Finding the Goldbergs: A Catskills mystery unraveled


The moment I kicked in the door of the abandoned house in the heart of the Catskills, I felt like I was in an episode of “The Twilight Zone: Borscht Belt edition.”

In some corners it appeared as if the residents were just out for the afternoon. Pictures and tchotchkes adorned the walls. A mezuzah with the parchment still inside was affixed to a doorpost. A working upright piano sat in one corner. Ironing boards were open. Mattresses lay on beds; in one room the beds were still half-made.

But elsewhere, things were in a state of advanced decay. The roof over the kitchen had caved in. The sink was overflowing with rotting leaves. In a bedroom, vines poured in through the window and spread over much of the ceiling. Mold was having its way with the walls.

I had come to the Catskills hoping to get one last look at Kutsher’s, the last of the great Borscht Belt resorts, after hearing the news that its demolition was imminent. For much of the 20th century, Kutsher’s and other Jewish hotels like it helped make the Catskills the summer destination of choice for New York Jews.

But when I reached the mountains a few days later, I found the roads leading to Kutsher’s blocked by chains and sawhorses posted with warnings against trespassing into the hard-hat zone. I tried to make my way on foot, wading through wet, overgrown grass, but three burly construction workers spotted me and I was forced to beat a hasty retreat.

Which is how I found my way into a crumbling bungalow colony at the edge of Kutsher’s 1,500 acres.

Aside from the main house with 10 bedrooms and side building with a dining room and kitchen that I had broken into, there were a handful of bungalows, a pool and a lake. The buildings all were vacant, in varying states of disrepair and overcome by nature.

One room had half a dozen ovens and refrigerators. Opening one fridge, I half expected to find a cold can of Tab. No dice. In the corner of what appeared to be the living room, there was a public telephone. I picked it up. No dial tone.

Most of the bedrooms were disheveled or empty, but in one I found toiletries and a shoeshine kit carefully arranged on the dresser, three drab but clean dresses hanging in the closet, and a shelf filled with unused legal pads and blank paper.

Then I spotted the first clue to who may have lived here.

Tucked into the mirror was a photograph of four happy-looking elderly couples posing in front of the lake out back now obscured by foliage. Their names were carefully inscribed on the back: Nat & Sylvia, Herman & Eleanor, Milton & Norma, Jack & Charlotte. There was also a date: August 2001.

Who were these people and why did they leave? What purpose did this odd house serve? Were the people in the photo still alive? When was the house last occupied?

This being the age of the Internet, it took less than an hour of sleuthing, a credit card and $3.95 to unravel the mystery of this strange Catskills time capsule.

The simple part was figuring out who lived there. An address label affixed to some shelves in the bedroom with the shoeshine kit read Goldberg. That matched the name on a Jewish National Fund Tree-in-Israel certificate posted on the wall in another room. Along with the photograph I found, I had my target couple: Nat and Sylvia Goldberg.

Combing through online directories and death notices, it didn’t take long to locate family members. Soon I had Nat and Sylvia’s daughter, Judy Viteli, on the line.

She almost cried when I told her where I had been.

“Ah, the kochelein,” she said wistfully.

The what?

“The kochelein,” she said. “It’s a Yiddish word.”

Over the course of several conversations, including one in which we went through old pictures at her kitchen table, Judy and her sister, Paula Goldberg — now 60 and 63, respectively — told me the story of what had transpired half a century ago in that house, why it represented the best years of their lives and how it all came to an end. This is their story.

The kochelein — a term that literally means “cook alone” — represented a particular kind of bungalow colony: a place where several families shared a house but where everyone was responsible for their own food. That’s why there were half a dozen fridges and ovens in the kitchen: Each of the 10 families was allotted half a refrigerator and a shared oven to prepare meals.

A pharmacist from the Bronx, Nat Goldberg began bringing his family to this kochelein, called Fairhill, in 1953, when Judy was still in diapers and her sister Paula was 5. The rest of the house was filled with cousins and close friends, all from the same working-class Bronx neighborhood. Everybody, of course, was Jewish.

There was practically no privacy: Parents and their children slept in the same room, all the families shared only two bathrooms and everyone ate their meals in the shared dining room.

