Stephen Wise Free Synagogue is excited to welcome our cantorial intern, Joseph (Joe) Flaxman!
Joe grew up at Temple Shalom in Succasunna, New Jersey, and was raised on stories about his grandfather, also named Joseph, who had dreamed of becoming a chazan. After earning his master’s in vocal performance at the Manhattan School of Music, he went on to perform in cities across the country and the world. After Joe met and then married his wife Laura, they had their first son Elias. Realizing that he wanted to change careers, Joe felt the pull to explore his own childhood dream of becoming a cantor. During his year of study in Jerusalem at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, he and Laura welcomed their second son, Isaiah, into the world.
Joe is looking forward to working and learning at Stephen Wise, where he’ll be assisting us as our cantorial intern and working closely with Cantor Dan Singer.
We sat down with Joe so we could get to know him a little better.
Q: What was the “a-ha” moment when you realized you wanted to be a cantor?
A: In my previous career, I was as an opera singer — I even sang right around the corner at Lincoln Center a few times — and after an audition, I realized that the best-case scenario was that I’d get the job and then I’d be miserable because my work was no longer bringing me joy.
The idea of being a cantor was something I had considered since I was very young as my grandfather (after whom I’m named) dreamed of being a chazan. Based on my skill set I thought I might make a good cantor, so I left my manager the next day and got in touch with Hebrew Union College about pivoting to my second career.
Mini “a-ha” moments happened when I was singing in the choir at Park Avenue Synagogue, as well as when I was singing in various cities throughout America and connected to local Jewish communities to celebrate Shabbat or holidays. There was always a feeling of being “home” that made me re-visit the idea of becoming a cantor.
Q: What’s the most challenging part of cantorial school? The most fun?
A: Balancing class, work, and family is definitely a challenge, but the most fun part is how each one seems to teach me how to be my best and most present self for the other parts of my life.
Q: What is your favorite Jewish song?
A: I can’t pick just one, but I did narrow it down to two! “Elohai N’shama” is a beautiful daily cleansing breath for the soul and “Eilu D’varim” constantly reminds me that my capacity for doing good deeds is infinite.
Q: What’s your favorite instrument? Your least favorite?
A: I love the piano, and if I had to pick a least favorite, it’d have to be the trombone.
Q: Favorite band?
A: I listen to a ton of classical music (Mozart, Verdi, Bach, von Weber, Berg, Rachmaninoff, Monteverdi, Ravel… the list is long and varied). But I’m also a big fan of Weezer as well as 80s music in general.
Q: What’s something you learned at HUC that really blew your mind?
A: OK, brace yourself… the melody you think of for the “Four Questions” is actually quite new! It’s a melody from early in modern Israeli history. Prior to that, the typical “Ashkenazi” melody for the “Four Questions” was the same one people used to study Mishnah. I never thought about it, but I just figured that my father probably sang those questions in the same melody at his Seder growing up, and his father before him… then I learned that the tradition of a child singing the “Four Questions” is also newer!
Q: What about being a cantor are you looking forward to most?
A: Helping people create community through the power of Jewish music!