Rock ‘Hazzan’ Hillel Tigay Shines Light on Progressive L.A. Synagogue Where Steven Spielberg, Eric Garcetti Are Members

Roy Trakin
·7-min read

Rabbi Sharon Brous, the charismatic spiritual leader and founder of the trendy, progressive IKAR congregation — whose members include both Steven Spielberg and Mayor Eric Garcetti — remembers the first time she heard Hillel Tigay perform his song “Alive” during Rosh Hashana services at the Los Angeles temple.

“I was completely floored,” she says of the tune, which shares the singalong spiritual vibe of Arcade Fire. “Something happened in the room that I never experienced before. People were levitating off the ground. We were so deeply moved by it, but people are equally affected by the song in other contexts as well.”

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The track is part of Tigay’s solo secular debut, “Palms Station” — named in part for his West L.A. home — after releasing a pair of more religious-themed works, a two-volume set dubbed “Judeo.” Tigay, who goes by the title Hazzan/Music Director for IKAR because he’s never been classically trained as a cantor, is the son of a Rabbi and biblical scholar who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, where Tigay is also an alum. Raised on a combination of the Bible and the Beatles, Tigay temporarily put his Jewish roots on the back burner and moved to L.A. in hopes of becoming a rock star, a latter-day twist on “The Jazz Singer.”

Recorded at his home studio with his two daughters serving as back-up singers — Mila, 20, and Eden, 17 — Tigay says, “Spirituality and music are two sides of the same coin. Music is a fast-tracked way to getting to your own alternative universe, with its visceral way of bringing life to the words. It encourages that trance-like state which makes us susceptible to a higher power.”

Thanks to the long arm of Zoom during the pandemic, IKAR’s services are now seen and heard around the world, bringing Tigay’s music to thousands. The temple even hosted a virtual record release party for the new album.

IKAR’s progressive politics are what enticed veteran A&M, Virgin and Warner Bros. record executive Jeff Ayeroff, who came from a leftist Jewish cultural tradition — his father was born on a Utah Jewish commune/kibbutz — but had long since lapsed into religious indifference.

“I was taken by Rabbi Brous, but Hillel’s music was a large factor in me joining the temple,” says the bearded, long-haired Ayeroff, who looks like a Talmudic scholar even though as a kid, he says, “everyone thought I was Irish.”

Along with fellow congregation member Michael Rosenblatt — the son of former Geffen Records President Eddie, and an A&R executive in his own right for Sire and MCA, among others — Ayeroff has been serving as Tigay’s “consigliere” for his first two Judeo releases and now “Palms Station.”

“When I first heard ‘Alive,’ the guy sitting behind me said, ‘Oh yeah, this is Hillel’s hit.’ The song has a very deep meaning for the congregation. But I feel it could easily travel well beyond the synagogue.”

While “Alive” stands out on first listen, team Tigay has decided to go with the ‘60s British Invasion-meets-Tame Impala pop-rocker “I Don’t Know the Way to Your Heart,” whose hyper-romantic lyrics made it a sensible choice to pin to a Valentine’s Day release. Longtime promotion/marketing guru Michael Plen was brought in by Ayeroff to take the song to radio. The two, who worked together at Virgin, go back some 30 years to when they both had offices on the fabled A&M lot, with Plen doing promotion for I.R.S. Records, and Ayeroff a creative executive at A&M..

Nic Harcourt, the former KCRW host who now does mornings at KCSN in Northridge, played the song as his Fresh Squeezed Track of the Day, comparing it to The Church’s “Under the Milky Way.”

“It just sounded like something I would play,” says Harcourt, while acknowledging the influence of trusted colleagues Plen, Ayeroff and Rosenblatt. “I’m a sucker for acoustic and jangling guitars. If I hear something I like, I’ll play it on the radio.”

Receiving spins on formats from Triple A/Non Comm KSCR to influential alternative station 91X in San Diego (where Tim Pyles recently played it on his Sunday night new music show), “I Don’t Know the Way to Your Heart” needs to find just a few more true believers, says Plen. “I wouldn’t have taken on the project if I didn’t believe in the record.”

When he first arrived in L.A., Tigay was signed to A&M Records by the legendary A&R/producer and Beach Boys collaborator David Anderle, recording a full album before getting unceremoniously dropped when a new regime took over. Years later, as Dr. Dreidel to Andrew Rosenthal’s Ice Berg, the two formed the “wisecracking” heeb-hop duo M.O.T. (full disclosure: I was their manager, Meshugge Knight), releasing the little-heard gem “19.99” — with such near-hits as “Town Car,” “Viva Oy Vegas” and “Emmis G” — via Seymour Stein’s Sire Records in 1998.

By the time Rabbi Sharon Brous was looking for a musical director for the revolutionary congregation she founded in 2002, Tigay was ready to at least temporarily hang up his rock ‘n’ roll shoes and join IKAR’s clergy team in an official capacity by 2005.

“I was looking for someone who could take the emotion of a song that makes us cry over a break-up when we hear it on the radio and translate that into sacred space,” the Rabbi explains. “Hillel is an immense musical talent, but he’s also a rabbi’s kid, so he knows every piece of liturgy by heart. He has this unique ability to merge worlds, which is at the heart of IKAR’s congregation — outliers who have feet in multiple fields at once, so they are able to see things from a different perspective.”

“The music offers an eclectic mix of old-time religion and progressive thought,” adds Ayeroff. “There are elements of progressive, reform politics and conservative Jewish theology in the congregation which are reflected in Hillel’s songs.”

IKAR’s temple, located on the campus of Shalhevet High School at Fairfax and Olympic, has acquired land on La Cienega Blvd. to erect a new facility. At least part of that growth is due to the congregation’s embrace of music in the service, mixing Tigay’s original music with covers of Bob Dylan, U2 and Bob Marley. The congregation itself seats in concentric circles with the principals in the middle, so that the voices-and-percussion sound (no musical instruments are allowed on Shabbat) radiates as if from a central core, a dynamic drum circle.

“I don’t make a distinction between religious and secular music,” insists Rabbi Brous. “Does it make me feel something? Does it make me cry, or dance, or feel connected to a deeper truth I couldn’t articulate before? Does it connect me with other humans and God? Praying on Yom Kippur with 3,000 other people is much like being at a rock concert, a wave of humanity moved by music. Our goal is much the same. … to connect people to each other, to the tradition, and the Holy One.”

Tigay’s musical goals reflect that outreach. “I want to elevate people to feel better, more optimistic, that their souls have been cleansed to give hope,” he says. “I’m not selling religion, just the feeling you get when you juxtapose it with music and see how they bleed into one another. The ancients were keenly aware that song had a singular power to bring the presence of God into their midst.”

“Music is the door for many people who are skeptical and disconnected to Judaism,” adds Rabbi Brous. “Songs can’t do all the work, but they can start things off… The rest is about community, social responsibility, building a just and loving society. But music is the thread that runs through it all. … It’s at the heart of so much of what we do.”

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