Cantor's Apps Bring Jewish Prayers To the iPhone Crowd

Emanuel Perlman Believes Ritual Must Make Room for Tech

A Holy Trinity: Emanuel Perlman (center) with his pocketshul.com partners John Kiel and Bill Riley.
Justin Tsulcas
A Holy Trinity: Emanuel Perlman (center) with his pocketshul.com partners John Kiel and Bill Riley.

By Simi Horwitz

Published February 14, 2013, issue of February 15, 2013.
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The apps have no shortage of artistic pedigree, either. Perlman is a veteran singer and, like many cantors, supplements his income with high-level secular performances — from classical to jazz to pop. Every Monday for the past 15 years, Perlman has traveled to New York to take voice lessons with Bill Riley, whose roster of students has included the late Whitney Houston, Pete Seeger and Faith Hill.

I met Perlman in Riley’s studio, located in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. The studio was overflowing with string instruments, vinyl records, photographs, memorabilia and endless miscellany on the wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling shelves.

“There are so many gifts here,” Perlman said. “It’s like Hanukkah every Monday. I feel most alive on Monday.”

Without the benefit of a warm-up, and accompanied only by pianist Eric Sedgwick, Perlman, a tenor, launched into a Neapolitan song, followed by Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love,” Bette Midler’s “In This Life” and a cantorial piece for which he donned his yarmulke.

Throughout, the moon-faced Riley, his silver hair tied back in a long ponytail, listened thoughtfully, interrupting only upon occasion. Afterward, Riley, who is part Native American and is not Jewish, praised Perlman for his efforts to keep Jewish liturgy and tradition alive.

“I respect all peace-loving peoples and religions,” Perlman said of Riley. “We have one God, but we get to God through different doors. Mine has a mezuza.”

Riley has nurtured Perlman’s project from the start, and in fact played matchmaker, introducing Perlman to John Kiehl, co-founder of Soundtrack Recording Studios. Kiehl says he has an emotional bond to Jewish liturgical music even though he is Christian.

“It’s a predecessor to all other musical traditions,” said Kiehl, who is a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a technology maven. He says he is especially drawn to the challenge of forging digital gadgetry with interactive features. The three men have been collaborating for more than a year.

When I remarked that their coming together was a lucky coincidence, Perlman balked at my choice of words. “A coincidence is God’s intervention without the publicity,” he said. “We try to prove the existence of God through coincidence.”

So far, Perlman and his partners have not made any money from their collaboration. Nonetheless, they are planning five more apps and continue to celebrate their journey and personal bond, which Perlman likens to a religious experience. Might all this sound a bit more like something out of a Mel Brooks sketch than a sustainable business model?

“I love Mel Brooks, but I’m not answering this,” Perlman said. “I’m in denial.”

Simi Horwitz writes frequently about theater for the Forward.


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