Tag Archives: cantors

My Bar Mitzvah Story

by Jack Braverman   (Sarasota, FL)

This was the day that I was to become a man. It was the day of my bar mitzvah. I could only wonder about all of this. I was the smallest of boys, and I knew that in all ways I was just a little kid. 

Everyone was rushing. My mother, Lisle, and my father, Nachman,  were getting dressed in their very best. My sister, Marilyn, was yelling something about nylons. Her fiancée, Stanley, was coming to pick her up in a little while so they could go out together for breakfast before going to Temple.  

I said the brucha that I had been taught and pulled my tzit tzit up over my head. I put on a new stiff white shirt and clumsily tied my tie into a giant knot. This made the tie too short, so I tried again, and this time the knot came out lopsided, but the tie was the right length. I put on the new suit my mother had bought me from the tailor at the dry-cleaning store. It was my very first suit made too big so I could grow into it and made of thick, stiff, scratchy wool that made me feel itchy all over. I could wear it to my sister’s and brother’s engagement parties and their summer weddings so it wouldn’t be a waste.  

I looked in the mirror and tried to smile. Sometimes I wondered if I was normal. Other kids laughed and smiled. I just couldn’t seem to smile. I didn’t know what it felt like to be happy. I usually felt just sort of numb. My parents had often told me how hard their lives had been as children. They had been new immigrants so it had been a struggle for their family just to survive. They often went hungry, were often cold, and some of their brothers and sisters just weren’t strong enough and had died as young children. My father had to leave school in the third grade to sell newspapers in the streets of Montreal. He had learned then how to fight for the best street corners, how to jump onto a speeding trolley to sell some papers and then to jump between the cars onto the next trolley that passed before the conductors could collect a fare. The school of “hard knocks,” my father had called it.  

So my father taught me what he himself had learned as a child in order to survive—how to fight with your fists and how to knock someone out before they knocked you out, how to be tough and take a punch and never ever show pain or weakness, how to be a man. So I learned how to be tough. I challenged the other boys to hit me in the stomach and trained myself to take any punch they could give. I never flinched, never showed pain, never cried. But no matter how hard I tried, I never seemed to be as strong or as tough as my father wanted me to be. My mother taught me what she had learned as a child—how to account for every penny, how to work tirelessly without stopping from before dawn to well after dark, to never to give up, to hold my feelings deep inside and never let them show. I was a good student. I learned what my parents taught me. 

My parents moved often so I had to go to a variety of different Hebrew Schools. I never much liked Hebrew School. When I lived in Far Rockaway and Brighton Beach, I had to ride my bike to get there, so it was easy to just get lost along the way. Then I would weave my bike slowly back and forth across the whole width of some back road, leaning hard into the turns, feeling the edge, feeling the slow hypnotic rhythm as I rode one curve into another, feeling the bike as it felt the road. Sometimes I made it to school, sometimes I didn’t. 

When my family moved to Flatbush in Brooklyn, I was within walking distance to Hebrew School, so I couldn’t use my bike to get there. There was a collapsed building right next door to the school, and there I could spend the hours I was supposed to be in school. Jumping off the edge of one broken wall to another, playing at being an adventurer who could find my footing on the edge of any precipice, leaping out over broken glass and steel shards from one ruined wall to another, improvising more and more difficult jumps—allowing my feet to feel the strength and shape of the broken brick, trusting my senses to gauge the jump and then jumping beyond what I had ever done before, testing my courage, challenging myself to climb higher and jump further, trusting my feet to find their own footing. There was a feeling of danger, and I reveled in it because it made me feel alive. 

The Hebrew School teachers in Brooklyn weren’t kind when boys missed class or disobeyed. They taught as they themselves had been taught. Brutalized when they were children, these teachers taught brutality along with the Hebrew alphabet. They walked the aisles striking each desk with a thick wooden pointer as they passed, seeking out the boys who looked away or showed fear for they knew that these were the boys who were not prepared. There was an edginess, a feeling of danger, in the classroom as they called on one boy after another, waiting to catch one unprepared or not paying attention. When they caught one, they would humiliate him, embarrass him, scrape their wooden pointer across their knuckles or slap it across their backs. Sometimes they smashed the pointers across a desk, and the loud crack of wood splintering always managed to command attention. I read well, so the teachers rarely called on me. I made up a game of making the teachers believe I was asleep, resting my head on my books or mindlessly staring out the windows, knowing I was baiting the teachers, knowing that if I lost my place as I played the game I would be shamed or hit or thrown out. I knew it was risky, but it was the very risk that made it fun. 

