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Samarkand Serenade

Refoel Pride

Opera singer isn’t a common job description in Uzbekistan, where Avraham Israel was born. But his passion for music and his natural talent led Avraham on a path far from home, where he thought he was following his heart. And then he took a job singing in a church. On a Saturday.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

When Avraham Israel opens his mouth to sing, the effect is electric. His tenor fills the room at once, flowing in a continuous, unabating swell. Each consonant is vocalized as audibly as the sonorous vowels: humming Ms, bursting Bs, Ts attacked like thwacks on a snare drum. And even if Italian is not your forte, his agile voice unmistakably traces the contours of each phrase, emotion rising along the scale. This is bel canto — “beautiful singing” — the operatic style popularized in Italy during the 18th century. And although Avraham no longer plies his trade before adoring crowds in opulent music houses, his talent has nevertheless carried him over vast distances — geographical and spiritual — and through some unexpected twists and turns. Avraham narrates the story of his life over a table in theMenachemTzion shul in Boro Park. His speaking voice is calm, evenly modulated — some might even say soft-spoken. These days he and his wife Mastura make their home in Brooklyn, and he teaches vocal technique to students of all ages, from the local neighborhood and around the world. It’s a far cry from the land of his birth and upbringing. Avraham was born Albert Israelov in Samarkand, formerly a prime station along the ancient Silk Road in Central Asia, but in 1962 the second-largest city in the Uzbek Soviet Socialist Republic. His father,MenachemIsraelov, was a manager in a busy hair salon, and his mother, Frecha, was a high school math and physics teacher. They preserved what Jewish tradition they could, Avraham recalls. He credits his parents with inculcating a strong sense of Jewish ethnic identity, which he maintained even as the atheistic educational system and larger Communist society worked against the development of a religious identity. And although official Marxist-Leninist doctrine decreed fraternity and equality to be watchwords of the day, youngAlbert nevertheless learned quickly that he was different from the other kids in school. “Our last name was a trigger,” he says. “They would say, ‘Dirty Jew, why don’t you go to Israel?’ I was beaten up many times. Once I went to my father and said, ‘Maybe if we change our last name they won’t see that I’m a Jew.’ “He told me, ‘You can change your last name, you can change your look, you can change anything you want — but you will always be a Jew. I’m proud to be one, and you should be too. It takes a lot to become a Jew — but see, you were lucky enough to have been born one.’ ”

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