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Convert-cantor's journey takes her from Israel to Utah

Published September 18, 2012 6:22 pm

High holidays • Tamar Heather Havilio's journeys have taken her from Protestantism to Judaism and from Israel to Utah.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

The story of Tamar, in the Hebrew Bible, isn't exactly wholesome.

The Genesis heroine disguised herself as a prostitute to trick her father-in-law, Judah, into sleeping with her. She did it because he refused to fulfill his obligation to wed her to his youngest son after the deaths of his two oldest ones. She became pregnant with her father-in-law's children, including one of King David's ancestors.

Sure, it's a story of sex and deceit. But it's also one of determination and seizing one's own destiny. It's part of the reason Tamar Heather Havilio chose it as her new name when she converted to Judaism more than 20 years ago.

"That spoke to me," Havilio said of Tamar's decision to take control of her life. "In a way, I chose certain parts of my destiny."

Havilio's choices led her to a family of her own in Jerusalem, a career as an educator of religious leaders, and to Park City's Temple Har Shalom, where she serves as cantor each year for the Jewish High Holidays.

Some larger synagogues have full-time cantors, religious leaders who guide prayers through song alongside rabbis. But Har Shalom flies Havilio 7,000 miles, from Israel, only once a year, to sing through two of the most important days on the Jewish calendar: Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.

Rosh Hashana is the Jewish new year, and Yom Kippur, 10 days later, is a time of solemnity when Jews pray and fast to help atone for their sins.

"The holy days are really a musically intense period of time," said Har Shalom Rabbi Joshua Aaronson, "and the music is so crucial to the period that to do it without a professional, trained cantor would be diminishing the experience for everyone in a significant way."

On each of the holidays, Havilio lifts her dramatic mezzo-soprano voice within the walls of the synagogue's sanctuary. It's an act she cherishes, though it's a role she never imagined she would fill growing up Protestant in Milwaukee.

A new faith • Havilio hardly thinks about her conversion anymore.

"It seems like such a long time ago," said the 43-year-old woman, who radiates warmth and is quick with a smile.

But it was very much on her mind more than two decades ago, when she made the decision to explore a new faith.

Growing up in Milwaukee, Havilio had many Jewish friends, so she was familiar with their religion. But it wasn't until she was studying abroad in London as a 19-year-old that she felt a tug she couldn't ignore.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it all started with music.

She was watching "Ghetto,"a play about the experiences of Jews living in a World War II ghetto. One of the character's Yiddish songs struck her.

"I just felt so connected to them I just had to find out what it was that connected me to Judaism," Havilio said, "so I started studying with a local rabbi."

Jumping to Judaism is not like switching to some other faiths. It's a sometimes-long process of learning and persistence. Traditionally, potential converts were turned away three times before they were accepted to ensure they had given it sufficient thought.

The first conversion noted in the Hebrew Bible, Havilio said, was that of Ruth, whose husband died. Ruth was allowed to stay with his people as one of them after his death.

"Now it's a big deal," Havilio joked of conversion. "Ruth had it easy."

But Havilio was sure of her decision, and she soon officially converted to Judaism at the University of Iowa, where she was studying theater.

It was a move her Protestant family readily accepted.

When Havilio told her grandmother, the older woman responded, "Well, you believe in God, don't you?" Havilio said yes. Her grandmother said, "Well, I respect what you did, and I love you no matter what."

Havilio's mother was equally supportive. Havilio didn't know when she began her religious exploration that she was echoing her mom's past. She didn't find out until after she converted that her mother, also at about age 20, had thought much about Judaism.

"When I converted, she said that really spoke to her," said Havilio, adding that her mother told her years later, "I feel it in my soul that I'm Jewish."

About eight years ago, Havilio's mother then followed her daughter and converted to Judaism.

A new home •It wasn't enough for Havilio to simply convert.

She became a teacher of Jewish religious leaders, using her theater background to emphasize the arts of chanting and leading prayers.

"They can't just say prayers," Havilio said. "They have to live them."

Havilio officially became a cantor in 1996 after studying at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. She served as a cantor in congregations throughout the U.S. before earning another master's degree in performance studies from New York University.

While serving a Milwaukee congregation, she met a man named Shmulik Havilio. He was invited to her synagogue to discuss his brother-in-law, who was the first Israeli reserve solider killed in the Second Intifada, a Palestinian uprising, she said.

The two kept in touch through email, and when she moved to Israel in 2002 to teach at Hebrew Union College, he picked her up at the airport.

Two years later, they married.

So in barely a decade, her life had changed dramatically. The convert was living in Jerusalem, teaching future rabbis and cantors and married to a 20th-generation Jerusalemite.

Havilio loves Israel — the creativity and complexity of the community around her. But she looks forward each autumn to visiting Park City, where she stays for about two weeks. When she began working there eight years ago, she was looking for a new experience.

"I wanted to be a part of a community that's very different from [Jerusalem]," she said.

That's what she got.

The journey continues • The first year Havilio and her husband traveled to Utah, she was pregnant with their first child.

Now, the couple make the trek to Park City each year with their three sons. Her mother and father often meet them there, a chance to see family in the United States and enjoy the ski-town scenery.

While in town, they often stay at congregant Carol Kotler's condo, a place with baskets of toys for the children. They dine with other worshippers and renew friendships that, most of the year, play out mainly online.

"She's just so warm," Kotler said of Havilio. "She seems like one of my daughters."

Havilio, of course, spends much of her time helping to lead Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services at the synagogue.

The High Holidays are a time of introspection and contemplation. They're a time to reflect upon the past year, Aaronson said, and ponder how to improve oneself and one's relationships in the year to come.

Judaism teaches that it's a time when Jews stand before God, who renders judgment about each life and whether each person should be inscribed in the Book of Life for another year.

"There are parts of the High Holidays that have tremendous joy in them, and there are parts that are more serious, and [Havilio] definitely seems to move in either direction depending on what is needed," Har Shalom member Alix Railton said. "Some of our services are a bit more somber and some of them are lighthearted, and she just seems to know how to tune into that to enhance either the somberness or the lightheartedness."

It's a range of emotions that Havilio conveys with her voice — the journey from celebration to reflection, repentance and gratitude.

Havilio enjoys the challenge. After all, she is more than familiar with grand journeys — the physical and the spiritual.

lschencker@sltrib.com

Twitter: @lschencker —

Hear Cantor Tamar Heather Havilio sing

To learn more about Tamar Heather Havilio, a cantor who travels to Park City's Temple Har Shalom each year for the Jewish High Holidays to help lead prayers there, go to http://cantortamar.wordpress.com/ You can watch videos of her work there or at YouTube.com. —

What are the Jewish High Holidays?

Rosh Hashana is the Jewish new year, and Yom Kippur, 10 days later, is a day of solemnity when Jews fast and pray to atone for their sins.

Rosh Hashana begins, this year, on Sunday at sundown. Yom Kippur begins Sept. 25 at sundown. On Rosh Hashana, Jews will celebrate the start of the year 5773 on the Jewish calendar.

To learn more about service times at Park City's Temple Har Shalom, go to http://www.templeharshalom.com. To learn about service times at Salt Lake City's Congregation Kol Ami, go to http://www.conkolami.org. Both temples ask that nonmembers wishing to attend register in advance. To learn about service times at Chabad Lubavitch of Utah, go to http://www.jewishutah.com/highholidays.