From a kid’s perspective, the summers were idyllic. Days were spent hiking in the woods, swimming in the lake, picking wild blueberries, playing hide-and-seek, trying to sneak into the resort at Kutsher’s and waging endless girls vs. boys wars. On rainy days they’d pack into the dining room with their parents to play mah-jongg or a variation of rummy, gambling for split peas. After the rain stopped, the kids would run outside to hunt salamanders.

Once the Goldberg kids turned 10, they were allowed to hitchhike into Monticello; their mother would wave goodbye as they climbed into strangers’ cars. On weekends they might catch rides with their father en route to the racetrack.

On Saturday nights, when the adults went out, the kids left to their own devices smoked, played kissing games and did whatever else they could think of that their parents had forbidden.

“Every one of us will tell you it was the best time of our lives,” Paula said of those summers. “Our mothers never knew where we were and didn’t care.”

For the adults, the bungalow colony was both an extension of and a break from their lives in the crowded Jewish enclaves of the Bronx. It was mostly the same people, but there was cleaner air, less privacy and less testosterone: The men, who worked Monday to Friday, came up only on weekends; the women and children stayed all summer.

“It was a total matriarchy,” Paula said.

It was the 1950s, before three major factors destroyed the Jewish Catskills: air conditioning, which made staying in the city more palatable; declining discrimination against Jews, which opened up previously unavailable summertime alternatives; and the rise of the working woman, which made moving away for the summer untenable.

The bungalow colony was not for the wealthy. Accommodations were simple. Water came from a well. When it went dry one summer, the families went days without showering and walked around with divining rods. The swimming pool — now cracked, overgrown and shrouded by trees — wasn’t built until sometime in the late ’50s.

With the exception of Nat Goldberg, none of the men at the kochelein had gone to college, and they all worked blue-collar jobs. Jewish families with more money went to resorts like Kutsher’s, where meals, entertainment and a wide range of recreational facilities were included. At Kutsher’s, residents of bungalow colonies like the Fairhill kochelein were referred to derisively as “bungees.”

Entertainment at the kochelein was mostly homemade: Someone would play the piano or the adults would hold silly parties where everyone wore their clothes backward or husbands and wives swapped clothing or held mock weddings or soup-eating contests.

The men were constantly pranking each other. In the mornings, the first thing everyone would do was get in line for the bathroom, toothbrush and soap in hand. With as many as 40 people sharing just two bathrooms, dillydallying was severely frowned upon — not least by your stern, socially conscious mother.

“Everything happened in front of everybody else — all the babying, all the disciplining,” Judy recalled. “There was no private place to yell at anybody.”

One morning when she was 11, Judy had to conceal a hickey she said a boy had forced on her neck the night before.

“It was the summer, you couldn’t wear a scarf,” she said. “So I put on makeup before I came out from the top of my head down to my neck thinking nobody would notice.”

To no avail. As soon as she walked into the dining room, a girl named Arlene spotted it and broke into peals of laughter. Judy was humiliated; her mother made her wear pancake makeup until the hickey subsided.

The food was kosher — to some degree. At home in the Bronx, Sylvia would let her kids have milk after meat, but at the bungalow colony she was stricter because Aunt Faye was sitting at the next table.

“We used to pretend to be kosher,” Judy said. “It was shameful if you weren’t kosher. But people were different degrees of kosher.”

Because the ladies didn’t drive, the mothers would list the groceries they needed in a spiral notebook hanging from a hook in the dining room, and the Polish Catholic family that owned the property — Alex and Mary Chicko — would go to town every day to buy the provisions, adding a penny or two to each item as a delivery fee.

The families all shared a single public telephone. If Milton should phone from the city to speak to his wife who was down by the lake, whoever answered would get on the P.A. system and make the announcement, summoning Norma to the receiver.

If the kids misbehaved, the parents would punish them by dragging them along to Kutsher’s shows instead of leaving them behind with their boyfriends and girlfriends.

For Paula, one kochelein relationship proved to have special staying power: with Mark Goldberg, a boy whose family had been coming to the Fairhill kochelein since the 1920s. She was 5 and he was 6 when they met, and they began “going together” in the summer of 1959.

