Members of Temple Emanu-El in Edison should not be surprised if their new cantor breaks into a traditional Indian melody while reciting Kiddush.
That’s because Cantor Aviva Marer is a member of the Bene Israel, the Jews of India. Historians believe the first Jews arrived in India more than 2,000 year ago; the Bene Israel trace their roots in the subcontinent to the early 15th century.
“India has one of the few Jewish communities in the world where people were never persecuted and lived in peace with their neighbors,” said Marer. “It has no history of anti-Semitism.”
Marer was recently ordained at the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. She took over for Cantor Jacqueline Marx — who was with the temple for five years — on July 1.
At HUC, Marer learned the familiar Ashkenazi melodies that are standard in the Reform movement. She could, however, readily use tunes that are traditional to the Bene Israel.
“That’s the thing about this community: its openness and ability to grow and change,” she told NJJN. “I have no doubt I could sing an Indian Kiddush one night and they would be open to it. They have given me a safe place to start my career in the cantorate.”
It was that feeling of acceptance that attracted her to the temple.
“The minute I walked in the door, that sense of community was like nothing I have ever felt,” she said. “The congregation is small” — there are 230 family member units — “but vibrant. We joke here we have a hyperactive congregation. There are an unbelievable number who turn out for services and events. The size of this community’s heart is truly unbelievable. It just felt like all the pieces of the puzzle came together for me, and I knew Temple Emanu-El would be a great fit.”
It was “a match made in heaven,” said Sandy Gonzalez Wilson, the chair of the cantorial search committee. “We searched long and hard. When Aviva crossed our paths I knew she, the congregation, and the rabbi could make beautiful music together.”
Although she herself was not born in India, Marer’s connection to her family history there is deep. Her grandfather was a lay leader in New Delhi who conducted religious services and was among the builders of the city’s first synagogue, Judah Hyam Hall. Her parents immigrated to Canada in the early 1970s and Marer grew up in Ottawa. Emanu-El’s rabbi, David Vaisberg, is also a Canadian, from outside Montreal.
Marer, 31, said her family maintained their Indian-Jewish traditions, particularly its culinary specialties, and her mother usually served chicken curry on Shabbat.
Explaining that it was her grandfather who encouraged her father to take his family out of India — he saw little future for the community there — he also took pride in being an Indian Jew and was proud of the rich Bene Israel history.
“My grandfather had this central feeling of why community was so important, and it is important for me as well,” Marer said. “I always believed that what I do, I do because of my passion for community. I always say I was born with my father’s eyes, my mother’s nose, and my grandfather’s passion.”
That passion led Marer to earn a bachelor’s degree in choral performance from Carleton University and a master’s in choral conducting from York University, both in Canada.
“I have a passion for conducting and working with choirs because there is nothing that brings a community together more than lifting up their voice in song together,” said Marer. She has sung many years with Essential Voices USA, a professional choir in Manhattan, appearing with them seven times at Carnegie Hall.
Marer lives in Metuchen with her husband, James, whose family is Argentinean and whose grandfather was a cantor in Buenos Aires. He is a union electrician in Manhattan assigned to rebuilding the World Trade Center.
Marer said she forward to building up both the youth and adult choirs at the temple and becoming involved with Makhelat Hamercaz, the Jewish Choir of Central NJ.
She said also hopes to bring in a representative from the World Union for Progressive Judaism to raise awareness of small Jewish communities throughout the world, particularly a small congregation in Mumbai, India, with which she hopes Emanu-El can establish a relationship.