Getting to Know All About You: A Profile of Cantor Risa Wallach

Posted on September 16, 2020

[Editor’s note: We asked Cantor Wallach to answer some questions for us via email, so that our TBE family can get to know her better. This profile is largely based on her responses and reflections.]

 I grew up in western Massachusetts in the small town of Great Barrington. My family was mostly secular, celebrating Chanukah and Pesach at home. My father is a composer and professor of music, so I heard a lot of music growing up, classical and folk, as well as a lot of live performances. He started me on piano lessons at the age of five. My parents gave me albums by the Beatles, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Pete Seeger, Ella Fitzgerald, and I also loved Holly Near and George Winston’s piano music. Ella and Joni are some of my biggest inspirations.

As an undergraduate, I studied studio art and art history at Oberlin College, and received a master’s in social work from Smith College School for Social Work. I worked for the Visiting Nurses of San Francisco for eight years as a medical social worker. In that time, I visited people from many different cultures, classes, religions and ethnic backgrounds. I saw every neighborhood of the city, and learned a lot about its history from the people who had lived there for generations. I led services informally and taught religious school for several years while living in the Bay Area, and eventually applied to cantorial school at Hebrew College.

I became a cantor because I can feel the way that Jewish liturgical music is a bridge from past generations through a link of the spirit and the heart, a felt identity that resonates through ancient melodic patterns called nusach, and the new music that allows us to see ancient texts from new perspectives. Music has the potential to heal, and to go beyond words to a place of knowing and understanding that many people are seeking, even if they don’t realize it. It’s a place of feeling God in and around us that has the ability to take away our sense of separation and aloneness. I also knew that congregational work would allow me to use my social work skills to serve people through pastoral care, and that this would be a good match for my personality; I could impact the lives of many people by officiating lifecycles, and bring blessing to them and myself. Ultimately it is the calling that best matches who I am at my core and in my neshama (soul).

I’ve been guided by many wonderful mentors, and I’ve seen that music has an important role to play in ritual, celebration, personal milestones, Jewish education, and bringing the community together. To me, the role of the cantor is to carry forward the profound, multi-faceted teachings that I received from my instructors in cantorial school, to make sure these very old musical customs and practices never die and are conveyed to the larger community, and to bring the innovation and creativity needed for communities to evolve. We must ensure that future generations are given the depth and breadth of that knowledge, a love of Torah, and a love of the traditions of justice and wisdom that we possess. The riches of Jewish learning are really vast and endless, and they need to be shared. And in the pursuit of social justice, I see a lot of potential for the use of music to keep people motivated, engaged and spiritually nourished.

I hope to bring a sense of inspiration to the Temple Beth-El congregation, an inspiration that helps people reach the place of freedom in themselves, where they give themselves permission to sing, dance, pray, laugh, cry or meditate or something else! Especially on Shabbat, we’re meant to be joyful, at peace, and not “serious,” per se. Fun is a part of that, and so is feeling whatever you’re feeling. I think a good ritual allows emotion to move to where it needs to go. Sometimes, making people cry through ritual leaves me feeling that I did it right!

I also think it’s very important to find a sense of holiness through the chanting of our sacred texts. I’m passionate about the ancient chant traditions of trope for all of our different kinds of texts, from Esther trope to High Holy Day trope, and I want to bring a sense of appreciation and understanding to the beauty and meaning of that process, of hiddur mitzvah, the beautification of a mizvah, which comes from our tradition. Hiddur mitzvah enhances the meaning of mitzvot, and deepens our experience of fulfilling them.

With that in mind, I look forward to getting to know all of the religious school children, and to enjoy learning together. Singing together especially will be a joy, even more so when we can gather in person. In working with the b’nai mitzvah students, I love learning about them as individuals, seeing them evolve and finding out what lights them up. Sometimes laughing together with a student will make my day. I’ve been amazed by the strength of character of the b’nai mitzvah who’ve been on the bimah in the last two weeks for their ceremonies at Temple Beth-El. Under the circumstances, each one of them really rose to the occasion!

If time allows, I would also love to get involved in the interfaith work that the congregation has been engaged in, and I’m interested in dialogues around challenging racism and white supremacy, whether it be book clubs, dialogue groups or other frameworks. These issues are bound up in fighting antisemitism, which we really have to address these days. How do we as a Jewish community stay safe, and keep our doors wide open at the same time? I am open to exploring any musical offerings that support these efforts as well.

On a more personal note, I would like to introduce my spouse Rhette, who is from Massachusetts originally, like myself. Rhette is an engineer in Internet security. She adores cats, and we’re hoping to have a cat come live w us in the next year or so, depending on the safety of going out to find one! She has a great sense of humor and has also been learning Hebrew calligraphy, which she began studying with the rabbi emeritus of our congregation in California, Gordon Freeman. He taught her to do micro-calligraphy.

For my part, I love hiking, and spending time in nature generally. We’ve done a fair amount of traveling, and took trips to Australia and Hawaii last year. Australia was wonderful! The food is amazing, and it’s a much more diverse country than I had realized. The people in Canberra and Sydney are really friendly as well. We’re considering a trip to Iceland in the future. I enjoy podcasts, especially On Being with Krista Tippett, and This American Life. I also love world music, liturgical and spiritual chant especially, and klezmer music. Someday, I hope, I will learn Yiddish. I’m also very passionate and concerned about the planet and its future.

Originally published in the September-October 2020 issue of the Shofar. For more issues of the Shofar, visit the Shofar archives.