Jacob Agar was a 22-year-old conservatory graduate on his way to a promising career in opera when something happened that would change his life.
His beloved grandfather, Vladimir Agaronov, his father’s father, had passed away. The rabbi officiating the funeral made the modest suggestion that the grandson sing some prayers at the service. Agar was not prepared for what he felt when he sang.
“I felt the connection to everyone there. I felt like I was doing something spiritual,” he said. “There was no acting, there was no pretending. I realized, ‘Ah, this is what I really want to do.’ I knew I wanted to be a cantor for sure.”
And so that’s what he did.
Agar, now 28, became the cantor of Beth Sholom Congregation of Elkins Park on Aug. 1.
Congregation leaders have high hopes for their new cantor, who has a passion for a range of music — classical, ancient, and new — and an interesting backstory as well.
“Cantor Agar brings youth, energy, and musical vitality to the congregation,” said Rabbi David Glanzberg-Krainin. “He is a musical composer and therefore can bring his own melodies to the prayer experience. He is also a gifted musician who brings the power of instrumentation to worship.”
Agar’s musical ability and versatility, including his eagerness to reach out to children and young people, yet also appeal to lovers of traditional musical forms, won over the recruiting committee, according to congregation president Jeffrey Gordon.
“His maturity level is well beyond his years,” Gordon said. “He’s a real — there’s a Yiddish word — mensch. He’s a decent guy. We think he fits perfectly into our organization. No question.”
Agar was 10 months old when his parents immigrated to the United States from Azerbaijan in the former Soviet Union. While his family has told him they were not subjected to anti-Semitism like Jews in other parts of the Soviet Union, they were not free to practice their religion. When they settled in Rockland County, a suburb of New York City, Agar as a boy was sent to Jewish day school.
“I was actually the first person to be bar mitzvahed in my family in many generations,” he said. “I really formed a connection to Judaism, which I think has shaped where I am now.”
From his family, Agar also got a great passion for music.
He was named after his maternal grandfather, Yakov Meyerov, an opera singer and, like Agar, a tenor, who died a year before his grandson was born. Agar believes he received his grandfather’s voice and love of languages.
“Knowing that I am named after him and that he was a singer in large part inspired me to become a singer,” Agar said.
His mother, Tatyana Meyerov, a Russian linguist in the Soviet Union who now works in information technology, and his father, Gary Agaronov, a Soviet engineer who became a photographic designer in the U.S., are also music lovers.
“My mom has been a huge influence on me my whole life,” he said. “She used to take my sister and me to the opera, concerts, and theater since we were really small.”
The family traveled a lot, too, and his mother instilled her love of Italian and French music, as well as art and culture, in her son. His father’s musical influence, meanwhile, played a part in tipping off family and friends that Agar could sing. That, and Freddie Mercury.
His father is a big classic rock fan — Pink Floyd, the Beatles, Queen.
“People started noticing I could sing because I started walking around the house singing ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,‘” he said. He was 15 at the time.
His mother encouraged her son’s singing, and soon he and a friend formed a rock band. It didn’t go very far, but it got Agar hooked. He started taking voice lessons. The early influence of artists like Queen was quickly eclipsed by that of the great Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti, and the teen fell deeply in love with the passion and power of opera. When he was 16, he began studying in New York with Emily Olin, who teaches with the Yale School of Music’s opera program. He studies with her to this day.
“She became a major force in my life,” he said. “She musically made me who I am today.”
Agar went on to study opera performance and languages at the music conservatory of the State University of New York at Purchase. He became fluent in Italian, French, Hebrew, and German, in addition to English and Russian, the languages he grew up speaking. He began performing as a student, and then professionally after graduation with companies including Amore Opera, Dicapo Opera, Utopia Opera, and Garden State Opera.
He loved opera, but he loved spiritual music, too, and the opportunity to compose appealed to him. His teacher Olin, also an émigré from the former Soviet Union, asked him if he ever considered becoming a cantor. Agar always kept it in the back of his mind.
Some important personal discoveries awaited him, too.
Toward the end of his conservatory studies, his paternal grandfather came down with Alzheimer’s. A charismatic, robust man in his earlier days, a former champion boxer, the grandfather no longer recognized his own wife or his grandson.
“But as soon as I put on music from his childhood, he woke up,” Agar said. “He started singing the lyrics. He was dancing. He was totally alive. This was when I first came in contact with the healing power of music.”
His grandfather died the year after Agar graduated from the conservatory. That was when the rabbi invited him to sing at the funeral. Agar felt music’s power to spiritually heal. And he knew what he had to do.
Agar went on to study at the Jewish Theological Seminary’s H.L. Miller’s Cantorial School in New York. He served as cantor at the Central Synagogue in Rockville Centre, Long Island, before joining Beth Sholom.
Agar is enjoying his new job and getting to know his new home, despite the limits imposed by COVID-19.
“It’s such a warm community, very welcoming,” he said.
For someone who as a young boy aspired to be an architect while playing with Legos, working in a synagogue designed by Frank Lloyd Wright is an inspiration in itself.
He hopes to use music to engage current congregants and attract new ones. If young people play instruments or sing, he hopes they will become part of the music program. He would like to bring back a choir the congregation used to have, maybe have concerts.