When he was growing up, Natan Kuchar didn’t like his name, which everyone seemed to mangle as Nathan. His father, though, taught him that his name was special: Natan, spelled the same forward and backward, was a palindrome.
“I thought it was really cool I knew this big word as a kid,” said Kuchar, who was raised in a Modern Orthodox home in Sydney, Australia, and attended Jewish day school. “I would try to correct people.”
Now Kuchar, 27, the music director at Jewish Community High School of the Bay, regularly dons a red bow tie, a jaunty red cap and a corduroy jacket covered with smiley-face stickers to perform as his alter-ego, Mr. Palindrome.
At his live shows and for the songs he posts on his YouTube channel, his motto is “Teaching very small children very big words with very silly songs.” Kuchar sings about words like “alliteration,” “onomatopoeia” and of course, “palindrome.”
At a special Tu B’Shevat show on Sunday, Jan. 24 at the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco, the father of two is planning a 45-minute set for preschoolers and kindergartners that will combine some of his old classics with new Jewish content, including his “Backwards Aleph Bet” song and a new tune celebrating trees.
“It’s basically a song about what things that we use every day are made from trees,” said Kuchar, who brings giant props befitting the giant words he sings about, such as a giant pencil case, to his shows.
“In order to get these big notepads and big pencils, we need lots of trees,” he says. “It’s sort of an ode to the trees and the knowledge that they bring us. I’m not going to be saying, ‘Let’s stop printing paper.’ It’s more, ‘Let’s have gratitude to where we source all these things that we use day to day.’ ”
A graduate of Berklee College of Music in Boston, where his studies also included television and film composition for screen, (he did the orchestration for the animated Warner Bros. film “Happy Feet Two”), Kuchar in his spare time would write and sing songs for adults and post them on YouTube. On a whim, he wrote a silly song for kids about a smiley-face sticker that loses its stick but keeps on smiling, and posted it online.
“It was a really silly song that I knew was catchy,” he said. “People ate it up.”
Kuchar decided to put on a children’s show at a local library, recruiting his friends and their kids to attend. He invented his Mr. Palindrome persona for the event, and later put out a music video for the song, which he performs in full Mr. Palindrome regalia. The video now has more than 110,000 views, and Kuchar’s YouTube channel is full of videos of him performing songs and short clips for kids where he talks about everyday palindromes like “level” and “radar” and explains big words like “anagram.”
“I think that kids want to be entertained,” he said. “They really love music and they love dancing and they love being silly. Even more than those things, they really love learning big words, which was the thing that fueled this journey and kept it going.” He was struck by the reaction he got when he performed for schoolchildren in Australia who were refugees and learning English as a second language. “When they would learn these words, they really felt so empowered, and I loved that I could do this through this silly music.”
Kuchar and his wife, a Bay Area native, moved the family to Berkeley a year ago after he accepted the position at Jewish Community High School of the Bay, where he oversees instrumental and vocal ensembles, an annual musical, a music tefillah class, and a music writing and production class.
He performs regularly during the year before both Jewish and secular audiences. He typically does Hanukkah and Purim shows, and he’s working on a new album of Jewish children’s music.
“Kids are just eating up learning about these words,” Kuchar said.
“A Tu B’Shevat Celebration with Mr. Palindrome,” 10:30 a.m. Sunday, Jan. 24 at Jewish Community Library, 1835 Ellis St., S.F. Free. www.jewishcommunitylibrary.org