Spiritual transformation leads to operatic life change

by Len Lear
Posted 9/18/20

Jacob Agar's paternal grandfather, Vladimir Agaronov, died when Jacob was 22 years old. The rabbi officiating at the funeral service suggested that Jacob sing some Jewish prayers because he knew that …

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Spiritual transformation leads to operatic life change


Jacob Agar's paternal grandfather, Vladimir Agaronov, died when Jacob was 22 years old. The rabbi officiating at the funeral service suggested that Jacob sing some Jewish prayers because he knew that Jacob was a trained opera singer. The young man had just graduated the year before from the conservatory at the State University of New York at Purchase, 25 miles north of New York City. And Jacob had been helping to take care of his grandfather.

The young singer was nervous because he had not sung religious music before. “My grandfather was a wonderful man,” recalled Agar in an interview last week. “When he was younger, he was a very robust man; in fact, he was a champion boxer in Uzbekistan, but late in life he developed Alzheimer's disease and no longer recognized family members.”

So to honor his beloved grandfather, Jacob proceeded to sing several Jewish prayers, which essentially changed Jacob's life. “I connected so much to the spiritual music,” he said. “It moved me so much. I felt the music and the suffering so deeply.”

When Jacob had been caring for his ailing grandfather, he sang to him, and even though Alzheimer's disease had taken over the elderly patient's mind, when he heard the singing, suddenly “he became alive, singing the lyrics and dancing. That's when I could really feel the healing power of music.”

As a result, after the funeral service, Jacob made a life-changing decision. Instead of performing the glorious music of Verdi, Puccini, Rossini, et al, on stage, the handsome tenor enrolled in the Jewish Theological Seminary's H.L. Miller's Cantorial School in New York. (The cantor is a clergy member who fills a diverse role within the Jewish community. Cantors lead worship, officiate at lifecycle events, teach adults and children, run synagogue music programs and offer pastoral care.)

After graduating from the cantorial school, Agar got a job as a cantor at the Central Synagogue in Rockville Centre, Long Island, but on Aug. 1 of this year he took over as cantor at Beth Sholom Congregation at 8231 Old York Rd. in Elkins Park. It is the only synagogue in the country designed by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Beth Sholom is Hebrew for “House of Peace.”

So far the services have been conducted via Zoom except for one outdoor service attended by 50 members with social distancing and masks. It was also streamed on the synagogue's website. “I love it,” said Agar. “The area is historical and is similar to where I grew up in Rockland County,” a suburb of New York City.

Another powerful musical influence on the young cantor, now 28, was his maternal grandfather, Yakov Meyerov, even though the two never met. Yakov, for whom Jacob is named (Yakov is the Russian or Hebrew variant of Jacob or James), also an opera singer, died the year before Jacob was born. Jacob was inspired by his namesake in both music and linguistic facility.

“Yakov spoke several languages,” said Jacob, who himself is fluent in English, Russian, Italian and French and “so-so” in German, Hebrew and Spanish. Jacob has seen photos of Yakov and in 2016 visited the grave where he is buried in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan in the former Soviet Union.

Jacob was born in Baku, but his parents emigrated to the U.S. near New York City in 1990 after the breakup of the Soviet Union when Jacob was eight months old. “They did not leave because of anti-Semitism,” said Jacob. “Jews were not persecuted in Azerbaijan, as they were in Russia. There were Jewish people in the professions and at higher levels of government in Azerbaijan. Jews left because they wanted a better life for their families.” (There were about 10,000 Jews in Azerbaijan when Jacob's family left, and there are about 4,000 left now. Most who left went to either the U.S. or Israel.)

Jacob's mom, Tatyana Meyerov, was a Russian linguist and now works in information technology. His father, Gary Agaronov, was an engineer in the old country and is now a photographic designer. He was also a classic rock music fan, which rubbed off on Jacob, who started a rock band at age 15 that had no name and included the son of Eddie “Fingers” Ojeda, guitarist for the 1980s heavy metal band, Twisted Sister. But Jacob later fell in love with the singing of Luciano Pavarotti and switched his allegiance to operatic music.

“Jacob's maturity level is well beyond his years,” said Jeffrey Gordon, Beth Sholom congregation president, in a recent interview. “He's a real — there's a Yiddish word, 'mensch' (a person of integrity and honor) … We think he fits perfectly into our organization.” Jacob's parents still live in Rockland County, New York, as does his sister, Elizabeth, 25.

For more information, visit bethsholomorganization.org. Len Lear can be reached at lenlear@chestnuthilllocal.com


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