Thursday, December 18, 2008

A Tribute to Cantor Saul Z. Hammerman

As many of you know, my uncle Saul passed away this week - his family affectionately called him by his Yiddish name, "Zelig." I just returned from his funeral in Baltimore, where hundreds gathered to remember him. I appreciate all the e-mails, calls and letters of condolence.

This tribute, from the Baltimore Jewish Times, helps explain why he was so loved by so many:

‘Saul Was The Best’

Community mourns Cantor Saul Z. Hammerman.

Alan H. Feiler, Managing Editor

When asked by a reporter last September about his career highlights, Cantor Saul Zelick Hammerman paused and struggled to come up with an answer. There were just too many, he said. “So many wonderful memories,” said Cantor Hammerman, smiling while lost in his thoughts.

The affable cantor, who served as chazzan at Beth El Congregation from 1952-1997 (and subsequently as the Pikesville synagogue’s cantor emeritus), died last Monday, Dec. 15, of renal failure. He was 82.

In a statement, Beth El’s officers, board of trustees and staff praised Cantor Hammerman for “[elevating] the quality of our worship with his magnificent voice and profound sense of spirituality. … He will forever hold a place of affection in the hearts of all of our synagogue families.”

On Sept. 7, Cantor Hammerman received the David Putterman Lifetime Achievement Award from the Conservative movement’s Cantors Assembly of America. Among those performing at the program were Cantors Avi Albrecht, Kimberly L. Komrad, Melvin Luterman and Emanuel C. Perlman.

“That was one of the most touching events I’ve ever been at,” said Cantor Luterman. “Saul was the best. It was always such a pleasure to be with him. He had a phenomenal sense of humor, and he was so bright. He could meet someone for 10 minutes and tell you what they were all about.”

A native of Boro Park, N.Y., Cantor Hammerman — who recorded three albums of cantorial music — was drawn to Jewish liturgy and music as a child. A former president of the Cantors Assembly, he was a passionate advocate of the chazzanut, the traditional cantorial style.

“I grew up with the melodies,” he told the BALTIMORE JEWISH TIMES last fall. “My grandfather was a Chasid and taught me the melodies of the Chasidim. As a kid, I used to sing at weddings. I started out in the Yiddish theater.”

While serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II as a chaplain’s assistant in Hawaii, he was bitten by the cantorial bug. “I delivered salamis throughout the island and performed at Shabbos and High Holiday services,” he said. “I was a chazzan for the Navy, so on the G.I. Bill I studied cantorial music. Instead of wondering what I would do for a living, God said, ‘I’ll help you out.’”

Cantor Hammerman said being an authentic cantor requires “knowledge, feeling, emotion –– so many things. A chazzan is born in the womb. … You have to know the feeling of the song. It’s something you can’t describe, but it’s there. If you sat in shul and heard a real chazzan, you heard someone having a real conversation with God.”

Said Cantor Luterman: “Saul was the kind of guy who said we have to keep the tradition going, that you have to give people that spiritual feeling. He had a beautiful voice. When he sang, you really felt something going on inside of you.”

When coming to Beth El shortly after graduating from the Cantor’s Conservatory of America, Cantor Hammerman did not intend to stay at the congregation more than two years. But after meeting his future wife and Peabody Conservatory-trained accompanist, the former Aileen Goldstein, as well as Beth El’s Rabbi Jacob B. Agus, he said he decided to remain in Baltimore. During his tenure, the congregation grew from 350 families to more than 1,700.

In the early 1970s, Cantor Hammerman toured the country with his brothers –– the late Cantors Herman and Michal Hammerman –– and performed a blend of liturgical and Yiddish folk music. He also performed regularly with his wife, and they co-produced myriad concerts (featuring the likes of Itzhak Perlman, Theodore Bikel, Jan Peerce and Renee Fleming) and theatrical events in the community.

But it was serving as a chazzan that afforded Cantor Hammerman his greatest pleasure. “[It has] given me the breadth to be able not only to chant the music of the masters but to develop my abilities as an impresario,” he told the JEWISH TIMES in May 1997 on the occasion of his retirement.

Cantor Hammerman is survived by his wife and two sons, Jan L. Hammerman and Dr. Samuel I. Hammerman; a daughter, Shelley H. Green; and six grandchildren. He is also survived by a sister, Miriam Avick. Contributions in his memory may be sent to Beth El, 8101 Park Heights Ave., Baltimore, Md., 21208 or the National Kidney Foundation of Maryland, 1107 Kenilworth Dr., Suite 202, Towson, Md., 21204.

“He was my brother, colleague and teacher,” said Cantor Luterman. “I was very honored to be his friend.”

And here are a few excerpts of what I said about him at the funeral:

"Along with his cherished immediate family and his siblings, Zel loved all his nieces and nephews with an Ahava Rabbah – an expansive love -- and ever expanding love – there was room for all of us – and each of us felt, in some way, like his favorite. He had that power. Over the past few weeks, that has been so evident, as one by one, family members called and visited and each contact just made his day. And now this ever expanding love has been transformed into an Ahavat Olam – and eternal love. One that will always be with us. For Uncle Zel, it was a long journey from the baby of the family to the patriarch. In many ways, he never stopped being the baby. He was joking – even to his final moment of breath. For today, for instance, he left the instruction that I should keep it brief!

From the moment my dad died in my first semester of rabbinical school, Zel became my number one fan, supporter, agent, confidant – he was the voice of my dad at every turn. I knew that his pride was my dad’s pride. He called from his office all the time, and he always had the right advice about the lay of the rabbinic landscape. He shared his concerns about the future of the cantorate and his love for good old fashioned davening. We talked about my dad a lot.

My father passed away 30 years ago, in two weeks. In fact, Zel’s yahrzeit will forever be a week before the first day of Hanukkah. And my dad’s will forever be a week after the first day of Hanukkah. Two modern Hammerman bookends with the ancient Hammer Man, Maccabee, in the middle. From the moment of that sudden death, Zel did not miss a beat. He arranged for me to get assitance in paying off my rabbinical school tuition. He pooled resources from the family and bought me my first Talmud. He took a special interest in making sure my brother was well cared for in the group home that came to bear my father’s name. He was there for us and never stopped being there. For my kids he was the grandfather they never had, and a link to the grandfather they never met. They and my wife Mara loved him dearly, as did my sister Lisa and my brother Mark. He really took care of us when we needed it most.

When my Aunt Ruth and Uncle Bernie died tragically, Zel kept us all together. He literally kept himself alive so that he could officiate at all the weddings and have an aliyah at all the bar and bat mitzvahs. We became a tag team under a number of family huppahs. (I always told him to keep it brief.) He took every bit as much pride in the accomplishments of my cousins as he did in mine. He loved us all with an Ahavah Rabbah.

Adonai Sefatai Tiftach u’fi yagid tehilatecha… Eternal God, open my lips, that my mouth may declare Your glory.

Saul’s entire life was directed toward the fulfillment of those words before the Amida, ones that ironically, are never chanted aloud. God did open those lips, and the breath and the sounds that poured forth was as pure any heard since the still small voice itself. And now that voice has been stilled, but the love remains. The brothers Hammerman are reunited again, along with their parents and two sisters. And today, the heavens are filled with music."

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