Friday, June 5, 2020 -
Print Edition

Not your usual path to Jewish music — check out the kaleidoscopic Cantor Kaplan

Cantor Richard KaplanWhen Richard Kaplan thinks back to his childhood, he remembers wonderful musical gatherings where his family sang Yiddish and Hebrew songs, musical theater tunes, jazz standards, and musical comedy numbers.

Kaplan, the son of an Orthodox-reared father who loved to daven (chant prayers) and a mother who sang Yiddish songs and passionately aspired to become a jazz singer, said he was influenced both by his parents’ “deep emotion and intentionality” when singing and praying, as well as by the “marvelous” Yiddish vocalizing of his Warsaw-born grandfather, who lost many relatives during the Holocaust.

“(My grandfather) had that Eastern European, bittersweet, yet lilting, positive and twinkle-in-your-eye Yiddish tam (flavor),” says Kaplan, 62.

“He possessed a spiritual aesthetic and philosophical attitude that allowed him to embody a tremendous sweetness in the midst of tragedy and tsuris (troubles). That’s the paradox and balancing act we’re all living with, and when it’s expressed lovingly through music, it’s extremely touching.”

Kaplan, a cantor as well as an internationally known singer, songwriter and pianist specializing in Jewish world sacred music, will lead Friday night and Saturday morning services at Bonai Shalom, a conservative synagogue in Boulder  Jan. 7 and 8.

Kaplan, who serves as cantor at Temple Beth Abraham in Oakland, Calif., tours nationally and internationally giving Jewish World Sacred Music workshops. His music was also featured on an episode of Fox Network’s television series, “House M.D.”

Kaplan has recorded three albums dedicated to Jewish traditions from throughout the Diaspora, Tuning The Soul (1999), Life of the Worlds (2003), and The Hidden One: Jewish Mystical Songs (2009), all of which have sold in the thousands, he said.

He is also an emeritus member of the spiritual advisory council the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, where in 2000 he received his cantorial certification from Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Jewish Renewal movement and a resident of Boulder.

Kaplan says he longed for a spiritual connection from a very young age.

“I had a neshama (soul) that really wanted deep spirituality,” Kaplan says.

But the level of spirituality at his family’s Reform congregation in Los Angeles didn’t resonate with him, and much to his father’s sadness, he chose not to have a Bar Mitzvah.

For several decades Kaplan pursued “the music business,” originally by singing in pop bands. He began singing professionally at age 14, fronting R&B bands in Los Angeles, and by age 19, he joined “The Morning of the World,” a vocal ensemble specializing in ethnic-based music; the group was later signed by the Elektra and A&M record labels.  During that time, he immersed himself in Zen Buddhism, Siddha Yoga and Sufism.

After graduating high school, Kaplan studied ethnomusicology at UCLA where, as part of his studies, he studied worldwide spiritual music. Afterwards, he completed a master’s degree in musicology from University of California, Berkeley.  At Berkeley, Kaplan studied early music of the church, and he said he felt connected to Gregorian chants.

Subsequently he worked as a jazz pianist in Manhattan and after that moved back to the west coast where he taught “Sacred Music of the World” courses at several colleges and universities.

Kaplan’s turning point came in his early 30s when a friend introduced him to the works of the Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, and to the Zohar, the foundational work in the literature of Jewish mystical thought known as Kabbalah.

Kaplan says he then realized that Judaism offered teachings as similar and profound as the Zen Buddhism, Sufism, Siddha Yoga and the other world religions he had studied.

“I started to see that what I had really been looking for was Jewish mysticism and Jewish spirituality, and I finally found the footsteps of that path,” he explains.

As he entered his late 30’s, he became involved in the Jewish Renewal scene at Berkeley and he became a ba’al teshuvah (a master of returning, one who has returned to G-d).

At that point he started learning how to to daven, and he learned Hebrew. He eventually studied to become a cantor, and in 1997, he was appointed cantor at Temple Beth Abraham. Then, at the age of 50, he became a Bar Mitzvah.

“As I look back, that was a great gift to immerse in the worlds’ spiritual systems,” Kaplan recalls.

“For a long time I was a universalist and for the last 15 or 20 years I pretty much have gone into Judaism and Jewish mysticism. Now I am starting to think more global again because we need to more identify with ourselves as human beings first.”

Today Kaplan focuses on Jewish music, although his song lyrics range from ancient sacred poetry to contemporary themes of ecology, peace-making and social justice, often drawing from other spiritual-musical traditions including Sufi, African-American Gospel, and those of India.

His Jewish world music includes songs from Ashkenazic, Mizrachi, and Sephardic traditions, as well as original pieces, often based on ancient melodies and texts.

“It’s clear to me now that I was born to be a sacred singer,” he says.

One can hear samples of Kaplan’s music on his website.

Copyright © 2010 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Leave a Reply


Dear valued reader,

We are deeply appreciative of the support shown by you during these difficult times — through new subscriptions, continued advertisement or your positive notes and comments.

The Intermountain Jewish News has been working hard to cover the impact of COVID-19 in a relevant and meaningful way.

Like other small businesses and media companies, the IJN is being impacted in an unprecedented way by effects of the coronavirus.

Please subscribe today or purchase a gift subscription — an online gift is social distancing.

As a thank you for your new subscription, we will send you (or your gift recipient) a copy of The Unexpected Road, Rabbi Hillel Goldberg’s collection of stories of inspirational lives encountered as a journalist, scholar and student. Simply enter the coupon code BOOK at the top of the page when you check out.

If you’re already a subscriber, you can also donate to the IJN to support our mission of providing quality and comprehensive journalism to the Colorado Jewish community.