AJ Music Fest: A Cantor Couch Was a Journey Back in Time

“Art is how we decorate space. Music is how we decorate time.” (OutboundMusic.com via FaceBook)

This year’s Adath Jeshurun Music Festival, held on Sunday evening, March 13, was an interactive musical time machine that transported the audience back to 1950’s Brooklyn – Borough Park, to be precise. Gifted storyteller Cantor Jack Mendelson reminisced in the setting of a therapist’s office, about his youthful influences and progression toward becoming a cantor, and the audience went along for the ride across the Brooklyn Bridge and into the synagogue, the home, and the S&M Deli of young Jacky’s memory.

The program opened with a choral arrangement of “Adonai S’fatai Tiftach,” by Cantor Stephanie Young. At that hour on the first day of Daylight Savings Time, the brilliant point of sunlight had just slid below the high windows of the sanctuary and the shadows were only beginning to lengthen. Cantor David Lipp began the melody and was joined by Cantor Sharon Hordes and then Jennifer Diamond in successive repetitions. The choir chimed in part by part, until the richly layered harmonies became almost another layer in the visual contrast of light and shade, transporting listeners to a place where sound and color come together.

The moment was echoed later in the program when Cantor Mendelson told of listening to Cantor Moshe Koussevitzky in Brooklyn’s Temple Beth-El as a child in the late 1950’s. The period is considered the golden age of cantorial music, and Koussevitzky’s voice transported young Jacky. Mendelson said, “I did not know that this was the end of an era. I did not know that the sun was setting on this art. I did not know that this sound had changed my life.” All he knew was that he wanted to sing in just such a way.

He continued with tales of his bar mitzvah, high school misadventures, family drama, and cantorial studies – sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking, and often both at once. In two acts, Mendelson told the stories of a lifetime. There was Jacky, frantically studying his Torah reading in the bathroom on the eve of his bar mitzvah and there, in the slide show on the screen, were friends and relations who attended his bar mitzvah service and the epic dinner that followed.

“Ninety-nine point nine percent of these people have one thing in common,” Mendelson intoned. “They’re all dead.” He proceeded to provoke chuckles, snorts, and occasional howls of laughter as he pointed out face after face and sang, to the tune of “Havah Negillah,” “Dead, dead, dead-dead-dead – put schmaltz on his bread, it dripped and he slipped, now he’s dead!” and other snapshot-sized accounts of notable passings in his parents’ circle.

Mendelson also told of his mother’s hospitalization and treatment for depression (“She got rid of her depression – and it went into me!”) and the struggles that followed. The gloom of his high school years was relieved only by weekly singing lessons with William Bogzester – called “Bogey” by his students – who taught Jacky to sing not with printed music, but by ear, saying that “you can’t print the feelings on the page.” In addition to being a great instructor, Bogey was a truly memorable character; he habitually taught (and answered the door) in shined shoes, socks with garters, undershorts, and nothing else, and one had the sense that his expressive and expansive responses to music and to life freed young Jacky to release much of his own anxiety.

Later anecdotes included running away from home, winning and then losing a small fortune at the racetrack (something many Louisvillians can relate to), spending a summer with his brother Sol (also a cantor, and ultimately a mentor) and his best friend, Eddie Fogel. Between stories, he taught the audience to hum harmoniously as he chanted prayers and songs inherent in his stories.

Mendelson was accompanied by pianist Jonathan Comisar, who wrote original music for the show. Erik Anjou, the director of A Cantor’s Tale and Deli Man, filmed the show for the upcoming, as yet untitled sequel to A Cantor’s Tale, a 2006 movie about the golden age of cantorial singing and Cantor Mendelson’s career.

He closed by relating a dream about three famous cantors, including Koussevitzky, who argued about whether the greatest significance of cantorial music was high notes, high art, or sheer entertainment.
In the end, Mendelson concluded that for him, the heart of the matter is keeping the music alive. We no longer live in a “golden age,” and people no longer crowd sanctuaries to hear a particular cantor perform. But through his stories, his music and his passion for teaching, Mendelson does his part to build a new layer onto the foundation of past traditions.

Mendelson’s wife, son and daughter-in-law all are cantors, so in the Mendelson household, the song goes on. It goes on in the classroom and studio as well – and it goes on at the movies. When the new movie is released, watch for me in the audience shots. I’m the modern-Jewish-history buff on the fourth row who looks like she may not be all there. And she’s not – she’s mostly in Borough Park, Brooklyn, circa 1958.

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