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From the stage to the bimah

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A conversation with Cantor Arik Luck, the newest addition to Beth Emet The Free Synagogue 
10/06/2009

From the stage to the bimah photo 1

Up until a few years ago, Arik Luck had been living the typical life of a struggling actor in New York City, working in shows off-off Broadway, singing in musicals, acting in indie films, and waiting tables.

But, then, after a lot of soul-searching, he made the tough choice to switch career tracks, and blend his performance talents with a new line of work.

This summer, Luck relocated to the Chicago area and started his best and most challenging gig yet—as the cantor at Beth Emet The Free Synagogue, in Evanston. On the bimah, Cantor Luck has a soulful style, invoking strong Eastern European traditions and influences from the Jewish camping movement.

Before moving to the Midwest, Luck graduated from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in New York City, where he received his masters in sacred music and cantorial investitures. In cantorial school, he was the recipient of the Israel Goldstein Award, the honor given to a student who demonstrates the highest degree of fluency in traditional worship styles. In addition to singing, Luck also plays piano, guitar, percussion, and produces and directs theater. Back in 2000, Luck received his Bachelor of Fine Arts from Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama in acting and musical theatre. After several years out east, Luck, his wife, Rachel, and now their baby son, Yedidyah, have settled in Evanston.

They always planned on naming their son Yedidyah, which means “Beloved by God,” but the name’s meaning grew even more special and fitting after their son was born one Shabbat evening, because one of the first pieces of liturgy recited on Shabbat evening is a poem called Yedid Nefesh, or “Beloved of the soul.”

Originally from Milwaukee, Luck grew up in a large, close-knit family that includes three sisters and one brother who, between them, have eight children of their own. Full disclosure—he’s my cousin too!

On Friday, Oct. 2, Beth Emet celebrated Luck’s installation. Debbie Friedman, the Jewish singer/songwriter and Luck’s friend and former teacher at HUC-JIR, joined the congregation in Luck’s honor. In addition to Luck joining Beth Emet, the synagogue selected Andrea London as its third senior rabbi in its 60-year history. London, who has served as Beth Emet’s associate and associate senior rabbi since 2000, will become senior rabbi in July of 2010, the day after senior rabbi, Rabbi Peter Knobel ends 30 years in the position to become rabbi emeritus.

Just before the High Holidays, I caught up with my cousin to talk about switching careers, his new congregation, and what makes a piece of music Jewish.

From the stage to the bimah photo 2

Oy!Chicago: How do you like your new job so far?
Arik Luck: Beth Emet is a very open place with so much diversity in Jewish practice. Everything and everyone is welcome. The congregation has been open to what I can contribute musically. We did an all-musical Shabbat for two weeks in a row and I got a lot of positive feedback. It’s also very new because I’ve just graduated from school and I’m thankful to have a job, especially in this economy.

How do you characterize your cantorial style?
In cantorial school, we always grappled with the question of what makes a piece of music Jewish? Is it the mode that it’s composed in? Is it the person who wrote it? That would make “White Christmas” and “West Side Story” Jewish. If you’re using a piece of liturgy or a piece from the Torah, does that automatically make it Jewish? I make my decisions on what I’m going to present [to the congregants] based, first and foremost, on what moved me. If it doesn’t stir something inside me, how can I stir something inside of the congregation? I don’t automatically dismiss any genre, but most of my music tends to be Hebrew. I’m trying to communicate the liturgy through music. My background is in theater and there’s a similar objective in communicating a piece of text…The tune has to work within the context of the text and, within the context of your objective to achieve, in this case, a sense of spiritual connectedness.

What made you switch careers away from theater?
The theater will always be very near and dear to me. I’m very glad that I lived in New York and pursued theater for the time that I did because I know that I’ll never grow old with that gnawing question of why I didn’t ever pursue this dream. Any actor, whether successful or one that doesn’t have much luck, will tell you that the reality of acting is very difficult. What really switched the buttons for me was when I decided that ultimately, down the road, I really wanted a big family. I was working with or just encountering actors who were twice my age who maybe had one child, maybe had two, and found it extremely difficult to do what they felt was right in raising them, sending them to school, etc., particularly in New York. I also worked in my share of restaurants and it allowed for a lot of soul searching. I decided that I had to make a change and it wasn’t easy.

What sparked your interest in being a cantor?
Once I made that decision to switch careers, I had to decide what I wanted to do. Everyone in our generation has to grapple with that at some point. I see my friends struggle through it all the time. I struggled with it intensely for about six months. So I tried to make a game out of it. I would show up to a catering job and say, ‘Okay, whenever my mind drifts, while I’m serving people their chicken or fish, I just am going to focus on what my life would be like if I were a drama teacher or if I were a social studies teacher or if I were a lawyer.’ I would pick something different each day. I also spent a day where I imagined if I were a cantor. Ultimately, that’s not what led me to decide to become one, but it really let me sort everything out in my head…

…Then, I began to think about what really makes me happy, what I love doing in life.  Three of the things on the top of my list were singing, Judaism, and teaching.  It occurred to me that the cantorate would be a natural culmination of all three of these things.  After entering HUC-JIR, what I discovered was that this wasn’t just a “natural culmination,” but something that I absolutely loved.

What do you love most about being a cantor?
I love the Eastern European tradition, nusach, the golden age of chazanut (cantorial music), which was the turn of the century up until 1950. I listen to these cantors of old and get totally inspired. I also come out of the Jewish camping movement. While I do see a big difference between a cantor and a song leader, I still feel inspiration from the camping movement.

What was your upbringing like Jewishly growing up in Milwaukee?
Growing up, our home was very Jewish. We always observed Shabbat in the house. Most of my friends were not Jewish and they loved it and would come over for Shabbat dinner. It was always very happy and celebratory. We would always play Jewish music during dinner, and after dinner everyone would dance. There was a sweetness to that and, even though at the time I had no intention of going into Judaism professionally or becoming a cantor, that sweetness always remained in my consciousness, and ultimately when I decided to become a cantor, it certainly made sense, given my family background and my connection with Judaism and my love for music and teaching.

Are you excited for your first High Holidays at your synagogue?
At Beth Emet, it’s very important to me that people have a sense of consistency on the high holidays, especially my first year. I am learning a lot of new music because I don’t want to change anything right off the bat. So that’s an amount of work, but I enter the challenge eagerly.

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