored to have that effect on others.

"When I lead a congregation in song my Jewish soul just comes out," he said. "I really mean what I'm singing."

Alpert has been singing since he could talk. He even remembers crooning along with his parents' Elvis Presley records when he was 3 or 4 years old.

"I tried to imitate all those 1950s musicians. I loved the vibrato in Elvis' voice."

Alpert also developed an appreciation for music from his grandfather on his mother's side, who owned a vast collection of records — classical, jazz, opera, cantorial. He would play them for his grandson and the two would compare, contrast and discuss the music for hours on end.

His grandfather on his father's side influenced his Judaism. "I used to watch him daven," Alpert recalled. "He really knew what he was doing."

Alpert brought his love of music to the Reform synagogue his family belonged to in Chandler, Ariz., where he sang so loudly, his voice could be heard above everyone else's.

"I often thought about becoming a cantor as a kid," said Alpert, who drifted away from religion after his bar mitzvah.

So when he became inspired once again, under the tutelage of the Hillel rabbi at Arizona State, Alpert was not surprised to find that his increased interest in Judaism was paralleled by an increased interest in Jewish music.

As a young adult on an exploration of Judaism, Alpert was not satisfied with the Reform movement, and tried to decide which stream he felt more comfortable with. Soon after, he became a teaching scholar for Hillel, tutoring sixth-grade Hebrew school students at a Conservative synagogue in Phoenix.

"I didn't really buy into the Conservative movement at that time, but I figured it was important for me to go to services in order to set a good example for my students," he said. He was intrigued by what he saw.

But his personal choice to become a Conservative Jew is not for everyone, he knows. "I'm very much in favor of all Jews coming together," he said. "We shouldn't allow ourselves to be fragmented."

After graduation, Alpert worked as a music teacher at a public high school in Phoenix. He then took a job as assistant cantor at Congregation Anshei Israel in Tucson, Ariz., where he studied intensively with Cantor Ivor Lichterman.

When Mosaic Law contacted him and expressed interest in having him as cantor — a post that was vacant for five years — Alpert " wasn't really even intending on pursuing a job."

But after he and Kamala (they married two years ago on June 13 — "or 613, like the Commandments") came to Sacramento for his job interview, they immediately found a reasonably priced home close to the synagogue, and "everything just seemed to fall into place," he said.

After giving a tour of his two-story home, Alpert stepped outside, onto the large, wooden deck off the back.

"This is where I'll build the sukkah this Sukkot," he said. "It will be a good place for company to sit once we get a table."

The couple expects a lot of company, especially on Shabbat.

"We always have people over for Shabbat to eat and sing and spend time together," he said. "I figure, you can talk about the Sabbath as much as you want, but until you eat and smell and drink and feel it, it just won't get you excited."

And no matter how late they celebrate into Friday night, "I'm never too tired to get up Saturday morning to go to shul," he said.

As cantor, Alpert hopes to help people "live and enjoy Judaism" no matter how they choose to do so. No one, he said, should be excluded for not being "observant enough."

"I want to help all Jews become more attracted to Judaism. Since singing is my forte, that's what I'll use to raise their love for our beautiful tradition."

Alpert is also looking forward to tutoring b'nai mitzvah students, a duty he enjoyed in Arizona. What comes out of the rite of passage, he noted, is more important than the ceremony itself.

"Early on in the tutoring process I start discussing what will come afterwards. I tell them I want to get them up on the bimah to read Torah in the weeks following their b'nai mitzvah because I don't want their observance to stop there."

Once the Alperts have fully settled in Sacramento, they hope to enjoy an active social life, visiting San Francisco on a regular basis and attending movies — he likes comedy and slapstick; she likes romance.

He wants to join Mossaic Law Rabbi Reuven Taff in weekend basketball games at the rabbi's home.

Alpert eventually hopes to engage his trombone talents as part of a klezmer band, where "there's a lot of opportunity to be expressive, for ad-libbing, soloing and improvisation."

But in shul, the music will remain strictly traditional. "I am not a performer," he said "I'm not one of those showy cantors. I might catch your eye, because I shake a lot when I pray — but that's only because it means so much to me."