Nelson began composing at the age of 6. Her style is influenced by classical and Broadway music as well as her upbringing with a grandmother with a grandmother who spoke Yiddish and mother who played the piano.
“All of that went into my ears and it came out with me creating my own sound,” she said. “My home was filled with not just the music of our culture. It was filled with Jewish books. My mother cooked Jewishly. My parents made it a very beautiful environment for me to grow up in.”
At Temple Beth Am in Pinecrest she accompanies herself on the piano when she sings during services. Aside from fulfilling her cantorial duties of directing the music life in the temple and singing at bar and bat mitzvahs, funerals and weddings, she also writes arrangements for younger members of the congregation who play the clarinet, the saxophone, the guitar and base.
“If you can get young people involved and find their niche, you have an opportunity to make their Judaism come to life,” said Nelson.
Singing from the heart
Inside a Homestead home with light purple walls, Millie Draizar’s fingers bounce on her piano and Eilat Schmalbach sings the Rosh Hashana prayer Avinu Malkeinu in a mezzo-soprano voice.
“When you sing you have to sing from the heart,” said Schmalbach, 59. “You have to be able to convey a message.”
For the past 16 years, she has been the cantorial soloist at Temple Hatikvah in Homestead. It all began after Hurricane Andrew, when a large part of the congregation moved away from South Florida as their homes were destroyed. The temple did not have a rabbi or a cantor – just lay people who led services as guests.
So Schmalbach took over.
“I became the leading person in speaking and in singing because I was the only one who could speak Hebrew,” she said.
Born in Israel, Schmalbach, who now lives in Redland, was never ordained a cantor but always sang in her synagogue’s choir.
She and Draizar usually rehearse only before a service. But that changes weeks before the High Holy Days.
“I’ve been here on Thursday. I am here today. And next week, we will have to meet more because it will be only one week from the High Holy Days,” she said.
Come the Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services, she will be clad in white as is traditional for cantors during those holidays. Schmalbach said the clothing completes an experience that appeals to many of the congregants’ senses: sight as there is a lot of white in the temple symbolizing purity, hearing as they listen to the prayer songs, and taste as it is traditional for the first meal during the High Holy Days to be apples with honey to ensure a sweet new year.
“They taste the difference. They hear it,” she said. “And they see it because everything is more white. More pure.”
She says that two qualities make a good cantor: the proper education and “personality.” The latter, she said, is what she uses to convey the message of the prayer songs that are sung in Hebrew.
“Most people do not understand Hebrew,” said Schmalbach. “But if you can convey through music, through your voice, then you’ve done your job.”
‘All ordained in a special way’
At an early morning weekday service, Rabbi and Cantor Marc Philippe reads and sings from the Torah, a tefillin wrapped around his left hand and forehead, and a talit draped over his back and shoulders. He faces the ark and at the end of the service he blows the shofar.