David Saffer chats to one of the top chazanim on the global circuit
GLOBETROTTING tenor Chazan Yaakov "Yanky" Lemmer aims to brings chazanut to the masses. And blessed with a melodic voice, this powerhouse of a singer could very well achieve his ambitions.
With a repertoire including traditional Hebrew liturgy, Yiddish folk, opera, Broadway and Israeli music, global praise has come the way of this modest chassid singer.
And rightly so because Yanky can belt out a tune.
Anyone who doubts his prowess should check out YouTube when a solo performance of Misratze Brachamim at the Budapest Jewish culture festival in 2008 saw him became an overnight sensation in chazanut circles.
"I was shivering, but it went well," Yanky recalled. "It was the springboard to my career, but you can't anticipate something like that happening.
"I always say my career grew faster than my education, but I'm still learning things every day."
For those wishing to hear mainstream music, Yanky's rendition 12 months later of Impossible Dream on the same Internet site at Anshe Sholom Synagogue, New Rochelle, New York, where he was chief chazan at the time, also hits the high notes of pitch perfection.
As an international concert artist, Yanky has appeared with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra at the Tel Aviv Culture Hall, sung at the White House for the national menorah ceremony, in the United Kingdom and around Europe.
Born in 1983 and raised in Brooklyn, entertainment and education are his key watchwords. Today, he is acknowledged among leading young cantors on the global circuit.
UK audiences have been wowed at concerts. And the good news is Yanky is back in town for The Harmony Concert at Beth Hamidrash Hagadol Synagogue, Leeds, on June 10.
The UJIA event sees Chazan Albert Chait, of the United Hebrew Congregation, and Chazan Michael Isdale, of Bowdon, Cheshire, also take centre stage for a feast of Jewish music with opera and pop.
Looking ahead to the concert, Yanky said: "I've performed with Albi a few of times and he's a such a professional.
"It's a joy to perform with him and especially on his territory."
One of Moshe and Agie Lemmer's seven surviving children after the death of a daughter in a car accident, Yanky - chazan at Ahavath Torah in Englewood, New Jersey, where he takes monthly and High Holy Day services - has little recollection of troubles in his area during the Crown Heights riots of 1991.
"I remember going to Crown Heights on yom tov after the riots," he recalled. "Our car was broken into and it really sort of hit hard then."
Yanky's musical roots are limited.
"There is no real background of singing in my family, but I recently discovered a great grandfather who was an amateur chazan back in the shtetl," he said.
Citing Purim and Chanucah as his favourite festivals, Yanky quipped: "There were lots of gifts - I suppose that I was no different to any other child at those times of the year. They were happy times."
Studying Torah at Belz Yeshiva School, he furthered his education with a Masters degree in special education.
Chazanut (cantorial music), though, was his calling and Yanky's love of music started at home.
"My father, who has a fire safety business, as little as he can sing, loves chazanut," he said. "He'd take me all the time when a chazan came to town, no matter how far the walk was on a Shabbat.
"Chazan Moshe Stern, who came to Brooklyn most frequently, inspired me when I was a kid.
"Stern had the 'full package'. He could sing traditional, old school chazanut, modern music, anything - and did it brilliantly.
"I never sang with Stern publicly as he was already retired when I came on the scene, but he was my idol.
"Chazan Noah Schall is my day-to-day 'go-to' man.
"This is a man who was buddy buddy with Chazan Moshe Ganchoff, Chazan Pierre Pinchik, Chazan Yehoshua Wieder and other greats of the golden age of chazanut."
Yanky began his singing career as a soloist with the Young Israel of Bethel Choir, where world-renowned Chazan Ben Zion Miller took him under his tutelage.
Earning a scholarship at Belz School of Jewish Music at Yeshiva University, he studied with chazanim Joseph Malovany and Bernard Beer.
Yanky also studied with cantorial legend Chazan Noach Schall and continues to train with vocal guru Patrick Michael Wickham.
He has performed symphonies with the Israel Philharmonic many times and is a stickler for preparation before a concert.
"You have to know your audience, then you have to decide if you want to educate or entertain them," Yanky said.
"Younger crowds may not go for deeply cultured music where you have to really listen to - or relate to - the text, so want 'feel good' music.
"In the UK, people have stronger tendencies towards fine culture and know what good music is all about.
"They like classical pieces, but there is also the issue of levels of exposure to Jewish liturgy.
"If I know only a handful of people relate to prayers, then I do two or three of those numbers and the rest are more populist music.
"So it all depends on the audience."
In terms of musical genres, Yanky noted: "When I want to express myself vocally it's opera, artistically Yiddish folk, but for me it's chazanut."
Chief Chazan of Ahavath Torah in Englewood, Yanky travels overseas monthly apart from other US performances."
He said: "Diet is an important part of vocal health, but I try stay away from things that give me acid reflux.
"You can train for years, but if you have acid reflux it burns your chords so it's a no-no."
Yanky's début CD, Vymaleh Mishalotaynu, is based around chazanut.
"It went well with fans of that style of music, but I'm planning to record different genres of music in the future," he said.
Does singing bring Yanky closer to God?
"Definitely, if it's connected to the text," he noted. "It's almost transcending. There are moments when you get into the A-zone - it doesn't happen often.
"But the nervous energy in front of an audience forces you into a zone to perform."
As for the future, he said: "My job is to make chazanut more accessible and ease this type of liturgy to people.
"Within a concert I can do different songs, including chazanut pieces, and people hopefully will say, 'Hey, you know it's not bad, I can listen to this'.
"Slowly, they get a feel for it because it's an acquired taste, but it's important because it's an ancient tradition."
For Harmony Concert tickets, contact UJIA 0113 2693136 or www.ujia.org/events