Herb Kasoff pops into the cantor's office bearing wine for Passover and proclaims: "I was his first bar mitzvah!"
Cantor Saul Z. Hammerman doesn't deny it. But he doesn't confirm it either.
"I've been told that by five other people," he says mildly.
But Kasoff persists. "You know how everybody says they were at Ebbets Field the day Jackie Robinson broke in 50 years ago? That's how guys are claiming they were the first bar mitzvah. But I was the first."
Such claims are multiplying at Beth El these days. Cantor Hammerman, the longest serving cantor in Baltimore, retires at the end of June after 45 years at Beth El Synagogue, and the congregation is beginning to wax nostalgic.
"It's a remarkable achievement," says Rabbi Mark G. Loeb, spiritual leader at Beth El. "It's almost unheard of that somebody stays at one place so long and with so much continuing skill and ability.
"Only one or two cantors in the whole country have had that kind of longevity in a single synagogue," the rabbi says. "He has literally affected every generation of this synagogue."
Saul Hammerman arrived at Beth El Synagogue in 1952, just four years after the congregation was founded in Ashburton with the revered Jacob B. Agus as rabbi. The congregation had just 350 families then. Now at 8101 Park Heights Ave., it has 1,700 families and is one of the largest Conservative congregations on the East Coast.
As cantor all those years, Hammerman has become something of a touchstone for the generations. During his tenure, he figures he's done 90 or so bar and bat mitzvahs a year. He'll sing at two this week. But he's noncommittal about whose was first.
And it's not just bar mitzvahs. Grandmothers come forth now and claim they were brides at the first wedding of the thousands he has performed at Beth El.
"I have no idea who was first," the cantor says with delicate tact, before taking a call about his next one.
Kasoff, who's retired from the wine and liquor business his father Max founded, stops in now when he brings his granddaughter to school at Beth El. Cantor Hammerman sang at her naming ceremony. He also chanted at the bar mitzvah of Kasoff's son, and at his father's funeral.
Hammerman has sung at an uncounted number of funerals and the unveiling of tombstones 11 months later. On this day, he joins the services for Max Krieger: "Our oldest member, 93 years old. He was a pharmacist. And he came almost every day to the minyan [the prayer service].
"I'm officiating at more funerals these days," he says. "As the cantor gets older, the congregation gets older."
Saul Hammerman was 26 when he arrived at Beth El. He's 71 now.
"I came here when the synagogue was being built and there was no roof, just walls," he says. "Now I look and I walk into the sanctuary and I say to myself: If these walls could sing, how many melodies would come across. I'm a blessed man."
The congregation is not alone in its nostalgia. Hammerman notes that he has already blown the shofar, the ram's horn trumpet, and chanted the Kol Nidre prayer for the last time at Beth El during the High Holidays of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
"I thought about 1952 and my first High Holidays. I thought about chanting the great prayer Hineni 135 times altogether," he says. "That's when the cantor walks down the aisle, facing the ark, pleading for his congregation.
"It's a heartfelt prayer," he says. "And that's when the hazan [the cantor] should shine."
Tonight, tomorrow and Wednesday, Cantor Hammerman will sing the beginning of his final Passover services for the festival that commemorates the liberation of the Jews enslaved in Egypt.
"Passover is the holiday of freedom and also the holiday of miracles," he says. "I've come to think that I was extremely fortunate to help nurture a congregation that had only 350 families when I arrived on the shores of the Chesapeake. We've had the good fortune of not having to spend 40 years in the desert."
The final Shabbat
He'll celebrate his last Shabbat, the sabbath service, at Beth El on June 28.
"Shabbat Shelach," he says, recalling the Biblical portion for the week, and laughs as he translates the Hebrew "shelach" freely: "To send, to go, that's what it means."
Herb Kasoff recalls the cantor as a young and single man when he came to Beth El, which had three cantors in four years before Hammerman.
"All of a sudden this young fellow shows up," Kasoff says. "My father said he looked like [singer] Tony Martin. The first night he ate tuna fish out of the can, straight. The elders of the synagogue said, `We got to get this guy married. We got to take care of this guy.' "
Hammerman objects mildly: "That's his version of it." The cantor's version is that he called Peabody Conservatory immediately because he needed an accompanist. "So I called their Musical Matchmaking Division, quote unquote. They gave me five names. I couldn't connect with the first two. The third one was Aileen Goldstein, a graduate of the conservatory, majoring in piano."