New song for old cantors

Hammerman's Fla. gathering helps keep retirees in harmony

January 02, 2003|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Well, we have senior circuits for swimmers, golfers, tennis players, judges, cyclists, volleyball players, even drum and bugle corps. So why not cantors?

That's more or less the thought that occurred last summer to Saul Hammerman, who at 76 is a fairly senior cantor himself. He's cantor emeritus at Beth El Congregation in Park Heights where he served 45 years. He retired in 1997. He still performs the liturgies at weddings and funerals when he's asked and on the High Holy Days.

"I enjoy the thrill of singing. I still love to sing," he says. But he perhaps defines retirement in one remark. "Oh, I hit a High-C [in my prime]. I was a tenor, lyric tenor. I'm lucky [today] when I can hit a good A-flat."

But he's also always had a strong entrepreneurial impresario bent. He brought artists like Itzhak Perlman, Renee Fleming and Schlomo Mintz for concerts at Beth El.

"I always wanted to be similar to Sol Hurok." He loved the impresario role. "I've always had an affinity for discovering talent. I heard Itzhak Perlman when he was at Juilliard, studying, and I booked him."

And he's a past president of the Cantors Assembly ("the largest cantorial organization in the world"), still active with the placement committee and chair of the retirement committee.

So it seemed a perfect fit for him to want to organize retired cantors.

"I felt a retirement organization like this is warranted," he says. "We haven't given the baby a name yet. But because there are men retired, in the West for example, where they only have their wives and the cows to talk to. They don't have colleagues. So it gives them an opportunity to come together and create Grossinger's and the Concord on the beaches of Miami and vocalize - particularly in the showers."

About two dozen retired cantors will join with retired rabbis at the very kosher Saxony Hotel in Miami Beach on Sunday for a four-day kinus, a gathering, a bringing together.

"One was a chief cantor of Tel Aviv," says Hammerman. "He's living in Florida, Shabbtai Ackerman. We also have the father of Emanuel Perlman, the cantor of Chizuk Amuno right here in Baltimore. His father, Ivan, is a cantor, originally of Providence, R.I, who is retired, lives in Florida now.

"We have men singing at a concert who have reached the golden age of 80," Hammerman says. "Some say, well at that age ... a person can't sing too well. The notes are not there as they used to be 30, 40 years ago.

"But neither is the hearing quality of the men sitting in the audience," he says. "So it evens it up."

He laughs heartily. He likes his own joke.

The assembled cantors will delve into everything from the economics of retirement to bel canto in chazzanut, which is the art of classical liturgical music.

Louis Danto, a famous cantor from Toronto, will discuss bel canto. He was a student of the great Italian tenor Beniamino Gigli, "the people's singer" of the first half of the 20th century.

"He's a man of 75," Hammerman says. "I've known him for years. Not too many cantors have this technique. But we're interested in vocal singing.

"We have one man speaking on the life and works of Leonard Bernstein. I happened to know his late father who was in my late brother Michael's congregation in Boston. Bernstein's father was the owner of a wholesale notions business."

Hammerman had two older brothers, Herman and Michael, who were also cantors.

The cantors gathering for this kinus come from both Conservative and Reform congregations. "But not Orthodox," Hammerman says. "We're Conservadox, maybe."

Hammerman has a penchant for this Borscht Belt humor. He did, after all, sing on the Yiddish stage with Molly Picon when he was about 8. He'd already been an alto soloist doing weddings and bar mitzvahs around New York. A Russian choir leader taught him the wedding songs.

"I sounded like I just came over from Russia, too, singing these songs, with his inflections." He sings a bit of "I Love You Truly" in a Russo-Yiddish accent. "But I used to get big tips because they used to say, `Look at that poor kid. He just came over from the other side.'

"This shows you how society has changed, that at 3 o'clock in the morning I was a kid 9, 10 years old leaving the subway, not having one ounce of fear, all by myself. My mother and father were not concerned."

He adds another Grossinger's quip: "In fact, they were hoping maybe someone would kidnap me."

Hammerman was born in Borough Park, Brooklyn. His first cantorial job was at an Orthodox congregation in Bensonhurst, in Brooklyn, where he performed for the Passover holiday.

"I had a weekend position in Passaic, N.J., part-time for two years while I was going to conservatory," he says. He studied at the Cantors Conservatory of America in the Bronx after 14 months in the Navy where he started singing as a chaplain's assistant. "That was the same position where Richard Tucker was a cantor when he started."

Hammerman came to Beth El in 1952.

"I was 26."

He laughs.

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