Saul Z. Hammerman enters a hushed Beth El Synagogue, dimly lighted by the sun filtering through the stained glass high above.
Abruptly, spontaneously, with a reverberating trill, he demonstrates the strength of his tenor voice and the acclaimed acoustics of this cavernous sanctuary of wood-paneling, brick and 1,432 empty seats. It's a joyful sound and he raises his hands wide, in an expansive gesture to match his smile.
At age 68, he is an enthusiastic, irrepressible man.
"Beth El has been my spiritual home for 43 years," he roars on this recent weekday morning, again testing the acoustics.
For nearly 35 of those years he has been hazan, or cantor, at the synagogue's stylish complex on 23 suburban acres along Pikesville's Park Heights Avenue, north of the Baltimore Beltway. He began as the congregation's cantor -- the singer who plans and leads the music of the Hebrew liturgy -- when members still worshiped at Dorithan and Hilton roads in Ashburton.
Cantor Hammerman -- whose office contains a stone inscribed, "The Lord respects me when I work but he loves me when I sing" -- has had a distinguished career as religious leader, musician and impresario. And these related parts of his vocation were celebrated Tuesday in New York, where he was one of 14 hazans nationwide who received honorary doctorates from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
Tomorrow evening, a celebration of his musical and religious contributions to Judaism and the wider community will continue at Beth El, when he will wear his impresario's hat, presenting the first Baltimore-area recital by the renowned young violinist, Gil Shaham.
"This one has something even Itzhak Perlman doesn't have," the cantor says with the authority of a musician who recognized the genius of the youthful Perlman and other young performers before they gained fame.
"I have a little Hurok in me," Cantor Hammerman says, referring to the late Sol Hurok, a legend among impresarios. "My ego tells me I have a good ear for young talent. I had [the violinist] Shlomo Mintz when he was 19."
Through the years, Cantor Hammerman has brought to the synagogue's musical programs a variety of celebrities. They included singers Robert Merrill, Roberta Peters, Jan Peerce and Theodore Bikel; violinist Berl Senofsky; and pianist Vladimir Feltsman.
It was in 1972 that Miss Peters, the great Metropolitan Opera soprano, entered the empty Beth El sanctuary for the first time and immediately tested the combination of height, wood and brick with a coloratura trill of her own. She pronounced the acoustics "fantastic," Cantor Hammerman recalls.
The Brooklyn native, son of a tailor and a cousin of the great operatic tenor Richard Tucker, was one of three brothers -- all tenors -- who became cantors. Before the deaths of his brothers Michal and Herman, Cantor Hammerman recalls, they often sang together.
None of his three children became a cantor -- he has two sons, a doctor and a lawyer, and a daughter who is a teacher -- and he believes that "the number of Jewish musical performers is dropping." Perhaps one of his grandchildren will follow in his
footsteps, he says.
When he moved here from New York, the Conservative branch of American Judaism was only 32 years old. Beth El, founded in 1947, was its first Baltimore congregation. He has seen it grow from 350 families under the late Rabbi Jacob Agus to its present 1,700 families under Rabbi Mark G. Loeb.
"I've never had a written contract," he notes. "When I arrived -- I was only 25 -- I got the job with a handshake. Now I have what amounts to a lifetime contract, but it's all verbal." His accompanist was once the pianist Aileen Goldstein. She became his wife. Now, for Sabbath services, he is accompanied on the organ by Bruce Eicher, who is also the organist at Baltimore's Grace United Methodist Church.
"I thrill at hearing the sounds in this place," he says of the soaring Beth El sanctuary. "I think that without the added dimension of music a person cannot be whole."
Cantor Hammerman, founder of the Cantors Association of Baltimore, says the inclusion of women is one of the ways his profession has changed dramatically since he first trained for it.
Cantors today -- both men and women -- are far better trained than when he was growing up. In those days, the cantor usually supported himself with a job outside the synagogue. "Star cantors" appeared only for the High Holidays, if at all.
"Today," he says, "the cantor should be a community person." He sees the universal language of music and the programs with general, public appeal he has arranged at Beth El as ways to "cement Jewish-Christian relations."
Gil Shaham's recital Sunday begins at 7:30 p.m. The program includes violin sonatas by Prokofiev and Beethoven, a sonatina by Dvorak and selections by Gershwin and Jeno Hubay. Ticket information: 484-0411. Proceeds will benefit Beth El School.