It’s two weeks before my first yontef davenning in ’63, and I’m terrified. My teacher, Willie Bogzester (“Buck-chester”) has prepared me very well for all the big moments, but this little Orthodox shul on Avenue C in Bayonne New Jersey where I was hired to sing for $700 skipped nothing—down to the most obscure Piyyut, and there was still lot’s more to learn. Bogie said: “Don’t vorry my Jeckie, ve vill get for you ze Davis records!” Avraham Davis was a terrific New York chazz’n who commercially recorded the entire yearly cycle of tefillah in a straightforward, delightful, tuneful nusach which is still relevant to this day. So I ate, breathed, and slept with Davis for a week and a half—and I was ready. Mom and Dad came with me to shep nachas for S’lichos, and I didn’t disappoint. The most memorable thing about that night is us getting in the car at 1:45 a.m., reaching Boro Park at 2:30, and catching Moshe Koussevitsky’s Sh’ma Kolenu in Temple Beth El.
In ’64, I got the overflow gig at Cantor Ben Belfer’s shul in B’nei Sholom of Rockville Center Long Island. Three things were memorable about that experience: Number one—Who would have dreamt that 50 years later my son, Danny, would be the Cantor of that very same shul? He looked in the archives and found my publicity photo, taken in front of the kitchen of the S&M deli of Boro Park, in my brother’s borrowed white gown and mitre, in glorious black and white, looking like a deer caught in headlights. Number two—Who would believe that 40 years later, I would hire my teacher, Ben Belfer, to do the overflow in my place in White Plains? And number three—I’ll never forget the Kol Nidre in “64 when I noticed a gorgeous, leggy blond sitting in the first row with a “Micro Mini” up to her puppick. It was the only Kol Nidre I ever sang thinking about baseball…
So here I am, a half century later, getting ready to daven my last yontef as a full time chazz’n.
Memories surround me
My first Rabbi was the great Chaim Pearl, who became a second father to me, nursing me into the Cantorate with a stern, loving hand. I met a Bar Mitzvah kid in that congregation (the Conservative Synagogue of Riverdale), who was exceedingly musical. Showing him the tropes in the first lesson, this kid sings for me—flawlessly—the entire Haftarah in our second lesson. He shows up at my doorstep about 15 years later, introduces himself, and says he just received his Doctorate in Composition from Columbia. I ask if he was a pianist, to which he replies “Sure.” I whip out a piano vocal score of Die Walküre, and he sight reads the first act, flawlessly. His name was Gerald Cohen.
Off to Beth Torah of North Miami Beach, where thirty insanely talented kids meet me in a rehearsal room, answering a flyer about starting a children’s choir. At the head of the class is Faith Steinsnyder herself, with Paul Goldstein anchoring the alto section. The shul is made up of chazzonis lovers. They want it bad. I give it to ’em, heralding four years of amazing music, transforming a congregation.
Back to New York in ’76, to the sweet Temple Gates of Prayer in Flushing, where chazzonis also rules. Except there, serious New York Mayvinim make up the Jews in the pews. People like Jack Baras (“The Cantor of the keyboard” and legendary Cantorial accompanist), were regular davenners. That’s where I became Jack Mendelson, studying almost daily with Moshe Ganchoff in Brighton Beach (Bam Yam), experimenting on the bimah on Shabbes, and finally perfecting my improvisatory chops. I also met little Mark Stanton, an extraordinary boy soprano who I took under my wing, and is now an extraordinary baritone chazz’n.
Always the kids
When I came to Temple Israel Center of White Plains in ’86, one of the first things I did was start a kids’ choir. Out of that nest, four more cantors were hatched: Stacy Sokol, Liz Kessler Saks, Elana Rozenfeld Cohen, and now HUC Cantorial student Tamara Wolfson (I’m working with a boy and a girl now, who don’t know they will be Cantors… yet!).
