The hills are alive with Jewish music.
For Kelly McCormick, the hills are alive — with the sound of Jewish music.
McCormick, who will be in town for performances of The Sound of Music when it comes to the Academy of Music from March 15 to 20, plays Baroness Elberfeld in the touring production; at home, she also plays the role of rebbetzin.
While the last name McCormick might not initially strike you as Jewish — she didn’t change it after she got married — she converted to Judaism in 2000, before marrying her husband, Jonathan Blake, a senior rabbi at Westchester Reform Temple in Scarsdale, N.Y.
But, as Maria would say, let’s start at the very beginning.
Growing up outside of Detroit and eventually moving to New York, McCormick was raised in the Presbyterian church by her parents, who both taught Sunday school. But even when she was as young as 6 years old, she never felt truly connected to it.
“I remember very clearly going to my mother and saying I didn’t understand what my teacher was telling me,” she said, remembering that she believed Jesus was a man and God was God. “She laughed. It was precocious for a 6-year-old to say, ‘The church isn’t really working for me.’”
Later, while she was a student at the University of Cincinnati – College-Conservatory of Music, pursuing master’s degrees in voice and drama, she did singing work at churches and synagogues, which was typical for students studying voice.
One of these places was the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC) in Cincinnati after a friend recommended her to Bonia Shur, the composer and director of liturgical arts at HUC.
She sang in services with their choir, the first of which was an ordination service that deeply resonated with her — something she was not expecting.
She was reading a booklet that had quotes from the Talmud and the Bible, she remembered. “I sat there and cried for four hours. It fit who I was so perfectly — I guess I was so surprised by that.”
She didn’t have much knowledge about Judaism prior to this experience. Her best friend in middle school was Orthodox, but she didn’t realize or understand what that meant at the time. She remembered that her friend’s family had duplicate appliances like two refrigerators, but McCormick took that to mean they were very wealthy, she recalled with a laugh.
During her time with HUC, she found herself immersed in a community of rabbis and students, including her future husband. She joined their weekly Shabbat morning ensemble, which she said “was like going from zero to 60” in seconds.
“I didn’t really have many Jewish friends, and now all of a sudden, I had this whole community of rabbis,” she said. “I started befriending them and hanging out with them, and still I didn’t really realize that conversion was an option. It was another student rabbi who said, ‘You really seem like you might want to convert,’ and I said, ‘What?’ ”
At the same time, there was a woman who moved into an apartment below McCormick’s in Cincinnati who converted to marry her husband. McCormick started looking more into it. A lot of her learning was self-directed, she said, like reading books. She didn’t really talk about what she was contemplating with anyone, including her mother.
McCormick’s father, who encouraged her to study voice and performance, passed away while she was an undergraduate student at Michigan State University. Another eight family members would pass away in the next year and a half, which, McCormick said, left her feeling very “unmoored.” Her move to Cincinnati to pursue her master’s degrees was “beshert, for sure,” she said, as it gave her some needed structure.
As she was thinking about converting, she was concerned that her mother, who was raised in the Hungarian Reformed Church, might feel like she had lost another family member if she did so.
But by that point, she was already dating Blake, whom she ultimately introduced to her mother. He was patient, she said, and it was a “matter of figuring out with love how to meet in the middle and understand each other.”
In 2000, McCormick had her conversion ceremony, and she and Blake were married in 2002.
Much of her connection with Judaism stemmed from that first ordination service she participated in at HUC.
“I think when I was at that ordination,” she explained, “if I could have had words for it, it would have been just that Judaism reflected my deepest values — a sense of community I don’t think I ever had before, an automatic sense of family, which is of course something I had been losing.
“To automatically belong and be embraced by something, that’s so deeply moving.”
Another key aspect of Judaism she connected with was the importance of asking questions — and how sometimes the questions are more important than the answers — something that comes up in The Sound of Music as well.
“I was raised to do what I was told,” she said. “Answers were ‘Just because’ or ‘That’s the way it’s done.’ It’s such an acknowledgment of being human to ask questions and not be shut down at that level.”
Questions were important for the director of the musical, three-time Tony Award-winner Jack O’Brien, as well, McCormick said.
“In The Sound of Music, you see everybody asking these questions,” she said, about survival and about going forward. “And for Jack, those questions were: ‘What is safe, what is risky and what is worth fighting for?’ ”
There is one classic song in particular that she thinks shows these values, and in a very Jewish way.
“The best place you can see that,” she said, “is in ‘Climb Every Mountain,’ when Maria is saying to Mother Abbess, ‘I don’t know what to do or what direction my life is supposed to take,’ and she says, ‘Well, go figure it out.’ Nobody has the answers, but she tells her how to find it. To me, that’s a very Jewish value.”
As a Jew, being in The Sound of Music, which at times is rife with Nazi symbolism, is a different but important experience for McCormick.
“I think, as a Jew, to be part of this show where you feel that threat closing in is something that is so important,” she said. “The way we tell the Passover story every year — you want to say ‘Never again,’ and this is why we tell the story to our children. It felt important to be part of this story where that threat is there — you’re reminding the audience there are so many ways this is still part of our present world and we still want to say, ‘Never again.’ ”
She hopes that the audience will grapple with these questions O’Brien is posing, about what is safe, what is risky and what is worth fighting for, and think about them in terms of today’s political climate.
“It’s up to us to make sure that no one is being oppressed or, God forbid, we’re heading toward another genocide in any way,” she emphasized. “From our production, what people are going to learn is that there are deeper questions we can ask of ourselves. That’s something that no one is going to expect when they walk into the theater.”
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