That was when 13-year-old Mark asked Paula to a movie theater in town to see “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” and the two kissed during the film — with their eyes open, Paula says.

He was fresh; he was a bad boy,” Paula said with a mischievous smile.

The two broke up at the end of every summer and then got back together the following July. Some summers Mark’s family didn’t go up to the mountains, but Mark always came — even if it was in the care of someone else’s parents. That is, until the summer of ’66, when Mark’s father collapsed at the kochelein of a heart attack and died. Mark was 19.

When Mark was 22 and Paula was 21, they married. The couple recently celebrated their 45th wedding anniversary.

By the 1960s, things had begun changing at the kochelein. A pool had been built. Two more bathrooms were added to the main house. There had been three or four bungalows onsite at least since the early ’50s, but in the ’60s the owners decided to build several more, enlisting the summertime kids to help.

Most significantly, the owners cut a deal that traded the use of part of their land to Kutsher’s in exchange for nightly passes to the resort’s shows. Kutsher’s eventually bought the bungalow colony outright.

“That changed our lives,” Paula recalled. “Our parents could get dressed up and go every night and see all the Borscht Belt comedians. They could go dancing on the stage. Our little bungalow colony had very special power based on the land.”

Judy says she enjoyed the shows, except for one thing: “The comedians would tell their joke, and then the punchline would be in Yiddish. I’d ask Mom what he said and she’d say, ‘I’ll tell you later.’ ”

When she was old enough, Judy began working summers at Kutsher’s as a camp counselor. It was hard work, she says: 12-hour days, six days a week, for just $15 per week. At the kochelein, the traditions continued.

At summer’s end, when each family finished packing up the car to leave, the remaining families would assemble for a parting ceremony. They’d all bang pots and pans and sing a song to the tune of the “The Farmer in the Dell”:

We hate to see you go
We hate to see you go
We hope to heck you never come back
We hate to see you go

The Goldbergs were usually the last to leave.

“We left a day later than everyone else because God forbid we should get stuck in traffic,” Paula recalled.

As they graduated high school and college, the number of kids at the bungalow colony dwindled. Some went up only for weekends, some not at all.

Even as the Catskills fell into decline in the ’70s and ’80s, the adults kept going to the Fairhill kochelein — relishing the space without kids, according to Paula. They stopped only when they couldn’t physically do it, obstructed by illness, death or retirement to Florida.

By the 1990s, most of the kochelein’s rooms were empty.

But not the Goldbergs’; they were diehards. Even when Nat and Sylvia took a place in Florida for the winter, they would return to Monticello for the summers. Sylvia kept three separate bottles of moisturizer so she could travel lighter: at her bedside at the kochelein, in Florida and in Yonkers, where the couple moved when they left the Bronx. (Snooping around the abandoned property, I spotted Sylvia’s bottle of moisturizer.)

With the surrounding area growing shabbier every year, the Goldberg kids tried to convince their parents to stop going to the kochelein — or at least get a room for the summer at Kutsher’s, which by now they could afford. But Nat and Sylvia wouldn’t budge.

“To me it was depressing to go up in those later years,” Judy said. “My mother’s sister used to bring up all her money for the summer and hide it in her room. When she had a stroke in the middle of one summer, her son asked us to find the money and we couldn’t. Eventually someone found it.”

The last few summers the Goldbergs spent at the bungalow colony, they were the only couple there.

“It was eerie,” Judy said. “You would go upstairs and all the other rooms were abandoned looking.” Nat and Sylvia would spend their days at Kutsher’s — Sylvia in pottery classes making tchotchkes that she’d take back to the kochelein and hang on the walls, Nat outside organizing shuffleboard games. At the end of the day they would go back to their big, empty house at the bungalow colony to eat and sleep. Though there were half a dozen refrigerators, they still confined themselves to the same half-fridge they always used.

“It felt like the ‘Twilight Zone’ to me,” Paula said. “Dad was 92. We were scared already. They were living alone in that big house and crossing over to the dining room for meals. They were anachronisms.”

Finally, in the summer of 2002, after 50 years of summers at Fairhill, the Goldberg kids managed to convince their parents to forego the kochelein for the following summer, and they booked rooms at Kutsher’s for 10 weeks starting in June 2003.

