In his office at Temple Sinai of Glendale, the paperwork and music sheets piled on Steve Hummel’s office desk indicates that he’s well settled in since taking over as cantor in July. So he was perfectly ready to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, which commences the Jewish High Holy Days, when it began at sundown on Wednesday.
Hummel made the move to Glendale from a Santa Monica synagogue, where he worked for the last 10 years. Prior to that, he was living in Chicago when a friend called him about the Santa Monica job on what he recalls as “a very cold day in December.”
As a cantor, Hummel, 42, is by definition a musician. He grew up in Chicago’s Highland Park suburb strumming a guitar he inherited from his uncle — or, rather, his uncle’s attic — at age 7.
“It was a guitar that probably had four strings on it that I sat and plucked for weeks on end,” he said.
By age 10, he was captivated by his local cantor, Jerry Frazes. Cantors lead congregations in readings, prayer and music.
“I was looking at him and listening to him on the bimah (the raised area where the cantor stands when he reads the Torah), and said, ‘Wow, what a cool thing.’ I loved the music and traditional chants,” Hummel said.
By the time he reached high school, Hummel had other aspirations. He performed with bands through his early 20s as he continued to return to synagogues during High Holy Days and Shabbat, the Yiddish word for “Saturday,” or “Sabbath.”
That never left me,” he said of his religious ties.
He soon befriended Jeff Klepper, who was known to be one of the first cantors in the country to play the guitar during services.
Hummel essentially became Klepper’s protégé while he worked his day job in sales that “did nothing for my heart or soul,” he said.
When Klepper retired from the synagogue, Hummel’s rabbi asked him to quit his day job.
“I knew when I really started down the road there was an emulation of him in part,” he said of Klepper. “I not only wanted to sing with the beauty of voice, but the beauty of soul that he conveyed.”
After 10 years of serving as a cantor in Santa Monica, Hummel said he feels refreshed at Temple Sinai. He is more than pleased to play melodies that draw in the congregation in an accessible, participatory way that has them singing along to the music.
He also said he’s thrilled to work alongside Rabbi Rick Schechter.
“Coming here, I wanted to refresh my soul and find the enthusiasm and energy I had in my 20s,” Hummel said. “Sometimes, changing places can do that for you and it absolutely has done that for me. I feel energized.”