Years & Years Concert Review

Cantor Juval Porat’s annual holiday concerts have become a BCC tradition over the past 12 years, showcasing his musical talents and often those of guest musicians. This year he offered a one-person show, entitled “Years and Years,” in which he sang ten songs and read the reflections of BCC congregants on their experiences of BCC during the past five decades. Accompanied by Max Berlin on piano, he skillfully wove together the music and the monologues to form a unique celebration of BCC’s 50 years of community and struggle, music and spoken word.

Cantor Juval Porat at the Years & Years concert

For several weeks before the concert date of December 5, 2021, Cantor Porat solicited contributions from congregants and interviewed community members. During the concert, he presented some 30 monologues, all anonymous.

It was fun trying to guess who wrote some of them; only a few were obvious (teaching in Iowa City in the early 1970s was a dead giveaway, Tracy). Cantor Porat separated the reflections on each of the five decades of BCC’s history, bracketing each with appropriate songs. For each decade, certain themes emerged that characterized the BCC experience in the context of larger LGBTQIA+, Jewish, and general societal trends.

Decade I (1972-1982) brought out themes of liberation and fear. Life in pre-AIDS LA was “one big party,” as one congregant described it, but bars and baths were dangerous places to meet other men and coming out could be dangerous for one’s career and family relationships. BCC offered a bridge
between two worlds for those who were both “shul hopping and bar hopping.” But it still wasn’t easy for most newcomers to walk through the door of a “gay and lesbian shul” for the first time.

BCC’s institutional successes in its early years also played a role in the monologues for Decade I. One congregant attended a New York convention of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism) as an observer, to learn about the UAHC and to encourage
mainstream synagogues to make room for gay and lesbian Jews in their communities. The following year, BCC became a member of the UAHC. One newcomer who cautiously approached the door of the sanctuary on the evening of the ceremony was surprised to find it packed with local Jewish and political dignitaries.

Decade II (1982-1992) inevitably included the devastating experience of the AIDS epidemic, which as one congregant said, “caused seismic changes.” Another said it was “overwhelming” to watch friends die with no treatment available and that “some of the most creative people were leaving the planet.” But AIDS also evoked a new spiritual hunger. One congregant came to BCC for the first time and found familiar melodies and welcoming
people; when he told the rabbi he hadn’t been in shul for 20 years, she said, “welcome home.” Yet a majority of the narratives from the 1980s were not about AIDS. There were several women’s voices, including a deeply closeted kindergarten teacher who attended women’s discussion groups but said there was “no way” she could come out publicly and keep her job. A veteran of “Women of the Wall” (the group that defied the Orthodox ban on women reading from Torah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem) remembered being called “lesbit” and “Reformit” as if those were insults, but at BCC, women could read from Torah freely on a regular basis. Another congregant was a “preacher’s kid” from a conservative church who was raised to consider homosexuality a sin, but upon having a same-sex relationship in her forties, found that God didn’t seem to care.

The last contributor in Decade II cited the music of Debbie Friedman as instrumental in bridging the gap between gay/lesbian and Jewish worlds and restoring a sense of community. Cantor Porat concluded this part of the program with Debbie Friedman’s “Sing Unto God.”

The remembrances from Decade III (1992-2002) focused on congregants seeking personal growth and a deeper attachment to Judaism. An adult bar mitzvah at BCC helped one congregant “shed a feeling of incompleteness.” Another went to the mikvah to change her first, middle, and Hebrew names to integrate her Jewish and American identities and discard negative associations with her previous names. A third respondent sought comfort in Orthodoxy in a two-week program in Israel. After he came out to the rabbi, the rabbi told him “you’re missing out on God’s best.”

Decade III also brought the first inklings of marriage equality. One congregant described their “first wedding” at Plummer Park in 1995 as “not legal, but an affirmation of joy” in the face of tragedy. Another started a business in the wedding industry but couldn’t share in the joy of their straight clients.

In Decade IV (2002-2012), marriage equality became a reality, at least temporarily, in 2008 during the few months between the California Supreme Court ruling and the passage of Proposition 8. One congregant recalled going to West Hollywood as soon as marriage licenses became available, with couples who had been together 30 and 25 years in line ahead of and behind them. Another recalled asking his partner if he wanted to marry, only to receive the response, “how can we, we don’t even live together?” (Historical note: Domestic partnership was never equal to marriage because it required living together first, not just because of the label). Eventually, they did marry in one of three ceremonies performed by Rabbi Lisa Edwards on the last Sunday before Prop. 8 passed.

Memories from Decade IV also revealed BCC as an aging congregation. One member recalled that their mother and brother came to LA to visit for their 50th birthday. The mother fell ill and was hospitalized. Rabbi Edwards visited her frequently, much to her and the member’s delight. Another held what was planned as a small memorial for their mother, only to find the chapel crowded with BCC congregants who didn’t know the mother and, in many cases, didn’t know the member very well. That’s the kind of community BCC is.

Decade V (2012-2022) brought the trans community into the picture for the first time, with one congregant being pleased to see a few other trans people in the sanctuary upon coming to BCC for the first time. Another embraced the trans-friendly interpretations in rabbinic literature, such as Adam as an initially androgynous person.

Toward the end of this decade, the pandemic began to enter into the consciousness of BCC congregants as they sought and found the healing power of community and prayer, even if only virtually through Zoom. As the losses mounted, one congregant recognized that the minyan requirement for saying Kaddish is not just a ritual law but also a way to avoid the isolation that often comes with such loss.

Cantor Porat closed out the concert with “House of New Life,” the original song he wrote for the dedication of BCC’s current building in 2011 (with additional lyrics by Tamara Kline). There are a great many folks meriting thanks for their roles in making this concert happen, including Alejandro Speranza (sound engineer), Maggie Boyles (graphic design and marketing), Jessica Donath (marketing), Tim Goad (room setup), and Rabbi Jillian Cameron and the Executive Committee for entrusting Cantor Porat with this project. Special thanks for their financial support go to Steven Schmitt
and Kyle Young, Margaret Targove, Eldon Teper, Les Zendle and Jerry Hanson, Marsha Epstein, and Brett Trueman. Rabbi Lisa Edwards helped edit the congregant narratives and provided feedback and counsel with Tracy Moore, Cantor Jennifer Bern-Vogel, Jeanelle LaMance, Estaire Press, and Jessica Donath. We can’t wait to see and hear what Cantor Porat comes up with in the future!