Cantor Seth Landau is the spiritual leader of Congregation Sons of Israel in Peabody. He grew up in Framingham, and holds a degree in business administration from UMass Amherst, and a master’s in business administration from Babson College. He works for MindStream Analytics. He met his wife, Alissa, at UMass, and they have two adult sons, Gabe and Michael. Seth and Alissa have lived in Lynnfield for 25 years.
Can you tell me about your upbringing, where you grew up and your family background?
I grew up in Framingham. My parents, Ellen and David, are retired and live in my childhood home, and spend a couple months in Florida in the winter as well. My mother, a dental office manager, grew up in Natick; my father, a salesman in multiple industries, mostly the movie industry, lived throughout the Boston area, ultimately settling in Brookline for high school. I have a sister, Michelle, who now lives with her husband Chris and their two daughters in Bridgewater. I was very fortunate to have had both great-grandmothers into my teens and all four grandparents at least well into college and some into my late 30s. I went to college at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where I received a bachelor’s in business administration with a concentration in finance. I also received by MBA from Babson College.
You started playing musical instruments when you were young. What did you play, and when did you realize you had a good voice?
I started playing trumpet when I was about 8 years old. My grandfather was a professional trumpet player. He encouraged me to play music. I was very impressed with his dedication to practice. I could remember staying over my grandparents’ house in Natick as a young boy and remember him smoking a cigar and practicing his scales as he prepared for a weekend gig [probably not a good combination]. However, he did this for years and still played into his mid-80s. However, I remember him telling me that I should play piano. I started taking piano lessons when I was 10. I was very active playing the trumpet through college, where I had a blast [no pun intended] performing with the 350-member UMass Marching Band. However, it is the piano that has stood the test of time for me. I still play almost every day when I can. While I started singing/davening when I was in my teens, I never really saw myself as a singer until decades later. Certainly not secular music. For some reason, however, Hebrew just flowed well with me. Over the last 15 years or so, I have focused a lot on vocal technique and extending notes.
When you were 15, you were teaching Torah and Haftorah Trope for B’Nai Mitzvah preparation at a Natick temple. What attracted you to Judaism as a teen?
For some reason, I really took to Hebrew school. I don’t know why, as most kids were more interested in passing notes to each other and driving the teachers crazy. I actually won class contests in Hebrew speed reading. However, it was ultimately the music that attracted me to Judaism, listening to Cantor [Robert] Scherr lead various tefilot. Cantor Scherr also must have seen something in me to give me the chance to teach other students only a couple of years younger than I was. I don’t know what gave him that confidence in me, but I am grateful that he did. Later on, I got involved in United Synagogue Youth as a junior in high school, and almost immediately found myself elected vice president. It was an incredible experience, and from that point on, I knew Judaism would have a major influence on my life.
As a student at UMass Amherst, you were in the marching band. You also led High Holiday services at UMass Hillel for over 500 people. How was this experience?
They were very difference experiences, but both incredible and critical to my development. I learned a lot about structure, precision, and energy being in a marching band as large and as visible as the one at UMass. The late Professor George Parks, the director for over 30 years, had constant energy and passion even until his last day. I can’t imagine how hard it must have been to inspire over 500 people to work together year after year to learn to play and march with such precision and confidence for his extremely complex routines, but he was likely one of the best there ever was at this. Around the same time, I was very involved at UMass Hillel, first as the treasurer and then as president. The director, Rabbi Saul Perlmutter, who led UMass Hillel for over 40 years, inspired me to take part in leading the services. While I was learning Torah for many years at Temple Israel in Natick, this was the first time I davened in a major role in front of so many people. My confidence level increased significantly from that experience. I’m fairly certain that without these experiences, my adult years would have been a lot more challenging and ultimately less inspiring for me.
You were also president of UMass Hillel. What was it like to lead such a large Hillel?
UMass Hillel represented approximately 3,000 Jewish students on campus and in the surrounding community. It was an incredible experience being treasurer and president. I learned a lot about being on a board of directors and how an organization works from top to bottom, which would be invaluable later in life when I became active in business, both for profit and nonprofit organizations, which included Jewish community center and synagogue leadership. UMass was a very open campus in terms of expressing free speech and protesting; while that was a critical and necessary element to college life, it sometimes led to conflicts, including antisemitic acts from other people or groups. We at Hillel worked with determination to address these issues with university leadership, the police, the local media, and with the diverse student population at UMass and throughout the five-college region. Despite those challenging times, I am extremely grateful for my time with Hillel.
How did you meet your wife, Alissa?
