Back to his roots: Eitan Kantor becomes artist-in-residence at B’nai Amoona


Eitan Kantor

Eitan Kantor did not let a local music school’s denial keep him from playing the shofar or pursuing Jewish music.

When he was about 7 years old, Kantor was already part of the shofar band at Congregation B’nai Amoona and realized that the other shofar players were better than him and that most of them played the trumpet.

He asked his parents for trumpet lessons, so they took him to a music school, where staff told them that Kantor was too young for the instrument and should instead play the violin.

While Kantor continued to blow the shofar and improve his breath support, the violin became “one of the big loves of my life,” he said.

Now 29, he’s preparing to return to where his connection to Jewish music began to serve as B’nai Amoona’s artist-in-residence. 

“B’nai Amoona already has an amazing, rich music tradition and environment, and my role is to come in and build on the work that the cantor and lay leaders have done to build a singing community,” Kantor said.

In addition to his experience at B’nai Amoona, Kantor continued to develop his love for Jewish music at Camp Ramah in Wisconsin. 

“The most powerful singing time for me there was on Saturday afternoons … where there were no instruments and it was just this powerful, big group of people of singing slow songs with harmonies and lots of passion,” Kantor said. 

On the violin, Kantor focused on classical music until college at Indiana University, when he started playing fiddle in an old-time music band. He also sang in a Jewish acapella group called Hooshir. 

“That was a huge part of my college experience,” he said. “We would tour around the country and drive to New York and to Florida.”

After earning a master’s degree from IU in public administration, Kantor moved to Boulder, Colo., where he formed Hadgaba, a klezmer fusion band. He also worked for the city in human rights law and wage law enforcement and investigated complaints of discrimination and wage theft. 

“Even though I was working full time for the local government there, it felt like my other full time job was playing dance music with Hadgaba,” Kantor said. 

He continued to deepen his connection to the Jewish community and served as the music director of Congregation Bonai Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Boulder.

In 2019, his two siblings sent him an application for the Rising Song Institute, a Jewish music residency program in Philadelphia. He was one among seven fellows selected for the program, which started in August that year, and prepared participants to “cultivate grassroots musical movements that nurture Jewish spiritual life,” according to its website.

Kantor recalled that it helped him “develop rootedness and tradition in my music.”

But about two-thirds of the way through the nine-month residency, the COVID-19 pandemic shut down normal life and the fellows instead started practicing online musical connection techniques.

“We would practice things on Zoom, give each other feedback and lead programs for the community on Zoom,” Kantor said.

Then in April, an aunt whom he was close to, Deborah Kantor Nagler, died from the virus. Kantor decided that he wanted to be closer to his family, so he moved back to St. Louis.

Before Passover, he recorded a song as a fundraiser for the Jewish Federation of St. Louis COVID-19 Community Response Fund. Titled “Sha’arei Dim’ah” the song includes lyrics from the Babylonian Talmud: “Although the gates of prayer were locked, the gates of tears were not locked.”

As Kantor explained in a Facebook post for the video:  

“As I clean out my pantry for Passover, I feel fortunate to have plenty of food to clean out. And with the arrival of COVID vaccines, I feel hope for an unlocking, an eventual transition from this time of narrowness into more expansiveness.

“But as I clean out the pantry, I also am aware that in this year of so many tears, not everyone is able to look into their pantry and see abundance.”

Kantor also produced 15 virtual choir videos for two of the organizations that shaped him: Camp Ramah (this time the one in the Berkshires in New York) and B’nai Amoona.

“It’s been a really sweet way to keep the healing and connective power of music going through this time of physical separation,” said Kantor, who is working for the summer at the Berkshires Ramah as the head song leader. “I have to give credit to [B’nai Amoona] Cantor Sharon Nathanson for all of her artistic vision in planning these choir videos.”

Kantor is scheduled to start work at B’nai Amoona after the High Holidays.

He said his goals are to “bring in new melodies, bring in some very old melodies, to enhance systems that make people of all identities feel comfortable and welcome in their musical participation, and to record and edit albums that highlight some of the beautiful music that is being made these days at B’nai Amoona.”

Nathanson told B’nai Amoona members in a bulletin that she was looking forward to enhancing the congregation’s musical experiences with Kantor, now that they are finally able to gather in person again.

“When I found out [Eitan] would be staying in St. Louis one more year, I jumped at the chance to bring his experience and menschlichkeit to our community,” Nathanson wrote.