Dudu Fisher – Never on a Friday!
ECA Director Alex Klein talks to Cantorial and Broadway Superstar Dudu Fisher
First of the ECA series:
‘The Voice of the Cantor’:
3 March 2021
Dudu Fisher is the son of a Holocaust survivor from Poland. His mother has a great voice and still sings at 89. He is a man who counts the Pope and Presidents Obama and Clinton among those he’s met and entertained.
This modest and humble superstar of the Bimah and the Stage, opened the European Cantors Association’s ‘Voice of the Cantor’ series on Wednesday, 3 March 2021. This opening event was held in association with the Cantors Assembly of America. 600 people tuned in online to hear him being interviewed by his friend, respected UK impresario and director of the European Cantors Association, Alex Klein.
Reminiscing about how it all started, Fisher (69) confided that after army service in the IDF, he had been planning to become a dentist. However, after singing at a friend’s wedding he was approached, out of the blue, by a guest with an invitation to lead a synagogue service in Winnipeg for the High Holydays!
Although he had grown up in a profoundly orthodox and musical family, this has not crossed his mind. The offer of $5000 however to this newly demobbed young man however, clinched the deal, and from that moment on, his path was set. Reflecting that “everything in life, happens – B’shert”, he showed us how he had not sought positions – it was others who sought him out.
Winnipeg, Johannesburg, Tel Aviv
Dudu looked for a teacher to explain to him what was needed. He approached the renowned Cantor Shlomo Ravitz and with this superb tutoring and the experience in Winnipeg, on his return to Israel, he became the cantor at the Tel Aviv Great Synagogue in Allenby Street.
This happened because the previous incumbent had been fired for not saying a brachah before Hallel on Yom Ha’atzma’ut. This was 1973 when he was just 22 years old.
Dudu was then invited to Johannesburg as the Cantor of prestigious Berea Synagogue, succeeding the famous Chazan Shlomo Mandel. He learned so much about singing from his association with Mandel, including how to sing Yiddish songs. But three years later, after his contract ended, he did not want to stay in apartheid South Africa, and returned to Israel.
What qualifications does a cantor need?
Alex Klein asked him how he came to those jobs? What qualification did he need to show them for instance? Dudu threw up his hands. ‘Shtus’. He said you could bring certificates of doctorates from ten Universities, but that cuts no ice. The implied that community wants to look at you, to hear how you sing and to notice if you are a mench. He admitted that he had just one audition piece Av Harachamim and that was all he ever needed for all the cantorial jobs he ever had. It was how your voice sounded and how you behaved at the audition which got you the job.
In those days there were many synagogues in Tel Aviv, all with a Cantor. Dudu lamented the state of cantors in Israel today. In Tel Aviv he said, there was now not one synagogue with a cantor.
What do congregations want today?
Dudu’s view is that unlike the immediate post-Holocaust era, when there were no other forms of entertainment, today’s congregations don’t have the patience to listen to a chazzan oy-oyying on lengthy pieces.
What congregations need today, he said, was congregational singing. People love to sing along. Successful cantors today were those who can promote and lead this approach in their synagogues. Those who can introduce more popular melodies into the Nusach of the Tefillah – these people will succeed. Of course, agreed Dudu, some prayers – like Kol Nidre and Hineni – cannot and should not be changed.
This is also why Dudu felt Shlomo Carlebach’s music is so popular – “the songs come from the Neshama”. Everyone can sing it, and this is the way cantors communicate in shul. People who come to shul now don’t want to come to the concert hall: they want to daven from their souls. Congregational singing inspires that, he said.
Dudu argued that many people who come to shul – often once or twice a year - are not religious. They don’t understand the words but can identify and be inspired by some music they know and love from their secular lives.
What about nusach?
Dudu said that, unfortunately, he feels Nusach is no longer relevant today. He is sad when he goes to synagogues and hears the Nusach for Yomtov on Shabbat: because someone has said “I know how to pray”…and because there is no-one who knows, or able to take control. “And yet they have no idea what to sing or how to sing – and we’re losing it”.
Dudu did not see this could be stopped, as long as shuls don’t have the money or patience to employ a cantor. “And the older people who do know the correct way don’t have the koyach to argue with the boards of management”.
How did you get from the bimah to the stage?
“I love stage musicals and when I heard that an Israeli company was putting on Les Mis – I rushed to audition. I was so pleased to get the lead role of Jean Valjean and loved every minute of this.
It so happened that the producer of the show in London invited several Jean Valjeans from productions around the world to appear in a Royal Command performance at the Royal Albert Hall – and I was one of the chosen”.
After that Cameron was so impressed that he asked Dudu to come and play the role on Broadway!
This created a real conflict in Dudu’s mind. What an opportunity. But as a frum man, he was not able to perform on a Friday or Saturday. Cameron was not sure he could accommodate that. So, Dudu’s mother suggested Dudu consult with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. (a picture of whom was hanging behind him in the interview).
The Rebbe told him to be strong – not to be shy about being Jewish and explain the situation to Cameron – who agreed, against all odds, to give him a unique contract that allowed him not to perform on Shabbat or Jewish holidays. (He also confirmed that his weekend replacement had on his dressing room door ‘Dudu Fisher’s Shabbes Goy.) The same applied when he appeared in Les Miserables in London’s West End. “I’m not some big Tzaddik, but for me the Shabbos was very important – the Shabbos kept us, more than we kept the Shabbos” he reminded us.
What advice did Dudu have for cantors today?
Dudu said today it’s very, very difficult - and a lot of hard work. And Covid had made it even more difficult. He said he had been working in care homes and gated communities for the elderly over the pandemic, reflecting that for older people trapped in their communities it was a mitzvah, and important to lift people’s spirits during this difficult time.
Zoom shows were actually giving him great pleasure – still in a studio, but with a virtual worldwide audience.
He also conceded that with shuls closed during the pandemic he had davened the last High Holydays at home. This had given him more opportunity to actually look at the words. Citing from the high holyday Avinu Malkeinu liturgy אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ מְנַע מַגֵּפָה מִנַּחֲלָתֶךָ : Our Father, our King, has prevented a plague from your inheritance - he had never considered what “plague” had meant before; now in Covid this took on new meaning and suddenly he was paying attention to words in a new way and davening for himself, not others.
Were there still things on his ‘bucket list’?
Despite being on the precipice of septuagenarianism, Dudu said there were many things he still wanted to do, G-d willing.
He is writing a script for a film and also has a line of 19 children’s DVDs, with new ones still in production, of Jewish culture for religious and non-religious children.
Originally he thought this would be a joke but these “Dudu Fisher’s kindergarten” videos (now streameable online) are helping educate in a new way for children who might not otherwise have the opportunity. It was as important as being on Broadway for him.
In closing, Dudu reflected on the March of the Living trips to Poland that he had supported in person for many years. To experience this was the responsibility of every Jew – to understand how difficult the Holocaust had been.
And the name Dudu? It came from a ballad his grandmother used to sing to him; he kept it. “Even though it’s not great in America, you’ll remember the name even if you don’t remember the singing”!
ECA is delighted to have had such a wonderful opening session, and to have shared it with 600 people via the platform of the Cantors Assembly in the USA.
See the full programme of The Voice of the Cantor (VOC)