Speaking of Hillel, when I was president, she happened to be the secretary. However, it was when a group of us went to “The Addams Family” movie two weeks before I was ready to graduate that we ended up sitting next to each other. What was interesting, and I didn’t know this until she told me later, was when she saw me two years earlier davening at the High Holy Day services, she told her sister that she was going to marry me. However, it wasn’t until chance brought us together at Hillel that we really got to know each other. However, that almost got ruined when we had our first date sometime later and I drank the last part of my soup out of the bowl. She didn’t find this all that mature [can’t imagine why], but decided to give me a second chance. It worked out better the next time.
You work in the field of analytics. How do you like working with numbers?
I am a budget nut. I love planning budgets and working with numbers. I check my credit score often as I love to figure out how to improve it. My other career in software analytics combines my love of numbers and my interest in technology, although my son Gabriel would say that I am still a novice compared to him and his generation, as he is a software programmer and started building websites from the age of 12. Numbers are also very important in music in regard to tempo and precision and comes very much in handy when davening various arrangements during religious services. I would be nowhere without numbers.
When did you decide you wanted to become a cantor and where did you go to cantorial school?
After preparing hundreds of students for bar/bat mitzvah, leyning Torah, davening, teaching Hebrew school for nearly 20 years, and ultimately, leading a congregation for the last six, I finally realized that my real passion and happiness resided in combining Judaism with music. I love being a spiritual leader and feel that I grow in this role every day. However, I felt that I needed more education and professional status to be more effective with my congregation and the community. After looking at various options and through a referral, I was connected with the Jewish Spiritual Leadership Institute in New York led by Rabbi and Hazzan Steven Blane; it was the perfect situation for me to enhance my knowledge and complete my training as a hazzan, while allowing me to continue to work while my kids were in college. It may have happened later in life (late 40s), but the wait was worth it.
Over the last 30 years, you’ve prepared hundreds of students in Greater Boston for their bar and bat mitzvahs. What’s the secret to teaching Jewish kids Torah and Haftorah?
A lot has changed over the years. Technology, social media, household dynamics, special needs, etc., has led to less Hebrew education on average unless you are very orthodox and/or attend a Hebrew day school. Hebrew reading skills, understanding of tefillot and knowledge of overall Judaic concepts have dropped significantly since I was a young man. Teaching students requires more effort today than it did back 30 years ago. Patience is certainly a key. Establish a good rapport with the student. Find something you have in common with them; it puts them at ease [usually]. Be flexible in your process. Some can learn trope easily via a recording or direct teaching. Others (most) need some color coding of trope patterns or symbols to represent note progression. Some even need transliteration as they cannot read Hebrew well or at all. I also don’t go in thinking that they have to accomplish a certain amount of work. Learning a whole Haftorah plus multiple Aliyot are not always practical. Enjoying and learning positively from the experience is the most important part. Don’t get me wrong, I work to challenge the students to see how far they can get. But it is important not to make the experience any harder than it already is. They are 12- and 13-year-olds. I also like to work on their presentation skills around a microphone as they prepare to give their D’var Torah and/or daven.
Since 2014, you’ve been the spiritual leader of Congregation Sons of Israel in Peabody. What’s the most rewarding part of leading a congregation?
Leading this congregation brings me such fulfillment. The more I do it, the more I wonder why it took me so long to realize what makes me passionate. It is definitely a back-and-forth process. The congregation teaches me as much as I teach them. Our core group of daveners and the board of directors are very dedicated to the synagogue. They are my other family; they are passionate. I love teaching Trope and Tefillot, along with adult education, and have prepared two dozen people to participate in the High Holy Days since the pandemic has started. The service attendees have also taken well to new arrangements to some of the prayers. I look forward to continuing this process for many years to come.
What’s your favorite Torah portion or Hebrew prayer to chant?
I would say that the Hineni and the Unetaneh Tokef prayers are amongst my favorites of the Yamim Noraim, as they truly express the essence of those special days. They provide a footprint [or voiceprint] of talking directly to the congregation and to G-d through its diverse musical interpretation. Each part of these two prayers is unique to each other, but in the end show that our lives, individually or communally, are intertwined with G-d and that tzedakah, teshuvah, and tefillah are not mutually exclusive. I have learned a lot about Torah and teaching Torah since I became the spiritual leader. I actually enjoy discussing the Parshat in Vayikra. You would think discussing the mitzvoth aren’t really as interesting as let’s say, the creation of the world, the flood, the Akedah, the Exodus from Egypt [take your pick], etc. However, there is so much meaning through interpretation and discussion. I find these discussions to be amongst the most critical and applicable to our lives today, even those that have been replaced [i.e. sacrifices] by other traditions or methods. It is a good thing that we cycle the Torah every year, because there is so much to say.