But when Nat and Sylvia left the kochelein at the end of August 2002, Sylvia was complaining about feeling tired, and she spent that fall in and out of doctor’s offices. She was diagnosed with cancer.

“After we booked them into 10 weeks at Kutsher’s, my mother felt like a very rich lady,” Paula said. “Even when she was in hospice, she thought she’d spend the summer at the hotel.”

Sylvia never made it. She died in July 2003.

Nat, 10 years her senior, held on for nearly another decade, living until the age of 100. He died in June 2010.

Today, the Jewish Catskills is largely a relic. There are still a few bungalow colonies scattered about, and some haredi Orthodox camps have put down stakes, but all the great Jewish hotels have been sold off or abandoned to nature and decay.

Kutsher’s, the last holdout, was sold in late 2013 for $8.2 million to Veria Lifestyle Inc., a company owned by Indian billionaire Subhash Chandra. He plans to build a new health and wellness resort at the site.

Decades on, the kochelein still maintains a hold on the Goldberg sisters — and many of the others who spent their childhood summers there. In 1996, when the sisters held a 50th anniversary party for their parents at Paula’s Westchester home, many of the old kochelein kids showed up for the occasion.

“They were like family,” Paula says.

At Paula’s insistence, she and Mark used to drive to Monticello every year on Aug. 2, the anniversary of their first date. Then last year, for the first time, Paula decided she didn’t want to go anymore. It was just too sad and spooky.

From what I saw on my foray there, it’s also dangerous. There’s no telling when a floor might collapse or the roof cave in. The property is a wreck.

But it’s also full of artifacts – enough for an enterprising visitor to decode the mystery of the copious fridges, the half-full bottle of moisturizer, the piano in the corner of the dining room. Enough, that is, to tell the Goldbergs’ story.

 

 

Borough Park woman vacationing in Catskills killed in Irene


A Borough Park woman is among the at least 16 killed by Hurricane Irene’s six-state onslaught.

Leah Stern, a Jewish woman reportedly in her 70s, was trapped in the Valkyrian Motel in Fleischmann’s, New York, approximately 140 miles north of New York City, when the motel was uprooted and swept away by torrential water, reported VIN News.

On-lookers could hear Stern’s cries for help until around 3:30 PM, when the cries faded.

Stern was found dead by the fire departments from neighboring Broome County some hours later, reported Yeshiva World.

The motel, including Stern’s husband, had been evacuated earlier in the morning. It was not immediately apparent why she did not leave as well.

‘The First Basket’ depicts journey from Ellis Island to shooting hoops


It’s true that major league baseball has seen a renaissance of Jewish players during the past few years, but the historic American Jewish sport is surely basketball.

It makes sense if you think about it: Easy to play on the concrete surfaces that are ubiquitous in urban areas, basketball was the sport most accessible to the sons of the immigrants who had flocked to the United States between 1880 and 1920.

As David Vyorst makes clear in his comprehensive and entertaining documentary, “The First Basket,” those sons took to the game with fervor. Interview after interview with former players and coaches makes clear that basketball, not religious observance, was what mattered to this Americanizing generation.

“My father was busy trying to make a living. My mother was busy taking care of the household. And we were busy in the streets, and in the schoolyard, playing basketball and growing up,” Ralph Kaplowitz says in the film. Kaplowitz lived in the Bronx and later played two years for the New York Knicks.

Kaplowitz wasn’t alone in making a religion out of basketball: The Jewish kids who learned the game in the rough-and-tumble New York City neighborhoods of Brooklyn’s Brownsville and Williamsburg, on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and the Bronx’s Grand Concourse, later stocked the top collegiate teams and the early professional ranks.

The trailer

Indeed, the film’s name stems from the fact that in 1946, a Jewish player, Ossie Schectman, scored the first basket in the Basketball Association of America, the precursor to today’s National Basketball Association.

Considering the paucity of Jewish players in today’s NBA (there’s currently one, the Los Angeles Lakers’ Jordan Farmar), it’s astonishing to remember that several members of Schechtman’s 1946-1947 Knicks team were Jewish, as were players on other teams. Some still affectionately refer to the game that they and top coaches such as Red Sarachek and Red Auerbach developed — emphasizing teamwork, crisp passing and defense — as “Jew ball.”

