Unafraid of death, cantor offers a philosophical love fest

On a brilliantly sunny Sunday in late September, Joel Pressman, an esteemed cantor and a venerated former performing arts teacher at Beverly Hills High School, wearing a black T-shirt that proclaimed “I’m not dead yet,” walked slowly with a cane into Will Rogers Memorial Park in Beverly Hills. 

“Let’s everybody have a love-in,” the 63-year-old musician told the dozens of students, alumni, parents, colleagues and friends who’d gathered in his honor, as they whooped and applauded.

In mid-September, Pressman, son of Jacob Pressman, rabbi emeritus at Temple Beth Am, announced in a Facebook video that he is dying of cancer; his doctors have told him he has about two more months to live. Since then, the outpouring of love and support has been so great that Pressman looked forward to the park gathering in order to exchange goodbyes and thank yous with everyone who had touched his life during the 38 years he worked at the school. In his video, he emphasized that he didn’t want people “to cry, to focus on what they had lost,” but rather “on what they have gained.” 

And so, while there was the occasional tear at the gathering, much more abundant over the course of five-and-a-half hours were the heartfelt hugs and the conversation, which often turned to reminiscences as more than 300 fans mobbed Pressman like he was a rock star, waiting in line for up to 30 minutes to greet him.

When Pressman spoke with Susan Grayson, his own former classmate at Beverly High, he recalled how, as the youngest student ever to be admitted into the school’s prestigious Madrigals choir, he would sit on the older singers’ laps when they traveled to gigs in a Volkswagen bug.

Pressman regaled others with stories of singing Verdi’s “Requiem” with the Los Angeles Master Chorale and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl recently — his final concert. 

Madrigals member Arielle Harris, 17, described him as “inspiring, passionate, extremely individualistic and very conscientious,” while Laura Namerow Moss, a student from the 1970s, thanked Pressman for teaching her that singing is about “much more than just having a pretty voice.”

 “It was love at first sight,” she remembered of first meeting the teacher and choir director in 1978. “He was irreverent and sarcastic, creative and funny. He would sing in falsetto for the sopranos on his tiptoes.”

Another alumnus took Pressman aside to tell him that she might well have committed suicide during her troubled high school years had it not been for his influence. In fact, a recent cover story in the Beverly Hills Weekly spotlighted Pressman’s impact on the lives of his students. 

During Beverly High’s annual holiday concerts, Pressman would invite alumni on stage to sing along with the carol “Still, Still, Still,” and at one point in the afternoon, he gathered current and former students to conduct the song one last time. 

The morning following the gathering, Pressman — again decked out in his “I’m Not Dead Yet” T-shirt — sat with a reporter to talk about his life and impending death in his Los Angeles home, where an organ and a harmonium shared space with an array of Judaica. 

“I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t doing music,” the baritone said. “I grew up at Temple Beth Am, and there was music all the time in the junior congregation, and also at Camp Ramah.” As a youth, Pressman sang in the High Holy Days choir and, at 16, was approached to serve as cantor at the synagogue’s Erev Rosh Hashanah services. “I said no,” he recalled. “I wasn’t a cantor, and my Hebrew wasn’t that good.” But then he studied the music, and, he said, the others on the bimah “dragged me through the service. … I always thought the cantor’s job was to create a religious experience for the congregation, and I took that responsibility very seriously.” 

Pressman went on to serve for two decades as a High Holy Days cantor at Beth Am, mostly at auxiliary services, then as a cantorial soloist for Wilshire Boulevard Temple. He also edited several pieces for the Sacred Jewish Choral Music series. On occasion at Beth Am, he would preside over services with his father, who is now 94: “My dad loves to sing, and sometimes he would drown me out,” Pressman said. “He’d lean into the microphone and sing a harmony, while I was trying to lead the congregation with a melody, so we spoke about it — and I lost,” he said with a laugh.

All the while, Pressman was making a career for himself in classical music: From USC, he earned a bachelor’s degree in vocal performance and a master’s in choral conducting. He also placed in the regional finals of the New York Metropolitan Opera auditions, and, early in his career, he sang in church choirs around Los Angeles.

