Broadway, as the rabbi sings it

It took a catastrophe to get Yisrael Lutnick on stage, but since then it’s been nothing but upbeat.

yisrael lutnick_521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
yisrael lutnick_521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Not too many people would equate performing musicals with a holy calling, but for US-born Yisrael Lutnick it certainly comes close to that.
Next month Mevaseret Zion resident forty-something Lutnick – a.k.a. The Broadway Rabbi, who is, in fact, a practicing rabbi – will display his vocal prowess and his funny bone at his one-man singing and comedic show The Broadway Rabbi Sings His Mind.
He won’t quite be on his lonesome, and will have some tried-and-tested support on stage with him.
“The woman who accompanies my performances was my fourth-grade music teacher,” explains Lutnick. “Her name is [pianist] Amy Bart and we’ve been together now for, well, decades.”
If Lutnick’s sunny disposition is anything to go by, a fun time will be had by all at his performances at Café Yafo in Jaffa on February 9 at 9:30 p.m. (doors open 8:30 p.m.) and at the Prima Royale Hotel in Jerusalem on February 26 at 8:30 p.m.
The show program includes a mixture of standards and self-penned songs, with a liberal dosage of stories and wisecracks in between.
“Entertainment is very important, in all art forms,” says Lutnick as his facial expression takes on a far more rabbinical hue. “The arts raise us to a higher plane, and I do believe music is something we should respect. The seven wisdoms of the world start with the Torah, but the second one is music. And the Torah is basically stories and music.”
Lutnick laid the bedrock for his rabbinical and musical endeavors at Yeshiva University, where he was able to major in music.
“I also studied hazanut and was a cantor at a synagogue in Washington Heights for five years. I was doing music before I got into rabbinical school. I also taught at Yeshiva University and later taught sixth grade in a school in New York, and then moved to Israel.”
Lutnick made aliya 19 years ago and, in between High Holy Days cantorial forays to the States, now leads a community in Mevaseret Zion and devotes as much time as he can to furthering his musical theater exploits.
The latter, through his Israel Musicals outfit, have produced several well-received shows over the years, including productions of Annie, The Sound of Music and 1776. Lutnick has also been periodically busy Stateside, having presented the current show at the Don’t Tell Mama theater in New York and at the Jewish Museum of Maryland.
In fact, Lutnick almost absconded a few years ago, when he was in line for a rabbinical post in Long Island. But it all turned out all right in the end when the position was offered to someone else.
“I was torn about it anyway,” admits Lutnick. “I had put together some theatrical activities here and I realized that the Long Island job would mean walking away from all that and taking on a full time pulpit and, perhaps, not having the time to work in music and the theater, which are things I am very passionate about.”
But it wasn’t just about the music and performing. “There is a part of me that wants to be teaching Torah and sharing values, so I thought, in the meantime, I would write a cabaret which would not just be an entertaining evening but I’d also use it as a means of teaching and inspiring and put in some divrei Torah [biblical discourse]. That’s how The Broadway Rabbi came to be.”
At the end of the day, of course, The Broadway Rabbi Sings His Mind is a musical show, and the songs take pride of place. “I’ll do numbers like ‘Brotherhood of Man’ and ‘The Impossible Dream.’ I have to do ‘The Impossible Dream’ in all my shows. It’s the greatest song ever. I live and die by it.”
Lutnick is an avid fan of musicals and of compositions by songsmiths like Rodgers and Hammerstein and Cole Porter, and also puts his own 10 cents’ worth in when he can.
“I took the time to write my own words for some of the tunes in the show. I’ve never been a big fan of hassidic music. I find that a lot of the hassidic music takes verses from the Torah and forces them into a disco or a trance or a hip hop thing. It really bothers me. I feel like King David is turning over in his grave.
“[Singer] Lenny Solomon is fantastic and he doesn’t apologize, because he takes tunes from the secular culture and puts Jewish words to it. That’s great because it speaks to whole generations.
I’m in favor of that, but I’m not in favor of trying to take liturgical verses and writing stuff that has no connection to the spoken word. If you want to use any of the modern styles, write your own words.”
For Lutnick music and theater are as important as leading his community, although it took an event of dramatic and catastrophic proportions to give him the shove he needed to put his penchant for music onto the stage.
“My second cousin died in the attack on the World Trade Center, and I was very shaken by that. Shortly afterward there was an ad in The Jerusalem Post for auditions for a musical being put on by Adina Feldman, and the Shabbat portion that week included the verse ‘I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life.’ And it was just after the terrorist attack on the Moment Café [in Jerusalem during the second intifada]. And I thought, We must go on with the show. This is the way we fight back, by saying we believe the world must go on, that we must go on with life.”
There will certainly be a lot of life at the The Broadway Rabbi Sings His Mind shows, along with pathos, stirring music and plenty of laughs.
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