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Hanukkah with a mambo twist

Temple Beth Ami’s cantor spreads Hanukkah message with album

Posted: December 15, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: December 15, 2012 2:00 a.m.

Kenny Ellis performs songs from his album "Hanukkah Swings!" at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center with the West Point band under the direction of Lt. Col. Jim Keene.


As Hanukkah comes to a close tonight, the eighth and final night of the holiday, local synagogues use dreidels, menorahs and latkes to observe the festivities. In the midst of traditions that play an important role in the observances of Hanukkah, many Jews will also turn to music.

Temple Beth Ami not only finds music inspirational and important to Jewish traditions, but also features the musical talents of a chart-topping musician. The synagogue cantor, Kenny Ellis, came to Temple Beth Ami three years ago after the synagogue he served for more than 15 years was forced to close its doors. Ellis was offered the position by longtime friend, Rabbi Mark Blazer. The synagogue never had a full-time cantor, but Blazer knew adding Ellis to the team could only enrich the services more.

“Music is such an important part of synagogue life,” said Blazer. “We are very lucky to bring someone of this caliber of musical reputation to the synagogue. It’s great that he is able to work with people from such a wide demographic.”

Soon after beginning to serve at Temple Beth Ami, Blazer and the congregation knew Ellis was a perfect fit.

“He really struck a cord, so to speak,” said Blazer.

A young performer

Kenny Ellis was born and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. From a very young age he learned to play instruments and sing in choirs. Singing and performing became second nature to him as his family would often entertain each other with small theatrical shows in their living room.

Ellis eventually moved to New York and finally to Los Angeles in 1978. He quickly landed an agent and eventually a TV show through connections he made at a synagogue he joined after coming to Los Angeles.

Eventually, on the advice of a friend, Ellis became cantor of a synagogue, a profession he would continue to hold over the next 20 years as he also pursued his career in music and television.

Hanukkah swings

Nearly 13 years ago, after singing Hanukkah songs in the shower one morning, Ellis had an idea. His dream, which he continued to relentlessly pursue for more than a decade, was to create a Hanukkah album with a “big band” music feel.

Growing up he attended public schools and often sang Christmas carols, but never were any Hanukkah carols sung.

“There was a huge void in the Hanukkah music market,” he said. “I wanted people to know Hanukkah music is good too.”

He received much opposition to his idea of creating a Hanukkah album with a “Ricky Ricardo, 50s band sound,” but he still pursued it. Finally, in 2005 he found two record companies who wanted to produce the album.

A year after signing with one of the companies, Ellis received some interesting news. He was told the distributor for the album was no longer in business. This, he thought, was the end of the album. Instead, the company hired another distributor to handle the album, Sony. Now his album, “Hanukkah Swings” is sold all over the world.

“I’m so excited it is out there,” Ellis said. “Everyone said my idea was crazy, but I knew anything worthwhile takes time.”

Now, Ellis’ album is heard in countries such as France and Germany, on XM radio stations, Pandora, is ranked No. 8 on Amazon music charts in the Jewish/Yiddish category and ranked No. 1 in the Hanukkah music category. Music videos from the album tally hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube.

“We are all under the same God in this world,” Ellis said. “We just worship God in different ways. Music is a universal language. My hope is this album would open a door and help people understand the Jewish people more, to really bring people together.”



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