Russian cantor strives to reach out, bring them back

Born in 1971, when St. Petersburg was still called Leningrad, Gregory Yakerson said most Russian Jews kept their Judaism under wraps. In fact, the siddur his grandfather carried to synagogue symbolized the secretive life Jews led in the former Soviet Union: “On the outside it looks like a volume of Lenin. Inside are Hebrew prayers,” he said in a Skype interview from Russia.

These days, Yakerson still covers his kippah with a cap while in public, to play it safe. Nonetheless, he says, in post-communist St. Petersburg, Jewish institutions are burgeoning.

As head cantor at St. Petersburg’s landmark Grand Choral Synagogue, he frequently welcomes Jewish groups that arrive on cruise ships. The 1893 Moorish-Byzantine structure, which seats 1,200, has undergone extensive renovation since the fall of communism and has become a major tourist attraction.

Cantor Gregory Yakerson

“Years ago, you couldn’t even mention the synagogue” in public, he said. “Now they bring all these buses from the terminal straight to the synagogue.” Most of these visitors have ancestors who left Russia around 1900, he said, and see it as “important to come back.”

One who came back is Stanley Sussman of Palo Alto, who met Yakerson during a JCC of S.F. trip to St. Petersburg and the Baltic. Impressed by Yakerson’s “rich, beautiful voice and engaging personality,” Sussman invited him to give a concert in Palo Alto (sponsored by a fund he set up at Palo Alto’s Congregation Emek Beracha in memory of his late wife, Stephanie).

Yakerson, who is fluent in English, will bring his repertoire of sacred music and Jewish songs to the Bay Area next week. On March 18, he will perform in concert at Palo Alto’s Cubberley Community Theatre. The following afternoon, he will present a musical program to the Russian émigré community at the JCC of San Francisco.

Although Yakerson, 40, had grandmothers who kept kosher, and Jewish books at his disposal, he did not grow up in a religious home. It took an accidental encounter to propel him into a deeper involvement with Judaism. “Around 1986, a guy stopped me and asked if I was Jewish. He needed a 10th man for a minyan.”

That minyan brought him into the Grand Choral Synagogue. Awed by the art and the music, he joined the choir at age 16 and went on to study voice at the Rimsky-Korsakov St.-Petersburg State Conservatory.

In 1996, as a participant in Moscow’s Turetsky Choir, he traveled to Miami, where he became acquainted with chazzanut (traditional chanting). Once again awestruck, the classically trained baritone returned to Florida to study and perform with several world-renowned cantors. Five years later, he was a cantor himself.

Singing in his own synagogue, often with the eight-voice all-male choir, Yakerson still “gets chills,” aware that he’s holding a position once filled by the legendary cantors of Eastern Europe. “It’s such a responsibility,” he said.

Yakerson is mostly optimistic about the revival of Russian Jewish life. Today St. Petersburg, with 90,000 Jews, houses a Jewish community center and five Hebrew schools, as well as several smaller Jewish congregations. Jews are “free to practice and identify as Jews.” On the other hand, they’re also free to travel, and many have left.

While his own synagogue is filled to capacity for the High Holy Days, about a tenth of the seats are filled on a typical Sabbath.

Yakerson sees it as his mission to draw the Jewish community in through tours, public concerts and other special events. In November, at a commemoration of the International Day of Tolerance, many visitors heard klezmer and sampled kosher food for the first time.

Noting that unlike American synagogues, which rely on membership dues, there is no such tradition in Russia, he said: “You have to reach out; you have to bring them back.”

Cantor Gregory Yakerson 7:30 p.m. March 18, Cubberley Community Center Theatre, 4000 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto. Free (contributions to Emek Beracha’s Stephanie Sussman Memorial Fund accepted). email [email protected] Also 4 p.m. March 19, JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F. email [email protected]

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].