Over the years, he also sang with conductors such as Robert Shaw and Roger Wagner and in the original cast of “Gigi” on Broadway; performed at Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.; and served as a soloist with the Los Angeles Jewish Symphony and other groups. 

“Mendelssohn’s ‘Elijah’ was a big, hot tune for me, and I did a lot of Handel’s ‘Messiah,’ ” he said.

When Pressman landed his teaching job at Beverly Hills High, while in his mid-20s, not everyone initially welcomed him at the school. “Two of the drama department people wrote letters to the local papers saying they were ashamed that this young upstart had been hired and would probably destroy the department,” he said. “But excellence is the best revenge.”

A favorite highlight for Pressman was the time his Madrigals performed at a festival at Lincoln Center about 15 years ago, when a renowned educator said to Pressman, “High school students aren’t supposed to be this musical. How did you do it?” 

“I was kvelling,” Pressman recalled. 

He became much more than a teacher to many of his students. Judi Domroy, 38 and now a close friend of Pressman’s, described how he loaned her money for singing lessons when she was short on funds in high school, telling her she had talent and was worth it. Moreover, he attended her college recitals and offered her emotional support during her divorce and upon the death of her mother. Domroy, in turn, has been there to help Pressman, both before and after she learned of his illness.

The symptoms began, two-and-a-half years ago, when the baritone experienced stomach problems and doctors prescribed medicine for acid reflux for a year. The next diagnosis was of sluggish gut, when doctors “basically sent me home to die,” he said. “[It] was horrible. No solid food went into my system for seven weeks; everything got thrown up.”

It wasn’t until he arrived at Kaiser Permanente Sunset hospital in late 2011 that a scan revealed a 2-centimeter tumor blocking his small intestine; doctors at the time told him he had about two years to live. A surgery followed, but the rare cancer eventually spread throughout his abdomen, requiring another operation to remove half of his stomach and portions of other organs. 

His initial response was “tears, fear, confusion and frustration,” he said. “I’ve always been a person that people came to and said, ‘Fix my problem,’ and I always tried and often could, but I couldn’t fix this. And everything about my case was unusual; everything was a dead end.”

But then he remembered how his sister-in-law told him, as she was dying of cancer, that she didn’t worry about things over which she had no control. And he recalled how, at 15, he used to drive his father around on Sundays to a bris, a wedding, a funeral, or to a hospital visit. 

“I got to watch a rabbi in action, and a number of times I heard him say that when [confronted] with life and death, you should choose life,” he said. “And I learned that death was a natural part of life.”

Pressman told these stories and more when he made an inspired, impromptu speech on Yom Kippur at Creative Arts Temple, where he had officiated on High Holy Days the two previous years. 

“I’m dying of cancer,” he told the congregation.” “[Or rather], living with cancer.

“I have a wonderful friend strapped to my side,” he added, pulling up his shirt to reveal a device that pumps painkillers into his system. “When I start to feel bad, I just push the button and soar off to a happy land.

“I do not fear death,” he continued, “nor should you; you should rejoice in the people in your life, in every good thing you’ve ever done. Choosing life means choosing to live every moment we are given, and if it’s six minutes, we make it a really good six minutes, and if it’s 60 years, you make it a great 60 years.”

Creative Arts Temple’s Rabbi Jerry Cutler recalled the speech as the most remarkable he had ever witnessed at the synagogue — “a truly profound moment.” While congregants were dismayed by Pressman’s gaunt appearance, he said, they were also “enthused by his humor and the strength of his voice.”

Jan Perry, a former city councilwoman who now runs Los Angeles’ economic and workforce development department, said Pressman’s speech was “breathtaking. I was lifted up and broken down and lifted up, all at the same time.”

During the interview, Pressman said that while he does not fear death, he does fear “the indignities of dying; I don’t want to submit my family to that.” Now under hospice care, the divorced father of two was planning a trip to Kauai with his son and daughter, “just to be outside and look at the ocean and be with my children. I want to snorkel, to float over a sea turtle and just see where it goes. And then I’ll return home and hope it goes quickly,” he said.

He is also making a point of going out of his way to express gratitude for the goodness he sees in people. As he told the congregation on Yom Kippur: “I’ve been ending my little speeches with simply, ‘I love you.’ I don’t even know all of you, but why wouldn’t I love you? You’re wonderful people.”