The sunlight streams into the small kitchen in Rabbi Zoe B. Zak’s Uptown Kingston apartment; birdsong drowns out the sound of traffic on nearby Lucas Avenue. The musician and religious leader, formerly a fixture at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation until she took the reins at Temple Israel in Catskill a little over two years ago, played a concert with a Baptist minister downstate the night before, and premiered a new song she’d written for Passover the previous week…in the city’s historic and recently renovated Eldridge Street Synagogue. Yet she’s vibrantly full of energy.
She is speaking about a monthly get-together she’s been attending with other clergy in Catskill, and the musical jams she’s been sharing with a blues harp-playing Episcopal minister, a guitar strumming Methodist, and singing Catholics and Muslims. As well as how her first memories, growing up in a secular Jewish family outside Albany were also filled with music and the spirited need to show caring for all around her.
“I remember being around five years old, loving to play the piano that my brother was mentoring me on as an improviser, and I’d wait for the mailman. I didn’t think he was sick or anything, but wanted to play music for him because I felt it was healing,” Zak recalls with a big smile. “Because I believed music could give him a gift. I just felt that was so…It was the way I dealt with things, through music.”
So how did Zoe Zak get from that starting point to her calling in Catskill? She noted following her music to conservatory and a playing/recording career based in the Boston area, even though it was as an instrumentalist since she didn’t yet trust her voice. Then she spoke about growing up in a home that didn’t seem particularly Jewish until much later, when she realized the values she was picking up — about helping and welcoming others at all times — were what it was all about.
At a certain point she became more curious about her spiritual roots, finding ever-deeper kinship as she studied more about Judaism.
“I love rituals and practices,” she says. “But then I found myself making them work for me, and for my daughter.”
A friend suggested she start attending the Woodstock Jewish Congregation, then located in a space right on Route 212, where Paul Green’s Rock Academy is currently in residence. But the first time she went no one was there…and she found herself weeping. “But it felt so good,” she recalled. Next time she again broke into tears when Rabbi Jonathan Kligler began singing the sh’ma…“And I knew I was in the right place.”
Over the next two decades, Zak started learning to play all she heard on the accordion, her instrument of choice since her first months in music school. She studied and mastered Sephardic musics and soon “things were fusing musically within me.” She started to sing with Rabbi Jonathan. He became her mentor.