This style of play originated earlier in the 20th century, when Jewish players competed on both the amateur and semiprofessional levels. Teams were sponsored by settlement houses that wanted to Americanize immigrants, and by labor unions and Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring branches.

Players on the most famous of these teams, the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association, or SPHAs, wore Hebrew letters and Stars of David on their uniforms. What’s more, after many SPHAs games, the court was turned into a dance floor where young Jews could socialize and look for husbands and wives. Some of the figures mentioned in “The First Basket” — Hall of Famer Dolph Schayes and current NBA Commissioner David Stern, both of whom were interviewed in the film — are well known.

Others are less familiar to casual fans. Barney Sedran, for instance, was an early 20th-century player who, at 5 feet 4 inches, is believed to be the shortest player in the Basketball Hall of Fame. During his heyday in the 1910s and ’20s, Sedran played in as many as three games a day, often for different teams.

The Jewish connection to basketball isn’t entirely rosy. “The First Basket” points out that the roots of the 1950s-era college basketball scandals rest in the Catskills summer resorts. The cooks apparently were the first to fix the games with college players, who were there for summer jobs and a bit of basketball.

In the Catskills, gamblers first made the connections that would eventually rock the college basketball world and lead to the suspensions of several City College of New York players, as well as players from other schools in New York City and around the United States. No longer would such New York City teams as CCNY, New York University and Long Island University dominate college hoops, as they did between 1935 and 1951. In a devastating archival clip that is part of the documentary, Nat Holman, the legendary CCNY coach, admits that he never got over his players’ participation in gambling.

The Catskills gambling story could be a nice segue into some of the pitfalls of Americanization: Do any of the players interviewed for the documentary have regrets about their rebellion against their parents’ religiosity? Did they maintain their Jewishness, and did they pass it on to their children and grandchildren? An exploration of these questions would have added another layer of complexity to the film.

Also, the final section of “The First Basket” feels a bit disjointed. Sure, Holman helped bring the game to Israel, contributing to basketball’s globalization. But the link between Maccabi Tel Aviv’s stirring victory in the 1977 European Cup semifinals against a Soviet team and the acculturation of American Jews through basketball, which is the film’s focus, feels tenuous.

To its credit, however, “The First Basket” is a rare documentary that not only provides context (thanks to interviews with scholars of Jewish history), but also is fun to watch. The film’s story, while covered in such works as Peter Levine’s 1992 book “Ellis Island to Ebbets Field” (Oxford University Press), has not been put on celluloid in such detail.

Vyorst’s interviews allow for a glimpse into a generation of Jews who shaped basketball – and who are proud of their accomplishments and their toughness. As Jack “Dutch” Garfinkel, who played for the Boston Celtics from 1946 to 1949, remembers with a smile: “I’m the first man who used the look-away pass in basketball. My passes were very tough. I broke a lot of fingers.”

“The First Basket” opens in Los Angeles on November 14. For more information, visit www.thefirstbasket.com.

Cartoonist captures comics


The deep-wrinkled smile of Mel Brooks, the sadly nervous stare of Woody Allen and the loud-mouthed plasticity of Joan Rivers — Drew Friedman doesn’t just paint these icons, he captures their wit, charm and the poignancy of their careers.

“The history of their lives is written on their faces,” said Friedman, who draws every wrinkle, scar, extra chin and drop of sweat that casually slides across a comic’s face.

Friedman’s new book, “More Old Jewish Comedians” (Fantagraphics Books, $16.99), a sequel to his 2006 “Old Jewish Comedians,” continues his humorous,

Catskills Memories


 

For Rita Lakin, memories of the 1950s at Grossinger’s, the famed Catskills resort, bring up thoughts of three five-course kosher meals per day, plus a runway-length buffet for guests who missed breakfast — served one hour before lunch. Then there were the Saturday night shows that featured a Hollywood headliner, a dance team and a comic.

