Student Spotlight with Deborah Zecher

Our Student Spotlight showcases Deborah Zecher, a rabbi, a mother and an avid Singnasium student. 

What is your performance background?

As one of those kids who spent my days singing along with cast albums of musicals, it was one of life’s great ironies that neither my high school nor college did musicals. Not until Ricky Ritzel’s Broadway in November 2019 was I in anything resembling a musical. (Thank you, Ricky!) 

With my love of music, people were surprised that I became a rabbi, not a cantor but my passion for music always percolated just beneath the surface of my rabbinic life. In 1995, I was invited to speak at a nearby congregation; instead, I created Broadway Bible where I told Bible stories with a show tune title. Here’s an example:  Noah is on the ark and his wife finds him outside, trying to escape the responsibility for all those animals for a few minutes.  “What are you doing?” she asks. “Oh, just ‘Singing in the Rain.’” Fractured Bible stories with a musical twist! 

That was followed by ten years doing Jewish-themed cabaret shows each summer. In 2005, I started taking a cabaret class at the local music school. I learned about the Yale Cabaret Conference, was accepted and spent twelve of the most challenging and rewarding days of my life there.  

I realized that the need to perform was becoming more compelling so I retired early in 2014 and moved to NYC to jump into the cabaret world with both feet and a whole heart. I attended open mics, started taking the Arrangement Experience and Summer Boot Camps with Lennie, as well as classes at the Juilliard Adult Division and the Kaufman Music Center. I was fortunate to be a Senior Fellow at the O’Neill Cabaret Center in 2017, another intense but fabulous experience.  

When Singnasium began, it became my cabaret address, not only for the classes I love, but also for the wonderful community of singers. In 2018, I presented my debut show called, ON PURPOSE, a musical memoir of my life as a rabbi, wife, mom and, now, cabaret singer. Doing that show filled my heart in ways I never imagined possible. And in 2019, I was so happy to be part of Four Women, Four Stories with Lynda Rodolitz, Helane Blumfield and Peggy Schwartz, as well as Meg Flather’s Cabaret Sisterhood.

What became clear as I began to explore this ‘second act’, was my desire to synthesize my love of cabaret with my lifelong passion for Judaism. I’ve loved traveling around the country as an artist-in-residence performing shows from my synagogue years, as well as ON PURPOSE.  

Last September, I created a cabaret fusion High Holiday service where I substituted thematically appropriate cabaret songs in place of some of the liturgy. Planning and leading that service for the cabaret community was a total labor of love, especially because I got to work with my son, Joshua, who is another one of my favorite musical collaborators. What the experiences of the last few years taught me was that I could bring my whole self to the stage, and I’m really grateful for every opportunity to sing.

How are you staying connected to your family and friends while staying at home?

My son, daughter-in-law and grandchild (cutest baby ever!) live in Jerusalem so we have a weekly WhatsApp visit and regular Zoom calls for our extended family. I’ve taken part in Zoom get-togethers with college and rabbinic friends. I can attend Zoom Shabbat services at my former synagogue in the Berkshires, as well as those all over the country. 

Being home has given me the chance to reconnect with people I hadn’t seen or talked to in a long time, a silver lining of this situation. And I’ve been happily connected with the Singnasium family as well, with a weekly Zoom visit with my Sing Your Story pals and others in my Singnasium world.

How are you staying creative? 

I’ve been working on a new show called, Jewish Caroling:  The Music of Carole King, Carole Bayer Sager and Carolyn Leigh, originally scheduled for early May but now postponed until mid-October (hopefully!). I’ve loved exploring the lives of these amazing women and their music. I work with Lennie Watts and Tracy Stark and they continue to inspire me with their talent, creativity and generosity. 

After a short hiatus, I’m back working on the show which fills me with joy.  I’m also working my way through a book on how to play from a fake book so that I can accompany myself a little better when I practice. I’m a terrible pianist, but I thought this might be more fun and more useful than just practicing scales. 

What’s the first thing you want to do once we can get out and about more?

First and foremost, I want to see my kids and hug them for about 10 hours! Then (and I know this might be a while) I want to walk from my UWS apartment to midtown and revel in the theatre district coming back to life. And if I can see my friends on stage at Don’t Tell Mama or one of the other clubs we love, even better!

I want to thank every front-line worker and first responder I encounter and ultimately, I want to advocate to make life better for those who helped us by their willingness to be out there during the pandemic.  

As a rabbi, any words of comfort for those feeling a little off while on lock down?

The wisdom of people’s shared life experience has been enormously comforting.  In particular, I am guided by those who remind me to take one day at a time, live in the present and acknowledge gratitude. It’s so crucial to be gentle with ourselves when we feel frustrated, sad or depressed and to acknowledge the legitimacy of those feelings. Social media can be both a blessing and a curse; it helps us to stay connected but it can also be intimidating. We’ve got to let go of the tendency to judge ourselves harshly when we see what others offer online and wonder why we’re not doing the same. Sometimes, our greatest accomplishment is simply living out each day as best we can.  

But since you add the caveat of my rabbinic background, I’ll frame my answer in the context of a Jewish text. One of the key components of the Passover seder is the retelling of the exodus from slavery. We tell the story over and over again because we are commanded to remember and to see ourselves as if we too had escaped from slavery. And that remembering must inform our day-to-day existence—to see our lives as a journey, to know that bondage and liberation take many forms and that both are part of our lives. We also realize we have a sacred responsibility to help others with their liberation. It’s about kindness, compassion and empathy for ourselves and for others.  

Another piece of the story resonates deeply for me.  When the Israelites left Egypt, they did so with almost no time to prepare for the journey, but the Torah is explicit that Miriam, the sister of Moses, packed her tambourine among her few possessions. In later commentaries, the sages ask why she would bother to bring a musical instrument at such a precarious time. As usual, they answer their own question. She brought her tambourine, they suggest, because she understood that music would be vital to their survival as the Israelites made their way through the desert with so much uncertainty and angst. Miriam knew that there would again be a time for music and celebration. The same is true for us. Music has the power to heal as we slowly and often painfully, make our way through these complex and challenging days. We will sing again and our music will carry us forward to days of celebration and joy!  

May 2020 - Deb Zecher

May 02, 2020 — Eve Eaton