In Riverdale, we had the “keyboard controversy.” Chaim (a great amateur musician) and I thought it would be a great idea to use a keyboard at late Friday night services. The shul was divided on the subject. Chaim gave several brilliant sermons trying to convince the nay sayers that it was okay. After much consideration, we settled on once a month. That was great for everyone, except for Chaim, who’s wife, Anita, refused to attend on those evenings. She undercooked the cholent for further emphasis! Cantor Ray Smolover of White Plains composed the first Friday evening Rock Service called “The Edge of Freedom,” which I fell in love with and championed, first teaching it to our teens at CSR, and the at two USY encampments for the Leadership Training Institute.
In Florida, Everything was colored by my work with the kids’ choir and teen choir. We traveled to other cities, and even had our own television show.
The Flushing High Holiday years were marked with a quartet of top New York singers, spearheaded by the great soprano Bianca Sauler, leading artist of the New York City Opera and daughter of Chazz’n Willie Sauler. One year, the wonderful Charles Osboune sang tenor while studying to become Jewish (oops!). The most poignant memory for me was the year a tenor got sick for Yom Kippur, and my beloved Fredda (then my girlfriend) flew in from the coast to sight read (perfectly) the tenor part!
As I sit here contemplating my fiftieth Yontef, I remember holiday services in the late ’80’s when Danny sang his first Havein Yakir Li solos. Those were moments of pure love between a father and son. Lifetime memories never to be forgotten. As he sang, I held his hand—just as we held hands when he recorded the solo with The Western Wind for the Birthday of the World album at age 10, and as we hold hands sometimes today as we make kiddush on Friday night. I also remember in shul, he would leave the bima, and walk around the congregation, shaking everyone’s hand in sort of a “victory lap.”
I look forward with relish to the upcoming days. Wednesday night will begin with the majestic Ma Tovu by Louis Lewandowski, followed by the launching of the most distinctive nusach of all with the singing of Bar’chu (check the hairs on the back of my neck. They will rise.). Ahavat Olam by Zavel Zilberts will be punctuated with the haunting Boro Park solo “Al Kein” sung by Ellie Month, a beautiful singer (and world class Equestrian). I can’t wait for the kiddush, and our Shehecheyanu, composed by Ralph Schlossberg (if you want to cry, go ahead and CRY!!!).
Rosh Hashana day musical highlights are of course Hineni (I’m a nothing), Unetane Tokef, with our magical soloist Ellie Forseter (the whole Jewish world is waiting for you to become a Cantor. It’s not too late!), our great female teen ensemble’s B’rosh Hashana (P.S. here you cry), A new Psalm 150 melody (you’ll plotz as you sing along), and The brilliant Sam Rosner, straight from the Met Opera, singing the contemporary Hayom Harat Olam by Josh Nelson.
On Yom Kippur evening, I get to sing Kol Nidre, surrounded by past Presidents, the pillars on which our community stand. Being Shabbat, Melissa Giges, Jazz singer extaordinare, will sing the poignant Debbie Friedman V’shamru. Ellie will take another solo turn in the new and gorgeous Yaaleh, by Meir Finkelstein. Later, riveting soprano Rachel Weinstock, taking a break from her operatic studies, sings Ki Hine Kachomer, by Mark Silver (brother of Zavel Zilberts).
All of these solos are made musically viable by the underpinning provided by our peerless professional quartet: conductor/alto William Zukof, soprano Ilana Davidson, bass Stephen Hrycelak, and tenor, David Eisenberg.
Yom Kippur day contains many of the musical and liturgical elements of Rosh Hashana, except for the Avodah service and Neilah. It’s Neilah that I dream about. Vocally wrestling with the most essential themes of our very existence, is a challenge. But once I begin, I quickly get into a certain indescribable zone. For me, it has always been like shedding my outer layers of fear and pretentiousness, leaving me in a state of honesty, purity, at one with the text. It’s who I am at the core.
Shanah Tovah, Umetukah.