Swan song for Emanu-Els be-all and end-all cantor

Few applicants get a standing ovation when being told they’ve landed the job. Roslyn Barak did, after passing her audition to become cantor at Congregation Emanu-El back in 1987.

Members of the San Francisco temple have been on their feet ever since.

After a melodious 28-year run, Barak is about to belt out her swan song. Her last official day on the job is Oct. 18.

“I think it’s always good to go out when you feel it’s right and not when other people feel they’ve had enough,” Barak told J. “I’m feeling very good about where I’m at in life and what I’ve done for 28 years.”

Barak’s final day will include a farewell party the congregation is throwing for her. Fittingly, the prime portion of it will take place in Emanu-El’s main sanctuary and will include plenty of music.

Cantor Roslyn Barak is approaching her final day on the job.   photo/Lisa Kessler of Congregation Emanu-El

“There will be a couple of choirs and a lot of colleagues from the Bay Area,” Barak, 65, said of the event. “A few speeches as well. The evening will be mostly music, which is what I wanted — and in the main sanctuary,” a 1,700-seat edifice that “knocked me out” at first sight.

It takes a commanding voice like Barak’s to fill that cavernous space, and now that she’s leaving, friends and colleagues are struggling to say goodbye.

“Roz is one of the great cantors of the country,” said Rabbi Jonathan Singer, co-senior rabbi at Emanu-El. He said wherever he travels, people know of Barak. “She is dedicated to a high standard of Jewish music and of sharing the majesty of the Jewish musical tradition. Her knowledge is deep and wide.”

“She is probably the most knowledgeable cantor around,” added Rabbi Stephen Pearce, the retired Emanu-El rabbi who worked with Barak for years. “She is looked upon by colleagues as a be-all and end-all. There were times over the years when I would stand next to her and get so swept away by her voice, it would lift my prayers.”

Recently hired Arik Luck, ordained as a cantor in 2009, and Marsha Attie, ordained in 2014, are taking over as co-cantors.

Barak isn’t riding off into the sunset just yet. Her immediate future includes a post as interim cantor at a Reform congregation in Dallas, where she will serve for nine months. She accepted the gig because “I like adventure and I wanted to give Cantor Luck some breathing space.”

After that, she plans on teaching and coaching.

Raised in an Orthodox home, Barak is a trained opera singer who became an esteemed Jewish scholar when living in Israel for three years as she cultivated a singing career. Later she studied for the cantorate at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, where one of her teachers was Pearce.

He remembers Barak as an outstanding student, “head and shoulders above her classmates” when it came to Jewish knowledge.

As a student cantor, Barak served at Temple Isaiah in her hometown of Forest Hills, New York, then accepted a staff position. But when the opportunity arose to join Emanu-El, one of the largest congregations west of the Mississippi, she jumped at it.

Hal Stein, 84, has been an Emanu-El member for decades. He sat on the search committee to replace Joe Portnoy, the synagogue’s previous cantor, traveling with several colleagues to New York in 1987 to meet prospects.

“The instant Roz auditioned — for us that was it,” Stein recalled. “She was independent; she spoke her mind. But I was concerned that in the history of Emanu-El there had been no women [cantors]. I had my doubts as to what the board would do.”

Stein said when Barak came to San Francisco to sing for the board in the main sanctuary, “The moment she opened her mouth it was magic. She started right away.”

“She inspired the congregation completely with her phenomenal voice and her broad, deep knowledge of music,” said longtime congregant Adele Corvin. “Her role as a teacher of b’nai mitzvah, her lifecycle role with families for weddings and deaths, and her community role in establishing concerts at Emanu-El — she gave us something we’re not going to have again.”

In addition to her other work, Barak also instituted Music at Meyer, an annual classical music series in the 400-seat Martin Meyer Sanctuary. She has served on the board of the Cantors Assembly (Conservative) and the American Conference of Cantors (Reform).

Kay Greenwald, former senior cantor at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills, remembers that Barak was the first person to reach out to her when she first arrived in the Bay Area.

“She invited me to lunch in the city,” Greenwald said. “Luckily she kept an extra jacket in her office for those of us unprepared for a San Francisco summer. She was warm and welcoming, and I knew we would become good friends.”

Cantor Larisa Averbakh has similar sentiments. A native of Russia, she had studied sacred Jewish music in St. Petersburg and wanted to become a cantor after moving to California in 1998. Unsure where to turn, she contacted Hebrew Union College and got a recommendation to contact Barak.

“So I gave her a call,” recalled Averbakh, now the cantor at Congregation Beth Israel in Northfield, New Jersey. “She found time for me right away and within minutes she had suggestions. She brought my case to the board of cantors, got me a grant, a voice teacher and pieces to sing. I went to HUC [for an audition] and was accepted right away.”

The friendship did not end there. At Barak’s invitation, Averbakh served at Emanu-El over several summers and during Barak’s sabbaticals.

“It’s a unique instrument,” she said of Barak’s voice. “A beauty of tone in all registers. In the case of Roz, she is also a superb musician. She has mastery and she has soul.”

Barak commissioned several pieces of new music during her tenure, from such composers as David Schiff, Ami Aloni and Jill Higgins. She also has recorded three CDs.

She’s had some memorable moments during her career, such as co-officiating at the funeral of rock impresario Bill Graham in 1991. But Barak says more important to her than any musical impact has been her interaction with the congregation.

“The most fulfilling part for me has been the relationships,” she said. “I love teaching b’nai mitzvah kids. I love teaching adult bar and bat mitzvah. I loved having a children’s choir for a long time. To see the faces of people when they learn something significant in their lives, whether it’s Hebrew or the tenets of Judaism, it’s a wonderful thing to impart.”

After her upcoming stint in Dallas, Barak plans to continue calling the Bay Area home, but she does have a lot of plans that might take her far and wide. She jokes that she might have to buy an RV.

“I’m hoping to teach at some cantorial schools,” she said, “hoping to make another CD. I’ve always felt lucky to be here, and this congregation has been a source of great joy.”

“An Enchanted Evening of Song and Tribute in Celebration of Cantor Roslyn Barak.” 7 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18 at Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St., S.F. $36. www.emanuelsf.org or (415) 751-2541 ext. 116

pine-dan
Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.