Asher Shasho Levy is the hazzan at The Kitchen, an independent synagogue in San Francisco.
Asher Shasho Levy is the hazzan at The Kitchen, an independent synagogue in San Francisco.

Meet Asher Shasho Levy, The Kitchen’s new hazzan and oud master

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It’s no exaggeration that Asher Shasho Levy has been preparing his entire life for his role as The Kitchen’s new hazzan.

With the departure last year of Rabbi Jessica Kate Meyer, the San Francisco congregation decided to look eastward for new musical leadership. Well, technically, southward, as Levy was born and raised in the San Fernando Valley. But the 28-year-old cantor, oud master and multi-instrumentalist is heir to a vast and creatively fecund world of Mizrahi and Sephardic Jewish music that has long thrived mostly outside the awareness of the Ashkenazi diaspora.

Hailing from a highly musical Syrian Jewish family, his father, Rabbi Jay Shasho Levy, served for many years as senior clergy at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel in Westwood, while his mother grew up in an Ashkenazi family. “My parents wanted me to have a foot in both worlds,” Levy said to explain his mission to unite American Jewry by sharing sacred musical traditions from multifarious Jewish communities.

“I came to see that I didn’t have to choose,” he added. “I was an intern hazzan from the age of 13 to when I started college, and I focused on how you can try to gather the corners of the diaspora together. It can flow and work and be one Jewish expression that still honors all the particularisms. That’s something I’ve been working on.”

Before Levy’s arrival last fall, Rabbi Meyer had built a davening team at The Kitchen with services known for ecstatic music-driven worship drawing on an unusually expansive array of melodies. Levy has infused services with musical liturgy gleaned from Eastern Jewish communities that use vernacular languages in sacred settings — from Portuguese to various Judeo-Arabic languages to several dialects of Judeo-Spanish/Ladino and Judeo Iranian languages.

He is also leading workshops, open to all, on musical settings for prayers and texts. His current workshop, which meets every other Tuesday through May, is on classical Arabic and Turkish modes known as maqam, which undergird much Sephardic worship.

At services, even if people don’t know a melody, they feel as if they’ve always known it.

All too often the Jewish world is portrayed as roughly divided between Sephardic and Ashkenazi realms, but Levy uncovers the various cultural layers accrued across the Middle East, North Africa and former Ottoman lands over some two millennia.

“I just feel like somebody introduced me to this whole amazing world,” said Rabbi Noa Kushner, The Kitchen’s founding rabbi and guiding spirit. “I’ve got many friends in Jerusalem involved in Mizrahi music. I’ve heard recordings and had this exposure, as many of us had. But I feel like at this moment, someone is showing me a whole other Torah. Where has this been? And why didn’t I know more about it? This isn’t ornamental. It’s central to Judaism.”

Levy’s heritage is almost as complex and tangled as the lands whose music he savors. He traces his lineage to both the Mustarabi Jews, who are believed to have inhabited Syria since Biblical times, and the Halabi Jewish community of Aleppo, part of the Sephardic diaspora that fled late-15th-century Spain. Surrounded by music at home, he was a gifted multi-instrumentalist before his bar mitzvah, learning guitar, keyboards, bass and mandolin, among other instruments. By age 12, he began studying the oud and traditional Halabi music with his father and various elders in L.A.’s Middle Eastern Jewish community.

Attending the Milken Community School, Levy came into the orbit of hazzan Hillel Tigay, artist-in-residence at the Sepulveda Pass campus. Outside the school, Tigay was attracting an ardent following with his Jewish music. “I got in on the ground floor,” Levy said. “I got to see him build a really unique prayer practice that included Sephardic influences.”

There are no Sephardic cantorial schools, so Levy apprenticed with his father and elder hazzans. “In the Sephardic tradition, one is considered a hazzan once their teachers affirm their command over the yearly cycle of liturgy and Torah and other scriptural readings, and once they begin to serve that role adequately and tunefully for a community,” he explained. “By the time I was in high school I was serving as hazzan in a communal context, and was certified as such by my teachers and mentors.”

As an undergrad at the University of Southern California, Levy delved into philosophy, politics, law and religion, with a primary focus on ancient Semitic studies and the Dead Sea Scrolls under Professor Bruce E. Zuckerman. Although he was tempted by the academic path, the lure of music proved stronger. Carving out a singular niche amid L.A.’s huge, polyglot Jewish world, Levy gradually discovered his calling.

His position as musician-in-residence at Valley Beth Shalom gave him the space to create a monthly Shabbat service using Sephardic melodies, “trying to bolster the musical life of the community,” he said. The fact that the service was egalitarian, with men and women sitting together, meant that Jews uncomfortable with sex segregation could access the traditional music in a sacred setting.

In many ways, the links Levy wants to forge are generational as much as credal. “There is such a disconnect for us proud Sephardic/Mizrahi Jews who grew up in America and want to worship in a context that’s open to all,” he said. “When your personal traditions aren’t represented, it can be hard to leave a big part of yourself at the door. I always try in various ways to bring awareness of different traditions. It goes both ways. With Sephardic Jews, there’s no shyness about singing Hasidic melodies like ‘Siman Tov U’Mazal Tov.’ It’s all Jewish.”

At the same time, Levy was delving ever deeper into the music and prayer practice of his Syrian Jewish ancestors, which meant studying the maqam tradition. Not that he was spending all of his time in synagogue. He helped found Bazaar Ensemble, a hard-grooving jazz funk combo that played Mizrahi piyyutim in clubs and restaurants around the Southland. A few years later, he joined the Aram Soba Ensemble, a group now on hiatus that is dedicated to the music of the Syrian Jews of Aleppo.

“My goal was to present Syrian Jewish music in conversation with Arab folk music,” he said. “It brought a lot of people together. Non-Jewish people from the Middle East had never heard these modes in a Jewish context.”

Levy is bringing this wealth of experience and knowledge to bear at The Kitchen, where he’s both teacher and practitioner. Aaron Danzig, a member of the davening team, said Levy’s arrival was beshert (“destined to be”).

“His depth of liturgical and ethnomusicological knowledge combined with his vocal and musical talent is nothing short of extraordinary,” Danzig wrote in an email. “Add to that his accessible and joyous personality, he is one of a kind in the universe and a treasure for our community.”

Kushner added, “He’s obviously a prodigy, but someone who has his very rare combination of range and depth of talent is frankly monumental. He’s thought a whole lot about how to connect the piyyutim and Arabic maqam to a wide range of people. He’s cultivated it for years. At services, even if people don’t know a melody, they feel as if they’ve always known it.”

Andrew Gilbert
Andrew Gilbert

Los Angeles native Andrew Gilbert is a Berkeley-based freelance writer who covers jazz, roots and international music for publications including the Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, San Francisco Classical Voice and Berkeleyside.