With its outlandish stories, obsession with masculine ego, and focus on an absurd, forgotten subculture, A Cantor’s Tale is the stuff Ben Stiller movies are made of: All that’s missing is the part for Owen Wilson. Cantor Jackie Mendelson weaves an outrageous tale of the “old neighborhood,” where the most famous guy on the block wasn’t Sandy Koufax; it was the neighborhood hazan, a local celebrity of legendary proportions replete with his own entourage and rivals. Mendelson, an outsize personality with a voice (and physique) to rival Pavarotti’s, makes a grand tour guide through the Borough Park backstreets he hasn’t visited in nearly 40 years, bumping into old friends, taking requests, and bursting into song. A born ham (or whatever the kosher equivalent might be), Cantor Mendelson establishes a tone that blends equal parts warmth and humor: piety one second, one-liners the next. Serious issues are addressed—like the hotly debated rise of female cantors—but the focus remains squarely on the glory days of the hazanim and their glorious music. The featured performers give soul-stirring renditions of prayers I’d heard hundreds of times in my childhood, but never quite like this. Maybe Jeremy Piven could play the Wilson role.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 29, 2006