The moment Cantor Arik Luck first heard an old midcentury recording of Moishe Oysher, he knew he was in the presence of greatness.
“As soon as I heard him sing I said out loud, ‘This is my guy,’ ” recalls Luck, who was a cantorial student at the time. “Because he has it — both the authentic cantorial presence and legit theatrical chops.”
Those qualities matter to Luck, installed last summer as a cantor at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El. In his younger days, Luck sought a career in musical theater before setting his sights on becoming a cantor. He found a kindred musical spirit in Oysher, a cantorial superstar in the early 20th century whose fame faded after his death in 1958.
Inspired by Oysher while still at Hebrew Union College, Luck created as his master’s thesis the musical revue “Arik Luck Is Moishe Oysher: The Master Singer of His People.” After having performed it around the country, Luck will give the show its Bay Area premiere Monday, Jan. 11 at Emanu-El.
In his show, Luck, 38, sings pieces Oysher made famous — several of which Oysher wrote, others staples from Jewish music history.
Luck wants audiences to rediscover the kind of operatic thrills Oysher routinely dished out, both in the synagogue and on screen when he was a star in America’s Yiddish cinema.
“What I hope to recreate is a little bit of his neshama,” Luck says, using the Hebrew word for soul. “He was known as the king of Yiddish scat. More than any other cantor or entertainer, he incorporated jazz into his cantorial riffs. This was the popular music of the time. It was hot and intense. People flooded to it because the stars who were singing it were cool.”
Born in 1907 in Bessarabia, a region of present-day Moldova and Ukraine, Oysher immigrated to the United States, hoping to take his vocal talent to Hollywood. After a stint on the Yiddish theater stage, he downshifted to the family business, becoming a cantor like his father and grandfathers before him.
“He was undisputedly one of the greatest cantors who ever lived,” Luck says. “He didn’t come to New York with the intention of being a cantor. There was an opening at the Romanian shul, and friends encouraged him to audition. He got it and that was the beginning of his dual life.”
As Luck reveals in his show, that dual life included a stint as a popular screen actor. Oysher starred in many Yiddish-language films, often playing a cantor. Because of the film work, Oysher’s style is among the best preserved of any cantors of his time.
That dual life also had to do with Oysher’s notorious womanizing. He may have sung holy texts, but he was often raising holy hell about town. In his show, Luck tries to capture every facet of Oysher’s complex personality.
“I take on the persona of Moishe Oysher,” he adds. “I do a little narration, play characters from his movies. My sister-in-law Sari Greenberg, who is a singer-actress, plays the role of Oysher’s real-life wife.”
Luck admits he cannot fully replicate Oysher’s blast-to-the-rafters tenor voice, which rivals Pavarotti in range and Jan Peerce in soulfulness. He says unless one is born into that shtetl world, growing up in the synagogue with the old Eastern European cantorial style, it is no easy feat to recreate it: “In the post-Holocaust world, that really ceased to exist.”
Luck had some big shoes to fill at Emanu-El when longtime Cantor Roslyn Barak stepped down last fall. Originally from Milwaukee, Luck grew up in Pennsylvania and Manhattan. He was enthralled with theater, and initially set out to make it as an actor.
But there was something else tugging at him professionally and spiritually.
“When I was very young, we belonged to a Hassidic synagogue,” Luck recalls. “I remember on Simchat Torah people dancing on the tables and other people holding those tables. When you’re a little child and you see something like that, it almost looks like people are flying. The ecstasy of the moment had a great impact on me.”
Though he had some success as an actor, Luck later turned to the cantorate. A professor at Hebrew Union College pointed out to Luck the similarities between him and Moishe Oysher. “Everyone was telling me I had to do Oysher for my thesis,” he remembers. “I kept avoiding it. I finally gave in.”
After ordination in 2009, Luck served with a large Chicago synagogue until last year. He had long known of Emanu-El’s esteemed musical reputation, and was thrilled to become the historic congregation’s newest cantor.
He and fellow Cantor Marsha Attie intend to preserve and expand the synagogue’s traditions.
“It’s critical that Congregation Emanu-El retain its century-and-a-half-long tradition of musical excellence, while looking boldly toward the future,” he says, “helping to facilitate the dialogue on what Jewish music will sound like in the 21st century.”
“Arik Luck Is Moishe Oysher: The Master Singer of His People,” 7:30 p.m. Monday, Jan. 11 at Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake Street, S.F. $22-$25. www.emanuelsf.org