Occasionally, some of the biggest boys, who were bigger even than the teachers, answered back. It was then that little Rabbi Menachim, who wasn’t much taller than 5 feet, would be called in. Rabbi Menachim was the toughest teacher in the school. No matter how big they were, Rabbi Menachim just grabbed these boys by their collar, lifted them right up out of their seats, and threw them down the stairs. Rabbi Menachim became my bar mitzvah teacher, and after throwing one boy out of school Rabbi Menachim confided in me that when he himself was a boy of just fifteen, he had disobeyed his father by cutting his hair short to be like the other kids. His father had thrown him down the stairs and out of his house. Then Rabbi Menachim’s father sat shiva for seven days as if his son were dead and never did speak to him again.  

The rabbi told me that though the bruises from being thrown down the stairs went away in a few days, the pain of hearing his own father say the prayer for the dead for him —the pain of looking into his father’s eyes while his father looked right through him as if he weren’t there—that pain was with him still. The personal confidences that Rabbi Menachim shared with me created a special bond between us, and I worked very hard to please the rabbi.  

Rabbi Menachim made it very clear to all of his students that if they could not or would not sing in the very fast, precise, restrained, somewhat stilted way that he taught, they would be bar mitzvahed anyway. They would sit up on the bima, but they would sit there like fools, shamed and embarrassed in front of all of their friends and family because they would  sit up there in front of everyone and say nothing. He insisted on the form of the cantillation being perfect—every word sung in an even controlled tone, no part louder or softer, no part faster or slower.  

I worked as hard as I could at being the perfect student for Rabbi Menachim. I did just as I was told, and the rabbi gave me more and more to chant and finally gave me the Torah portion itself to chant. I sang every note perfectly and distinctly just as I was taught, even though the stiffness and the flatness made the words sound dead—without spirit or heart or melody. 

The chanting that Rabbi Menachim taught sounded nothing like the cantorial music that my father listened to at home. My father would sit at home in the evening listening to old scratchy recordings of the great cantors of Europe and America—Moishe Kousevitsky, Rosenblatt, Serota. These were the cantors from a lost age, my father would tell me. These were cantors who had found a poetry, a natural harmony, in the Torah. They sang with a mesmerizing rhythm, an intensity, an anguish, a cry in their voices that drew me in. My father called these cantors chazans—those who could sing with a feeling in their voices that came from somewhere beyond themselves. They gave a voice to the pain, the loss, the loneliness and the hopes of generations of Jews. The chazans, my father told me, were those who could recreate the ancient haunting melodies hidden deep within the Torah. 

I heard that same music over and over for years growing up. My father would sit in a chair listening, crying quietly as he listened, revealing an emotion that I didn’t know my father had. My father and I didn’t talk much but since my father always seemed pleased when I sat down and just listened, I sat with him often. He told me that these chazans“sang from the heart” and “that was why their singing was so powerful.”  

“Singing from the heart, touches the heart,” he would say. 

Sometimes when I was sure no one was around, I played those old records, listening carefully to the anguished chant of those chazans. I even found a recording of my own Torah portion and sang along and joined in with the  recording, singing in the loudest voice that I could, filling the room with my voice, releasing something inside that was almost dead. 

My sister, Marilyn, came in to see me before she left with her fiancé for breakfast. She retied my tie, tucked in my shirt, which was half out, kissed me on the cheek, and gave me a hug. 

I sat up on the bima waiting to get up to sing my portion. It was the Akedah, the story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice his own son, Isaac. God himself had had to intervene to stop the sacrifice. This was the Abraham whom God had told to lech lecha, to leave his father’s house, to leave everything he had known, and go to himself. What a strange idea, I thought.  To reach beyond everything he had known by going to himself, to reach into  himself in order to go beyond himself. Is this what I’m doing now, I wondered?

