The accompanist's ability, appearance and charm overcame the young, good-looking cantor. "I sat down at the grand and we had a grand time," Hammerman says.
Married, with grandchildren
Two years later they were married. Now they have three grandchildren, not to mention two sons and a daughter.
And Aileen Goldstein Hammerman still accompanies her husband, as she has at many, many concerts over the years.
She'll be honored at a dinner-dance for the Hammerman family May 18. Hammerman himself will be celebrated May 20 at a Concert of Tribute featuring Naftali Herstik, the cantor of the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem, singing for the first time in Baltimore.
Hammerman is a link to the "Golden Era of Hazans," the time of the great cantors whose voices were compared to the finest operatic tenors of their time and filled their synagogues to overflowing with admirers.
Their names were Josef Rosenblatt, whose son Samuel was a Baltimore rabbi, Moshe Koussevitzky, Zavel Kwartin, Moshe Ganchoff, Mordechai Herschman and even Richard Tucker and Jan Peerce. They were the superstars of Jewish religious music from the end of the 19th century until World War II. In Europe, the Golden Era died in the Holocaust; in America, with the passage of time.
Hammerman grew up when the tradition of the great cantorial singers was still alive, Rabbi Loeb says, and they influenced his style of singing.
"He has in his bones the spirit of that environment and that world," the rabbi says. "That's no longer available to us. It's irreplaceable. The world they inhabited is gone."
Hammerman was born and raised in Borough Park, Brooklyn, still the heartland of Orthodox Jewry in America. At 8, he was already singing in the Yiddish theater with the great comedian Molly Picon. In those days he was an alto soloist singing in synagogue choirs all over New York City and at weddings from the Lower East Side to Ocean Parkway.
"I used to do five weddings after Shabbat ended," he says. "I got 50 cents a wedding -- and all you can eat."
Started in the Navy
He got his start as a cantor in the Navy, as chaplain's assistant to Julius Mark, who would become rabbi at Temple Emmanuel in Manhattan. Because he knew the liturgy from singing with the New York choirs, he officiated at services at the Pearl Harbor submarine base and many of the islands of the Pacific.
When he returned to New York after 14 months in the Navy, he studied at the Cantors Conservatory of America in the Bronx. His brothers Herman and Michal were already cantors. They often performed together in the 1960s, notably at memorable concerts at Beth El.
As Beth El's music impresario, Hammerman likes to think of himself as a cantorial Sol Hurok, the legendary postwar concert promoter.
He's extremely proud of having brought Itzhak Perlman, Shlomo Mintz and Gil Shaham, the "Big 3" of contemporary violinists, to Beth El. And he's presented an impressive array of singers, including Renee Fleming, Robert Merrill, Giora Feldman and the redoubtable Jan Peerce, who sang at his 25th anniversary celebration. He's had the Naval Academy Glee Club at Beth El three times.
He's also accumulated a room full of honors, including an honorary doctorate of music from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
In retirement, Hammerman plans to relax a bit, but doesn't intend to stop singing. He'll probably work pretty hard on the free-lance circuit, he says.
Certainly a hard act to follow. That job falls to Tom King, 40, who comes to Beth El from a Conservative synagogue in West Hartford, Conn.
Kasoff, whose relationship to the cantor is now something like a straight man to a stand-up comic, or vice versa, says Cantor Hammerman is leaving at just the right time.
"They won't have to carry him out," he says.
"Yes," says the cantor. "And I'm still singing in the same key!"
Pub Date: 4/21/97