Her new musical, “Saturday Night at Grossinger’s,” fetes the businesswoman behind the food and the entertainment, Jennie Grossinger (1882-1972). As the show opens, it’s a Saturday night in the 1960s, and Grossinger (Barbara Minkus) must entertain her own guests when headliners Judy Garland, Alan King and Red Buttons are detained by a blizzard. She and her family spontaneously decide to put on their own play, outlining the history of the hotel, which was “Las Vegas before there was Vegas,” Lakin said.

We learn how Grossinger and her parents turned their failing Catskills farm into a summer boarding house, circa 1920, for Jews seeking refuge from sweltering New York City; how the hotel blossomed into an American institution, largely because of Jennie Grossinger’s talent for booking top entertainers; and how stars such as Garland played the hotel, as did numerous comics who got their big break there.

The character of Sheldon, an amalgam of these comics, spouts shtick as thick as a deli sandwich.

“A woman came up to me today and said, ‘How do I lose weight at Grossinger’s,'” he says. “I said, ‘Go home!'”

“Saturday Night” was conceived in the 1980s when television writer-producer Lakin (“Dynasty”) and the late Doris Silverton unsuccessfully pitched a TV series set in the Catskills.

“We felt that onstage we’d have a much better chance of doing something so Jewish,” Lakin said. So they visited the by-then-closed resort, interviewed Grossinger’s children and signed on composer Claibe Richardson and lyricists Ronny Graham and Stephen Cole.

Cole, who also wrote the book, incorporated Grossinger’s lore: how waiters danced with the single women; how the owners once smuggled a dead patron out of the resort (in the musical she’s danced out in a conga line); and how the workaholic Grossinger was “married to the store.”

The character is loosely based on the real businesswoman, and her daughter, Elaine Grossinger Etess, said she recognizes the “spirit” of her mother in the play.

$15-$30. Opens March 26 at Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd. West, Hollywood. For tickets, call (323) 851-7977.

 

BJE Celebrates Catskills Style


The Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) is celebrating its 25th anniversary with a visit to the Borscht Belt, where a generation of Jewish immigrants escaped for celebrations and community, with "The Catskills of Orange County" on Oct. 6 at Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach.

Seating assignments mean checking in at one of the old bungalow hotels, such as Grossinger’s. The menu? Brisket, of course.

The event’s headliner is Noodles Levenstein, who is described as "a mix of Henney Youngman and Jerry Seinfeld." The Orange County Klezmer band will perform medleys.

Dinner honorees include six people who supported specific youth programs and two BJE directors, Ida Marks Meltzer and Joan S. Kaye.

Proceeds will help support a leadership program that reaches 500 teens, training for synagogue teachers and adult education classes.

For more information, please call (714) 755-4400.

A Psalm for a Singer


It’s tenor time in the Borscht Belt next week. The cantors are coming to the Catskills, close to 400 of them, from Conservative synagogues across the country. With spouses and sundry fans in tow, they’ll be descending on Kutsher’s Country Club, one of the last of the region’s great Jewish watering holes, for three days of music and prayer. It’s the annual convention of the Cantors’ Assembly.

The big news at this year’s convention is not a tenor, though, but a soprano: folk singer Debbie Friedman, the temple troubadour, sweet songstress of the Jewish spirit. Along with seven other composers — all cantors except her — she’s been asked to help compose new musical settings for the Psalms of the Day.

For Friedman, 48, this is a vindication of sorts. She’s never won much respect from cantors before, despite her superstar status among their congregants. Over the last 30 years, she’s sold more than 200,000 albums of her Jewish devotional music. She plays regularly to packed houses from coast to coast. Her songs have become permanent parts of the liturgy in hundreds of synagogues. Yet cantors, the musical directors of the synagogue world, tend to treat her music like a campfire sing-along.

“She writes good music which is memorable, because it’s basically repetitive and very simple,” says Cantor Charles Davidson of Elkins Park, Pa., one of the deans of the Conservative cantorate. “But there are many of us who would prefer it if she would look to the traditional nusach as the source of inspiration.”

The nusach, the classic, minor-key prayer music handed down in synagogues over the centuries, is the nub of the cantors’ beef with Friedman. Tradition requires that prayers be sung to nusach, just so. There’s room for growth and evolution, Davidson says, but “a Jewish composer’s obligation is to find ways to bridge the gap between the past and the present.” Shlomo Carlebach did that, he says. “Debbie doesn’t.”