I felt even smaller than usual sitting up there alone, vulnerable in front of all those people. I swung my feet back and forth while I waited to be called. I could hear Rabbi Menachim’s instructions in my head. I could still hear the pain in the rabbi’s voice when the rabbi had told the story about his father saying the prayer for the dead for him. 

I felt confused. Didn’t Rabbi Menachim’s own father sacrifice his son just for cutting his hair? Didn’t Rabbi Menachim himself sacrifice some of the bar mitzvah boys just because they couldn’t sing perfectly? In my mind, I could hear the cries and the hypnotic chanting of the chazans. I could hear the rhythms of the poetry in the Torah, the mesmerizing passion. As I sat perched high up on the bima, I remembered my father sitting in the living room crying as he listened to the chazans chanting.  

I wanted to please Rabbi Menachim. I wanted so desperately to finally please my father. I wanted to express the pounding, throbbing emotions that I felt. I wanted to stand up and scream out, “Here I am. I am a person. I have feelings too!” I wanted so much for my father just to notice me, to express some emotion towards me, to approve of something. I wanted to step out of the deadened, crushing life that I lived, unfeeling, numbed. 

Was this a dream?  A dream where I couldn’t feel? A dream where sad old men had taken over a religion and forgotten their heart and their spirit, where a son became dead to his father because he had cut his hair, where a father could cry for long dead cantors while ignoring his own living son sitting right in front of him?

I heard my name called in Hebrew. I stepped up onto a stool so I could see over the podium. Standing on the edge of that stool, I felt I was standing at the edge of the world, on the edge of everything I had ever known, and I could see a soft void in front of me waiting for me to fill it. All those faces in front of me.  

Something was tearing at me inside. My head was throbbing. Thoughts and memories were crowding within me, pushing against each other, trying to get out. There was a pounding in my ears. My skin was hot. There was a cry pushing its way out of me: the anguish of Rabbi Menachim, my father’s tears, my own long buried ache pulsing and pounding within me. I was sweating. I could smell my own fear. I tried to control all these feelings that were exploding within me. I tried to hold myself together. 

I could hear the words of my portion — “Heneni: here I am” —screaming in my head.  I am a human being. I am someone, too. I won’t be crushed. I will be…….

An ancient haunting wail filled the synagogue echoing back from the rear walls. An ancient rhythm seemed to call out to each of the listeners, speaking to each of them in their own name, drawing them in with a passion and a cry that seemed to know each one’s secret pain. The usual constant murmuring in the synagogue was silenced. The passions of the chazans was still alive. A song from the heart touched many hearts that day. I  looked up to see my father embarrassed, wiping away some tears before anyone noticed. 

At the end, when I walked off the bima, I tried to catch the eye of Rabbi Menachim, but the rabbi stood there stone-faced. At first the rabbi seemed to turn away. But when he turned back toward me, he looked right through me, as if I wasn’t there. My father ran up to me, his face still wet, and, proud father that he was, he picked me up and held me up high like a trophy. 

Rabbi Menachim and I never spoke again. 

Jack Braverman was born and raised in “the old country,” better known as Brooklyn, New York. He dabbles in swimming, sailing, kayaking, photography, and writing short stories.


Filed under American Jewry, Brooklyn Jews, Family history, Jewish, Jewish identity, Jewish writing, Judaism

My Musical Mama

by Beverley Fingerhut (Toronto, Canada)

In Memory of Sonya Chula (1910-1999)

Music was woven into my life from a very early age. My mother came from a family of cantors in Poland and she herself had a beautiful voice and sang in choirs.  At the dinner table, I grew up with traditional fare such as names of famous conductors like Antal Dorati and Arturo Toscanini, the cantor Moshe Koussevitzky, opera singers such as Jan Pearce and Jussi Bjorling, the pianist Arturo Rubenstein, the violinist Jascha Heifetz as well as arias from “Madame Butterfly” and “La Traviata”. My story is a letter to my mother filled with memories of her musical legacy and how she transmitted her love of music to her children.

Dear Mom,

There you are, proudly in the front row, your voice soaring above the heavenly choir. How rich my life has been because of your beautiful voice and love of music. 

