Dean of city's cantors to celebrate 30th year Milestone service at Oheb Shalom today

November 21, 1997|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

As a young man, Melvin Luterman faced an agonizing decision: Should the tenor pursue a glamorous career as an opera singer, or choose to lead prayers in a synagogue?

Attracted by the emotional power of Jewish religious music, he chose the synagogue over the stage and became a cantor.

Luterman, the dean of Baltimore's cantors, celebrates his 30th anniversary at Temple Oheb Shalom, 7310 Park Heights Ave., at the Sabbath service this evening. He has also recorded XXTC compact disc to commemorate the occasion, titled "Hear Our Voices."

Luterman, who was born in Philadelphia, said he was destined to become a cantor -- the leader of song as well as a religious educator. "I was born of a family that sang," he said. His father loved cantorial music.

"My father always wanted me to become a cantor. He never lived to see it, unfortunately," Luterman said. "He would always play records, and he'd sing all the time. And he always made sure I went to synagogue with him."

Luterman received a four-year music scholarship to Temple University. At the same time, he studied cantorial music with a private tutor and worked part time as a cantor on weekends. He got his first full-time job at a Conservative synagogue in Philadelphia.

But his love for opera and the chance to perform dramatic roles onstage was still a powerful lure. He continued to study with a voice coach from the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York and occasionally performed operatic roles.

Although he had opportunities to pursue opera full time, he chose to remain a cantor.

"My love for opera is still the same, but my love for cantorial music obviously overpowered my love for opera," he said. "When you do opera, you're performing for the people. But when you're singing cantorial music, you're praying to God you try to uplift the congregation by your voice, through prayer, to God. It's more emotional than an acting type of performance.

"It gets to the point sometimes, when you sing the prayers, some of the meanings of the prayers have a very emotional aspect to them, that, while you're singing, you can actually almost cry," he said. "You have to relate that to the congregation through your voice."

Orthodox roots

Luterman grew up in an Orthodox synagogue, and, before coming to Baltimore, worked in a Conservative congregation. When he was hired in 1967 by Temple Oheb Shalom, a Reform congregation, he admits he was a bit scandalized when he heard the organ and Germanic music that was used.

"Quite honestly, I found that when I first came here, I was rather shocked," he said. "I was not really ready for what I heard. But what I've done over the years, is I've been able to change a lot of the music to fit the more traditional melodies that members now like."

In addition to leading the congregation in prayer, Luterman performs many other duties. He prepares children for bar mitzvah and bat mitzvah, he teaches adult education classes and he officiates at weddings and funerals.

"A cantor is basically a clergyman, one who is not only the one who chants the music or leads the congregation in prayer, but is also involved in all other aspects of Jewish life," he said. "I participate in many of the life-cycle events of the congregation."

Work with youth praised

Rabbi Donald Berlin, Luterman's colleague at Temple Oheb Shalom, said Luterman's work with youth stands out. Children who study with him get hours of one-on-one attention, and the transformation as they come away with a sense of accomplishment is remarkable, he said.

"I've seen him take kids with reading problems, speaking problems, shyness problems and create miracle after miracle," he said.

With the retirement this year of cantor Saul Z. Hammerman after 45 years at Beth El Synagogue, Luterman became the senior cantor in town. He credits his long tenure to the loyalty of his congregation.

"I'm the fourth cantor in this congregation in 144 years," he said. "So it shows you at least they keep us."

Pub Date: 11/21/97

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