The Sound of Music: An Interview with Cantor Juval Porat:
by A.J. Llewellyn
Juval Porat is famous for being the first cantor to be ordained invested into the Jewish faith in Germany since the Holocaust. Temple Beth Chayim Chadashim of Los Angeles, the world’s first GLBT synagogue was lucky enough to snap up this talented, charismatic singer, who is now recording a special album of music. But he needs help. Via an indiegogo fund http://www.indiegogo.com/p/172952 he is asking for $3,500 in donations. He is almost there…but not quite.
I’d like to help and am donating money myself, but maybe I can share this amazing man’s life and work with a wider audience and who knows? Maybe get him more money than he dreamed possible.
Apart from his work for the clergy, Juval Porat has some hidden depths. He is a gifted architect, speaks several languages, is a fearless pop music performer and…drag queen.
At the demand of others, he’s finally recording music to be shared with the world, not just the congregation at BCC. Putting him in the hot seat for just a moment, I have some questions for Juval.
1. Juval, thank you for your time. Having experienced your wonderful voice firsthand, not to mention your astonishing harmonies and varied musical collaborations on stage my first question is, when did you first discover your love of music and what were your earliest influences?
Hi AJ – thanks for having me. That’s quite humbling of you to ask me to be put on the hot seat. My earliest memory is probably from when I was around 6 or 7. I would spend hours on my parents rock-chair with the headphones on, listening to my parents collection of classical music. I remember listening to Carnival of the Animals, dancing with my nanny to the Swan Lake. To take time to just listening to a piece is something I remember dearly and something I’m grateful to do nowadays, when I have a chance.
2. Did your parents encourage your love of music? Were you destined, do you think from a young age to be a cantor? And how did this come about?
Being a Cantor was never really on my to-do-list. It came about when a position for a service leader at a small Synagogue in the city of Moenchengladbach / Germany opened up and I was asked if I’d be interested to take that position. I was working as a counselor at a Jewish Youth Center at that time in Aachen, the city where I was studying Architecture. I don’t know if I was destined. It is pretty miraculous though the way things came to be. After graduating in Architecture something just gravitated me towards Berlin – that’s the only place to which I sent applications for an Architecture job. Once I got the job and moved to Berlin I realized that I loved the city, but couldn’t quite find gratification in Architecture. I was being a service leader for almost 7 years at that point, travelling to small towns all over Germany and I remember being very happy for the feedback I would receive from the congregants. They liked what they heard and shared personal stories on how the music and the liturgy would open something up in them. It’s when I decided to pursue the Cantorial stuff professionally.
And on my second to last year of studies I met the president of BCC by chance in Berlin, who encouraged me to send my resume to Los Angeles. Skype interviews and an invitation to LA followed and in 2010 I found myself living in West Hollywood.
As for my parents – I know they’re happy that I’m happy. It wasn’t an easy journey for me figuring out my strengths and passions, but I’m very glad I came thus far.
3. You are openly gay and you are a major musical force for the world’s first GLBT synagogue. Was your sexuality accepted in Germany? How are GLBT treated there?
It’s sweet that you see me as a musical force, but I for myself see myself as a constant student – there’s still a lot for me to learn. I was mostly out in Germany, and living in Berlin makes it a bit easier. As far as my experience goes, it’s easy for GLBT to live out and proud in Berlin.
4. You arrived here in 2009 and I know your English was limited according to what I’ve read but one would never know it. You speak several languages but…in my own experience LA is a tough place to move to. Everyone warned me the first year is the hardest. Did you find this to be true?
Oh yes. I spent the first three months in LA crying every day and writing sad songs. My arrival to town was paired with a rather traumatic break-up, which didn’t really make things any better. I literally felt lost both in space, as well as in time – whenever I wanted to reach out to my friends and family on the other side of the ocean they would be asleep according to their time-zone. It was tough to settle in. When I most recently came back from Berlin, after touring some of the country with a bunch of American Cantors, I had a sense of acceptance and of coming home for the very first time – Acceptance for all the good and bad things that make LA different from any city that I’ve lived in before. I’ve been writing some happy songs since then!
5. Getting back to music…will some of your collaborators who’ve performed with you at BCC be part of the new album and what can we expect from it?
Yes, there will be some collaborators who’ve recently shared the Bimah with me, on the album as well. With the help of the sample technology (and hopefully the right license) I hope to duet with a singer, who recently passed away and whose influence on BCC and beyond is very strong.
What I hope to achieve is to present classic cantorial pieces in a slightly different sound. I have all kinds of ideas in my head, vocoders and auto-tuners included. Right now Josh Friedman and I are experimenting on various things until we get it right. Since at BCC I sing so many different styles, I’m going to try and give an example for each of them on the album. The common thing to those sounds is that they’ve all been performed at BCC over the years.
6. If you could organize a dinner party with any six musicians and/or singers dead or alive, who would you invite and what would you make for the meal?
Hmm, that’s a toughie. In no particular order:
1. Debbie Friedman
2. Kylie Minogue
3. Pyotr Tchaikovsky
4. Moshe Ganchoff
5. Faith Steinsnyder
6. Gerald Cohen
I can do a really good salmon lasagna and Tiramisu! Ask my classmates from Architecture/Cantorial school!
7. What music do you enjoy listening to these days?
I most recently fell in love with Frank Ocean’s debut album. Getting ready for my own album, I listened to a lot of cantorial stuff from the early 20th century and late 19th century. Various styles and voices, but all pretty high on the goosebumps-factor. Some of these pieces are just so intense that I needed to take occasional breaks in-between the listening periods – I listened to Cantor Mordechai Hershman, Cantor Alberto Mizrahi, Cantor Zavel Kwartin and many many more…
And then there’s my playlist, that i like to call “jogging playlist” filled with all kinds of electronic music and remixes – saint etienne’s most recent album shows up there a lot!
8. Do you remember a few years ago it was revealed that the CIA was using music to torture prisoners at Guantanamo Bay? Do you think music hurts or heals?
Music brings out all kinds of emotions. And I think feeling is principally a healthy thing. So, yeah, music has definitely the capacity to heal.
9. I must ask you about your Purim concert and how comfortable, not to mention gorgeous you look dressed as a woman. Is this a facet of performance we can look forward to seeing again?
Well, thank you! Yes, Alatta Arbeit is planning her comeback.
10. And finally, if you could have studied at the feet of any musical master who would it have been and why?
There are so many amazing people out there, who are a vessel of tradition and knowledge to whom I have the most deepest respect. Especially in nowadays Cantorial field the challenge lies in combining so many styles and repertoires that I really find it difficult to name one person. I’m grateful for being surrounded by such knowledgeable colleagues in LA from whom I keep learning and being inspired.
Thanks AJ for having me!!
Please support Cantor Juval’s quest to make his music global by donating here: http://www.indiegogo.com/p/172952
You can find his videos on Youtube here: http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=juval+porat&oq=juval+porat&gs_l=youtube.3…2345.6814.0.74188.8.131.52.0.0.0.353.2209.0j7j3j1.11.0…0.0…1ac.iFJPdnu_7hA
and here: http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=betchchayimchadashim&oq=betchchayimchadashim&