As a child, money was scarce in our house, but music was never scarce.  You had been a Hebrew teacher in Poland and dad had trained as an accountant, but when you and dad came to Winnipeg from Poland in 1928 and 1930, at the ages of 18 and 20, unable to speak English, you became factory workers in sweatshops. Dad, because of the terrible working conditions in the factories, was instrumental in forming unions to fight for workers’ rights and consequently was fired from many of his jobs. Despite the lack of money, you could still whip up savoury and geshmak meals from very little food and you saved pennies to purchase concert tickets. Because there was not enough money for all three of your daughters to attend, we picked the stalks from brooms to see who had the longest and who was the chosen one to accompany you to a concert.   I was often the lucky one, picking the longest stalk.

One of my favorite childhood memories is going to see the beautiful Madame Guiomar Novaes, considered one of the greatest female pianists of the 20th century. After the concert, you intrepidly took me backstage to meet her, whereupon she presented this shy, eight-year-old with a rose from the bouquet given to her at the end of the concert. I savoured this rose as if the queen had given it to me.  That year at our annual essay contest, I wrote my essay on this momentous event and won first prize, a lovely bracelet.

You walked around the house with your beautiful curly hair that dad loved and sang arias from “Madame Butterfly”, your favorite opera, or the Yiddish songs “My Yiddishe Mama” and “Oifen Pripitchik”. At dinnertime, along with your geshmak food, there was talk of famous conductors, stories of operas and composers. Our substantial record collection consisted of the likes of Beethoven’s “Emperor Concerto”, Grieg’s “Concerto in A minor”, Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture”, Chopin nocturnes, and Rachmaninoff’s concertos, as well as cantorial music by Jan Pearce. 

You never had a cleaning lady but instead you made sure that we had private piano lessons, and to this day your youngest daughter Marleyne continues to practice and play the piano. She recently reminded me that when we had our music and theory exams at the Royal Conservatory you determinedly asked permission to sit outside the door of our examining room (though it was not permitted).  When we emerged, shaken from the frightening experience, you smiled and were able to tell us exactly how we did, note by note.  Sure enough when we got our marks in the weeks to come, they were exactly as you had foretold.

Much to my chagrin and I’m sure yours, I did not inherit your musical gene. Two incidents stand out in my mind.  Firstly, the Jewish socialist school I attended from Grades 1-7 had a choir with a wicked choirmaster, Chaver Brownstone. We were terrified of him and his stick. I was necessary for the last row of the choir because of my height, but my voice was silenced.  I was instructed in a menacing voice that I was not to open my mouth to sing, but to mouth the words and if I dared to sing, he would wave the stick in front of my face.  

Secondly, my secret endeavour was to get singing lessons. I grew up thinking how wonderful it would be to be an opera singer and how thrilling it would be to hear beautiful music emanate from my body.  So when I was in my 50s I researched and found the name of a voice teacher who had a great reputation in dealing with difficult voices. I nervously went to the teacher and after she gave me some pointers about breathing I stood in front of a microphone and belted out what I thought was a knockout version of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy”. Well, they say that everybody can draw or paint, but it is not true that everyone can sing. 

When my oldest daughter got married in Toronto, you wanted to sing at her wedding. You always carried your song sheets in a special embroidered bag, but my older sister forgot to pack the bag in your luggage and so our plan for you to sing at the party in the evening went astray.  But you were a very strong-willed woman and you were determined to sing.  It was during the wedding ceremony as your granddaughter Natalie came down the aisle, with her arm linked with mine that you, sitting in the front row burst into song.  There was not a dry eye in the crowd and 15 years later, friends still remind me of that magical moment.                                                           

To the end of your life you sang in the Winnipeg Jewish choir, you were short and so you prominently sat in the front row and I was honored to see you proudly singing. You travelled with the choir to many cities in Canada and you were asked to sing at important Jewish community events. I remember that once you wore a long black silk dress with a shocking pink rose painted on it.  You had a flair for colours as well as music. 

The day of your funeral in Winnipeg the temperatures went down to -40. Riding to the synagogue, my family dressed in long johns and layers of clothing, double rainbows shone in the icy blue sky. We knew it was you, Mom, watching us. And at the funeral service when your grandchildren sang “Jerusalem of Gold”, one of the songs you loved, they ended by saying, Baba we know you’re up there telling us we were off key.

