Photos: Hazzan Sharon Nathanson’s ‘Sweet 16+’

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Jordan Palmer and Bill Motchan

Hazzan Sharon Nathanson, backed by a band, was the featured performer at Congregation B’nai Amoona on Sunday, November 13 to celebrate her 16th year serving the congregation.

The concert was billed as Cantor Sharon Nathanson’s Sweet 16+ concert because she celebrated 16 years in March 2020. The COVID-delayed concert included songs from Broadway (“Dear Even Hansen” and “A Chorus Line”) and Yiddish operas.

Hazzan Sharon Nathanson’s story of musical beshert

When asked to describe the feeling he gets listening to Hazzan Sharon Nathanson sing from the bimah, Congregation B’nai Amoona President Jeff Singer said, “Her voice lifts me up and drowns out all the negative noises in my head.”

Nathanson’s soaring voice has echoed inside B’nai Amoona’s sanctuary for decades, and her journey to the bimah is nothing short of musical beshert.

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Journey to the Bimah

“Growing up my life was filled with shul and music, so I guess living the life that I’m living now isn’t much of a surprise,” said Nathanson, who is getting ready to celebrate her “Sweet 16+” at B’nai Amoona.

As a child, Nathanson grew up inspired by the voice of B’nai Amoona’s Hazzan Leon Lissek. In 1982, as her brother Louis prepared for his bar mitzvah, 7-year-old Sharon was offered a chance to participate in the service, but Lissek wanted to hear young her sing before he would allow her to join the service.

She nailed it.

“He approved. So I got up on the bimah to sing ‘Ein Keiloheinu’ and I guess I just never left,” said Nathanson.

Growing up with music

Growing up in what she describes as a “musical family,” Nathanson says singing always played a central part of her life. Even as a young girl, Lissek recognized something special in young Sharon’s talent.

“When I was a kid, Hazzan Lissek kept telling me I should be a cantor,” Nathanson recalled. “But he was such a big guy with this amazing big voice. I thought, ‘How can I be Hazzan Lissek?’ He really helped me to see that I could do this, that this was my calling.”

After her own bat mitzvah, Lissek invited the now 14-year-old Nathanson to become a b’nai mitzvah tutor as well as a chance to join the B’nai Amoona choir.

“I felt that this was something I could do for my community. I felt an obligation to give something back and this is what I could give,” said Nathanson.

Hazzan Lissek retired in 1998 and was succeeded by Cantor Robert Lieberman who served B’nai Amoona till 2003. That year Nathanson began serving as a cantorial soloist and acting cantor, touching congregants’ lives in countless ways through her voice and compassionate presence. She earned her cantorial certification in a multi-year program through the Cantors Assembly after starting full-time at B’nai Amoona. Over the years she has performed with members of the St. Louis Symphony at Powell Hall and at the Innsbrook Institute Summer Music Festival.

In January 2013, Congregation B’nai Amoona officially designated Nathanson as a Hazzan.

Hazzan Nathanson

For Nathanson, music and Judaism are interwoven. Music enters our hearts in a way that speaking sometimes cannot.

“There are many entry points into Jewish communal life. For many people, their entry point is music,” said Nathanson. “I hope that I can be an accessible entry point into Jewish life, providing opportunities for people to connect to their Judaism and to each other through music.”

As Hazzan, Nathanson helps connect people. She teaches them to chant Torah or to lead services or learn blessings for home and daily living, empowering people in their own Judaism and deepening their prayer experiences.

“I am a guide during the highest and lowest points in people’s lives. Helping people to access the incredible wisdom of our ancient tradition is incredibly meaningful,” said Nathanson. “I get to make music with people of all ages. I get to teach and perform and counsel. I get to be part of people’s first moments of Jewish life. There is always more one can do and endless opportunities for growth.”