Almost 80 years ago, Al Jolson captivated movie audiences with "The Jazz Singer," a semi-autobiographical tale of a young singer who forsakes a career as a cantor to make it on Broadway. These days Jolson's story has undergone an unlikely rewrite in Las Vegas — where three of the city's largest synagogues boast cantors who left careers on the stage to become men of the un-sequined cloth.
The cantor at Temple Beth Sholom gave up his gig as Sparky in the Flamingo Hotel's production of "Forever Plaid" to begin studying Hebrew prayer. Congregation Ner Tamid's singing talent came by way of "Jubilee!" a burlesque revue that also served as the vocal training ground for the current rabbi/cantor at nearby Adat Ami.
For each of these men, the shift in careers also meant a drastic change in lifestyle, as curtain calls went from 10 p.m. to 10 a.m. and their personal lives joined their performances as subjects for review by audiences. Still, all three willingly made the spiritual jump.
"Now when I sing, the emotions are real as opposed to playing at them on the stage," said Daniel Friedman, the one-time Sparky, in an interview at Beth Sholom, the city's largest and most prestigious synagogue. The temple counts Vegas's mayor, Oscar Goodman, among its members.
Las Vegas is not known as a city that breeds spiritual redemption; the casinos and burlesque shows generally push people in the opposite direction, and the rate of Jewish affiliation is among the lowest in the country. But every nightclub performer needs a second act, and in an increasingly religious America, liturgical music provides an attractive option. Another of Friedman's cast members in "Forever Plaid" made the jump to become minister of Vegas's Community Lutheran Church.
If the three anti-Jazz Singers in Vegas ended up in different places than Jolson's character, Jakie Rabinowitz, they also started in very different worlds than the iconic protagonist, who was thrown out of the house for his interest in jazz music and in show tunes. Largely because of the work of such Jewish performers as Jolson, Eddie Cantor and Sophie Tucker, popular singing was seen as part of the Jewish tradition by the time Friedman and his fellow cantors were growing up. Friedman's rabbi, for instance, was the child of vaudeville performers, and each year Friedman produced a musical with the synagogue youth group. This rabbi attended every one of his performances — except "Godspell," a Broadway take on the life of Jesus.
"I always looked at acting and singing as sort of a spiritual pursuit," said Friedman as he sat in his office, which has posters of "Les Misérables" and "Cats" that are signed by the his castmates.
"Telling a good story was about ultimately uplifting people and taking people away from their mundane existence for one or two hours," Friedman added.
The rabbi at Sin City's Adat Ami, Gary Golbart, grew up in an Orthodox family that supported his urge to perform — in any capacity. He won a gymnastics scholarship to Southern Illinois University, where he also studied voice and theater.
He first came to Vegas on a road trip with his gymnastics teammates. On a lark, he auditioned for the famed Parisian-styled burlesque show "Folies Bergere" and landed a spot as an "acro-dancer," performing a high-bar act and singing. Golbart quickly climbed the rungs of show business, first becoming the master of ceremonies at the " Folies" and then joining The Volantes, a top Vegas novelty act that subbed for the likes of Siegfried & Roy. Golbart even learned to ride a unicycle. The show toured the states before being integrated with "Jubilee!"
It was at this point that Golbart met Philip Goldstein, now the cantorial soloist at the Reform Congregation Ner Tamid. Back in 1983, Goldstein was the lead male vocalist in "Jubilee!" which put him at the center of the flower-bedecked women who filled out Don Arden's famous stair-stepping, hat-tipping production.
"I got to wear some real elaborate costumes," Goldstein said wistfully.
As for Goldbart, the content of the shows began to bother him. "The aspect of the skimpy outfits, I wouldn't have chosen," he said. And the hours made it difficult to meet his goal of following an Orthodox lifestyle. In 1983 he moved to Israel to escape, but was soon lured back to become the entertainment director at the Stardust Hotel. Golbart took the job on the condition that he would not have to work on the Jewish Sabbath. Soon enough he was leading services on his day off.
In fact, the many non-Jewish distractions of Vegas have given the Jewish leadership as many headaches as it has cantors. Communal insiders say that synagogues have struggled to attract rabbis who wanted to come to the city for the right reasons, and clergy turnover has been high. But Friedman says it was partially the distractions of Sin City that drew him to religious work here.
"I stayed because I realize there are a lot of people seeking connection here," he said. "The city needs balance."
Friedman took some time in coming to this understanding. After studying theater at the University of California, Los Angeles, he landed a spot in the first national tour of "Les Misérables" and then in the original Broadway production of "Forever Plaid," a nostalgic take on the birth of rock 'n' roll. When he was on the road, Friedman would sneak into synagogue Saturday mornings to listen to the cantors, but he kept up his seven nights of work.
He got a glimpse of his future when Dudu Fisher, an observant Israeli Jewish singer, joined him in the national tour of "Les Misérables." Producers allowed Fisher to sit out Friday-night and Saturday-matinee performances.
"I was blown away," Friedman said. "It was the first time I met someone who didn't compromise his values as a Jew."
A few years later, while playing Gus: The Theatre Cat in the New York production of "Cats," Friedman started taking his own religious stands. He wore a yarmulke offstage and began eating kosher food. Friedman did have one rocky moment on his road to religious observance when representatives from The Kabbalah Centre, with which he had been briefly aligned, became critical of his increasing involvement with Beth Sholom, a Conservative congregation.
Friedman broke from the famed Jewish mysticism center and joined Beth Sholom as a full-time cantor. Soon after, he was called in for a fortuitous gig: singing at a funeral for the mother of casino magnate Steve Wynn. Today, Friedman is married to Wynn's daughter; the couple recently had twins.
He has not left the spotlight behind completely. Last year, he did a one-night revival of "Forever Plaid" — a benefit for Beth Sholom. This November he's scheduled to perform a collection of songs by Harold Arlen, a Broadway songwriter who was also the son of a cantor.
"There's something magical about putting a show together," Friedman said. "It's a different kind of feeling of fulfillment. One's more personal. This is much more altruistic. But I feel so privileged to even be considered a cantor — a part of this long line of thousands of years of cantoring."