Friedman makes no apologies. Though she’s been studying traditional modes and uses them in some new songs, her goal is to get Jews singing. That means writing songs in melodies that are accessible, in the mode we’re used to hearing. That minor mode of the nusach is not only difficult; it’s foreign to our ears.

“I’d like to reach the point,” she says, “where everybody is comfortable enough with prayer, where they don’t feel like it’s something so untouchable because they don’t have the skills to embrace it.”

Not all cantors disapprove. Growing numbers — particularly her fellow baby boomers — think that Friedman is on to something. “She understands how the nonmusician responds to music and prayer,” says Cantor Benjie Ellen Schiller, professor of sacred music at Hebrew Union College in New York. “Her melodies are softer, written for the average voice. They come out of the 1960s. They resonate for the baby boomers. And she’s put her finger on some texts that people want to sing over and over.”

But many cantors, particularly older ones, “have a visceral negative reaction to her music because of what it represents to them,” says Rabbi Dan Freelander, program director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. “She represents the victory of American musical idioms over traditional Jewish musical idioms.”

That conflict — cantorial versus popular music — isn’t new. The very first talking picture, the 1927 hit “The Jazz Singer,” told of a cantor’s son who broke his father’s heart by running off to become a pop crooner. The film’s star, Al Jolson, was himself the runaway son of a cantor. So were many pop artists of the Jazz Age.

Cantorial hostility toward popular culture ran deep. America’s first superstar cantor, the legendary Yossele Rosenblatt, actually turned down a 1918 offer to sing opera at $1,000 a night because he feared that it would demean his gift. Nine years later, bankrupt, he let himself be featured in “The Jazz Singer.” It cemented his renown, yet it mortified him. He died penniless and heartbroken a few years later.

For a while after Rosenblatt, American cantors actually became pop stars. Moishe Oysher and Sidor Belarsky toured the Borscht Belt regularly, singing sacred songs and Yiddish pop. Richard Tucker and Jan Peerce became full-time entertainers without losing their religious following.

All that ended two generations ago. With rising assimilation among the laity, most cantors today are hard pressed to build a popular following among their own congregants, much less the broader public.

Debbie Friedman brings the process full circle. In a way, she’s a pop singer who ran off to be a cantor.

She started leading song back in high school, in a Reform temple youth group in St. Paul, Minn. After graduating, she moved briefly to Israel, but returned and threw herself back into Reform youth work.

It was shortly after returning to St. Paul in 1969 that she first tried songwriting, putting new music to “Ve-ahavta,” the prayer that follows the “Sh’ma.” It was a time of spiritual turmoil, she recalls, when Jewish kids would sing James Taylor songs and substitute “Moses” for “Jesus.”

“I taught ‘Ve-ahavta’ to a group of kids on a weekend retreat in Pennsylvania,” she says, “and they put their arms around each other and sang it, and I cried. I realized something important was going on, that this was an important point of connection, that these are our words. And I decided I had to do this.”

She’s been doing it ever since, traveling relentlessly, singing before audiences of 20 or 2,000. She’s cut 17 albums in 27 years, most of them still in print. Five of them are among America’s top 10 best-selling Jewish-theme albums right now, according to the Web site JewishMusic.com. She performs about 60 times a year, largely in synagogues — mainly Reform but increasingly Conservative as well. Lately, she’s been moving to concert halls “because the synagogues aren’t big enough anymore,” says her booking agent, Moishe Rosenfeld.

Her success is finally forcing cantors to take notice, in the Conservative movement, if not in her own Reform movement. Two years ago, the Cantors Assembly invited her to its convention as a guest performer. This year, she’s been given a higher honor, invited to compose for the cantorate. “It would have been silly not to invite Debbie,” says assembly head Henry Rosenblum. “She’s part of the synagogue experience.”

Freelander of the UAHC thinks it’s inevitable, though. “The transition to an American nusach is fully underway,” he says. “In 100 years, American Jewish music will sound nothing like the traditional Jewish music of Eastern Europe.”

What it will sound like, probably, is Debbie Friedman.


J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.