How rich my life has been. Over the years, Mom, I have seen the famous Rampal dance with his flute, Rostorpovich with his cello at one with his body, your Perly (Itzhak Perlman) making  his violin sing, and  your Pinky (Pinchas Zuckerman) with his beautiful grey hair.  I have been to the Met in New York, where I walked up and down the aisles in wonderment and listened to “Aida”.  I listen to the classical music station and sometimes I too can identify the music or the composer and it feels so instinctive and intuitive, because music has been such an integral part of my life.

To this day, I still have the thrill and pangs in my heart when I hear the opening bars of the Emperor Concerto.  And when I hear Chopin’s nocturnes, it brings back memories of the concert we attended when I was young, and saw the great Arturo Rubenstein famously bouncing up and down on his chair as he played.  Today, when I hear opera singers like Luciano Pavarotti, Jessye Norman, Monseurrat Caballe, and the Cantor Yaakov Stark, I turn the radio to its highest volume, the music envelops me and my heart soars.

Today Mom, I sing proudly and loudly at synagogue, oblivious and uncaring what I sound like.   And I am blessed with three handsome grandsons who love to dance and a little granddaughter Olivia, who has curly red locks like you, has an uncanny resemblance to you, is stubborn and strong-willed like you and best of all, loves to sing like you. Mom, your wonderful legacy has been strong and will endure through the ages.  

Beverley Fingerhut is program director at the Centre of Excellence in Business Analysis at the Schulich Executive Education Centre, Schulich School of Business, York University, in Toronto. As an academic she has been the course director for Entrepreneur Business Development Skills for the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies as well as an adjunct professor in the Professional and Technical Writing Programme at York University. Beverley enjoys painting, reading, art history (in the past she was a part-time docent at the Art Gallery of Ontario), knitting, and spending time with her grandchildren.

“My Musical Mama” was published in Living Legacies – Volume IV: A Collection of Writing by Contemporary Canadian Jewish Women, edited by Liz Pearl (PK Press, 2014), and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author and publisher. You can read more about the collection here: www.PKPress.ca


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A New Melody

by Harriet R. Goren (New York, NY)

We belonged to a moribund synagogue in a stagnant neighborhood where the sermon was the same every Yom Kippur: “Please make your Kol Nidre donation so we can pay the mortgage.”

The shul president pronounced it “muggage,” and I waited every year in hopes that he would get enough money and wouldn’t need to say that word.

One year the man behind us, in his late 80s and one of the youngest members of the congregation, died of a heart attack during the Amidah. I dreaded the holidays more and more each year, their unpleasantness increasing over time at the same rate as that of the relationship in which I was enmeshed.

One year they introduced a new cantor. His last name seemed to be “from Israel.” He wore a funny cantor’s hat, and I was not impressed.  For a few hours I listened to him sing with usual cantor bombast although, unlike the previous hazzan, it was loud enough to keep me awake.

Then we got to the Hatzi Kaddish, a prayer of pause in between parts of the service.

He sang a short melody just once, no repeats, but in that moment all his ice and artifice disappeared.

His voice became soft and lyrical. It was one of the prettiest, gentlest melodies I’d ever heard.

The service continued, but I kept hearing it in my head over and over again above the other mumbled words. I heard it in my sleep that night and again the next morning. Never before had I gotten to services so early (much to the surprise of my boyfriend). But I didn’t know when the cantor would sing it again, and I didn’t want to miss a second.

The service ended, and the relationship soon after, and I joined a new synagogue with amazing melodies of its own. But that first one always echoed, beckoning to me to continue to listen carefully until I heard it again.

Harriet R. Goren, a lifelong New Yorker, is a web and print graphic designer (http://www.goren.com). She is an active member of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on the Upper West Side, aka BJ (http://www.bj.org), where she has had the honor of chanting Torah and helping lead services as a hazzanit. This piece was written in the Writers’ Beit Midrash at The Skirball Center for Jewish Learning at Temple Emanu-El (http://www.adultjewishlearning.org), a workshop for non-fiction based upon shared insights about passages from Torah and Talmud.

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