Cantor Shira Lissek returns to STL for May concert

Cantor Shira Lissek

By Eric Berger, Special to the Jewish Light

When Cantor Shira Lissek performs in the main sanctuary at Congregation B’nai Amoona, the acoustics will likely be familiar to her. 

That’s where she sang in the choir as a teenager and where her father, Leon Lissek, spent 30 years as the hazzan.

If concert attendees are expecting to hear something familiar — a female version of Leon Lissek — however, they might be surprised. In fact, Lissek said imitating her father’s style — and then diverting from it — is at “the root of my journey as a cantor.”

She now serves as associate cantor at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York and is preparing to move to Charlotte, N.C., to serve as cantor at Temple Israel, a Conservative synagogue. Lissek has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from the Indiana University School of Music and the Manhattan School of Music, according to her website. She also performed as Mimi in “La Bohème”  at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia and as Donna Elvira in “Don Giovanni” at the Seattle Opera. She recently released a solo album, “Ani Maamin, I Believe: A Voice For Humanity.”

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In advance of her concert on May 6, Lissek talked with the Jewish Light about what she learned from her father, how they are different and what it’s like to come back to St. Louis.

Her responses have been edited for space and clarity.

What made you want to become a cantor?

There was always music in our house — everything from the Israel Song Festival to hazzanut [cantorial music] to musical theater, the American songbook, opera. My father loved to blast all of that. I definitely had all the sounds in my ears from a very early age, and then our whole family ended up being in the choir at B’nai Amoona, and that’s how I learned how to do  High Holidays because I knew all the choir music. When I went away to college at 17, I ended up volunteering to lead High Holiday services. I got my first professional High Holidays job when I was 19 and the rest is history.

I didn’t really decide to become a cantor until later on but I definitely loved music and I definitely wanted to uplift people with my voice, but I didn’t realize that the synagogue was the environment that was best suited to me.

What did you learn from your dad?

I learned everything from my dad. I learned hazzanut. I learned practical skills. I learned prayer modes, and I learned a lot from just listening to him. Over the years, when I wasn’t working as a full-time cantor and would just sub for people over the High Holidays, he was sort of my walking dictionary of Jewish music. 

My mom really was also a mentor Jewishly. She had studied Tanach and was really a very learned Jewish educator.

Aside from the fact your father is a man and you’re a woman, how do your cantorial styles differ?

In my head, I heard my father’s voice and he had a very powerful, operatic voice, and he loved to sing full-volume all the time. And so when I was 19 years old at a community in Kansas City singing High Holidays, in my head were all these booming, operatic male voices, but what the congregation was hearing was the 19-year-old female voice. I just sort of imitated what I had heard all my life. It wasn’t until my late 20s and early 30s that I started to meet other female cantors and hear them and have other mentors. 

It’s been a long journey to find my own voice as a female cantor, but now I feel that when I daven, I no longer am imitating my mentors or the records that I heard, but that I am praying authentically from my own heart.

When did you decide that you wanted to focus more on cantorial rather than secular music?

I think because of my experiences in St. Louis and at B’nai Amoona and singing in the Jewish community, I had always wanted to inspire people with my voice, to uplift people, to heal people. When I went out into the secular world, I did love that because I am really ambitious, and I enjoy honing my craft, and I loved being on stage in opera productions, but I think what I missed in the secular world is the immediacy of the effect you can have on people in a synagogue. And I feel like within a community as a cantor, you are using music on a daily basis to really create transformative Jewish experiences.

What are you looking forward to about coming back to St. Louis?

I always enjoy coming back there. That’s where it all began. I started singing at B’nai Amoona when I was very little and those experiences shaped who I am as a performer and as a person. 

I came back for Songleader Boot Camp [a Jewish leadership training program] two years ago and there’s something about my B’nai Amoona family, that when I see people, their faces are home to me.