Dentist, Actor, Singer, Professor, Cantor… Rabbi
Rabbi Kenneth Blatt Still Shares His Gift and Love for Music- from Jewish Songs to Sinatra, Streisand and Gershwin
By Jennifer Grace
photos by Lawrence White
When Rabbi Kenneth Blatt welcomes you into Shaara Tfille, his amiable style and ease are felt within his outstretched hand as well as in his kind eyes. This Saratoga synagogue has been fortunate to have Rabbi Blatt call it home for seven years. If you sit for a spell and listen to his life story, the expression “Renaissance man” comes to mind. Rabbi Blatt’s studies, and his ever-evolving professional and creative life, all point to a gifted man who has accomplished a great deal intellectually, artistically and within every community he has touched. No matter the professional “stage”–classroom, theater or synagogue–Rabbi Blatt finds his home.
“What I do that makes me a little different than most Rabbis: I try to incorporate music into almost everything we do,” he says. Research has shown how music can strengthen social cohesion, and Rabbi Blatt’s philosophy serves not only to entertain, but also to happily unite his congregation of all ages. Rabbi Blatt transforms Broadway tunes as well as pop music into prayer songs. His repertoire is extensive: international songs from the 1930’s to the present, as well as Cantorial pieces.
Rabbi Blatt grew up in the Bronx in a traditional and hard-working family; his father’s career was in the garment business, and Rabbi Blatt was a conscientious son who did not want to disappoint. Studying hard at Queen’s College, the University of Pennsylvania, followed by a residency at Albert Einstein, places Rabbi Blatt on the path to becoming a dentist. However, once he had spent over a decade beside the dental chair, it became clear that he was meant to pursue another calling. Rabbi Blatt’s childhood had not encouraged him to become a singer or an actor, but 13 years of fixing teeth did afford the insight and inspiration to pursue a graduate degree in theater. “If I’m going to leave dentistry, I want to sing and act,” he told himself.
It’s abundantly clear how Rabbi Blatt soon found success, between his M.F.A. in Performance Arts from Florida Atlantic University, a year-long theater internship that entailed serious grunt work, and joining the Screen Actor’s Guild. Rabbi Blatt took the advice of his fellow actors to heart and continued to pursue his studies, this time at Michigan State University, where he received his Ph.D. in Theater. As Rabbi Blatt puts it, “It was all very logical” to go for a Ph.D. while he was still “in school mode.” In addition to academics, this program had a cabaret group, and Rabbi Blatt took advantage of performing in plays and summer stock too. “I got the acting bug big time!”
With a doctorate in hand, his education had not run its course, so four years of study followed at the School of Sacred Music on Long Island, leading to his Cantorial Ordination. For years he performed and directed in the Northeast, Florida, Michigan and Kentucky, more and more for Jewish audiences. His theatrical roles included playing The Priest in Rashomon. “Little did I know in the mid-1980s that I would wind up a rabbi,” he says.
At Miami-Dade College in 2008, where he was an adjunct professor, “I played the lead role of Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner,” he says, a role that Saratoga’s own Monty Woolley created on stage and in film. Rabbi Blatt also served as the Cantor at a temple in Boynton Beach, before coming to Saratoga.
After embarking in his four-year journey at the Rabbinical Academy in 2006, he was ordained in the spring of 2010 and relocated to upstate New York to become the Rabbi of Congregation Shaara Tfille, leading spiritual services, teaching adult education and Hebrew School, as well as conducting life-cycle events and being their Cantor for the High Holidays. The congregation is socially liberal and welcomes traditional Jewish families, as well as interfaith marriages, and those in the LGBTQ community. A pastoral, tree-filled setting allows you to take a deep breath before entering the simple and classic red brick synagogue where you will find a warm welcome and a song. Shaara Tfille relocated, due to Saratoga’s growth, from lower Broadway to a convenient and spacious location in Weibel Avenue. One of the oldest congregations in the Capital District, this synagogue has been present in the Saratoga community for approximately 105 years.
Rabbi Blatt describes himself as “a perennial student,” and this quest for knowledge, along with his adoration of music, equals one unique and enlightened man. His eyes sparkle as he describes his latest pursuit. “My most recent endeavor is going back to playing the piano,” he says. “When I was a kid I studied. Now I want to accompany myself. I’ve done it a few times but it’s still difficult. I’m taking lessons online.”
Many have heard Rabbi Blatt outside of the synagogue as his singing and acting bring him before audiences all over the region. In Mechanicville, Rabbi Blatt entertained the Senior Center with a performance of “My Musical Heroes”–the songs of Sinatra, Streisand, Como, Bennett and Gorme–sponsored by Mechanicville’s Public Library. At the Clifton Park/Halfmoon Public Library he performed “Love’s the Thing: A Musical Journey of Romance,” and in Niskayuna’s Agudat Achim Synagogue, he performed lively Jewish music and much-loved Broadway show tunes.
“I still perform, although unfortunately, not as much as I’d like to because my position is very demanding,” Rabbi Blatt says. “However, after the success of our concert in January, I’m hoping to do more in the near future. In fact, this July, as part of the Jewish Cultural Festival, I will be performing in a Gershwin program, singing many of his great songs along with a concert pianist, who will also be performing some of his ‘classical’ music.”
Rabbi Blatt performed in “Jews and Music: From Cabaret to Broadway and Beyond” in January with other rabbis. For upcoming programs, visit saratogajewishculturalfestival.org .
Jennifer Grace has an MFA in Creative Writing from the City University, studied at Sarah Lawrence and Skidmore’s Summer Writing Institute, was an editor at Simon & Schuster, and now runs her own ghostwriting and editorial business- Jenny Grace Editorial at Argyle Ink.