CANTOR EMIL BERKOVITS

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I was recently asked why I hadn’t written much about my childhood cantor, colleague and friend, Cantor Emil Berkovits, who recently passed. The reason is that I have been sitting shiva (the seven days after a burial within the Jewish mourning process) for my longest, dearest and most beloved friend, Mark Erman. Although Mark was technically not my brother, it was only a technicality. I spent more time with him than my own brother and loved him like a brother. He died to young (47) and it has left his family, his community and me all in shock and bereft. Bottom line, I could not physically or emotionally take on a second devastating loss, at least not until shiva was over.

Today, my brother’s shiva is over. Now it is time for me to confront, accept and mourn the loss of my other dear friend, Cantor Emil Berkovits who was laid to rest on Monday.

For anyone who knows Cantor Emil (even actually never called him just by his first name) you know he was an extraordinary man. I’m sure many have already eulogized him for his extraordinary qualities as a husband, father, son, brother and so much more. Certainly colleagues have had no shortage of praises for him as a cantor. And I know first hand that so, so many of his congregants have turned up to sing his praises because Cantor Berkovits was so much more than a singer. He was an emissary of God and brought to his congregants and his congregation a spark of the Divine for so many in his own, unique, gentle, personal and nurturing way. It is simply not hard to sing this extraordinary man’s praises. Here are a few.

Although so many knew him better than I, or for longer than I, I had the unique privilege of being the only person, ever, to be both his congregant and his colleague. He was, after all, my childhood cantor at Beth El Synagogue, in Omaha, Nebraska. Later he was my partner in building Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott, MA, where I was the rabbi and he the cantor - together by one another’s side.

I was doubly blessed and here is why.

As a kid, I could not have been less interested in Judaism. In fact, I hated it. To be exact I didn’t care all that much about my Judaism. What I hated was going to the synagogue and, worse yet, Hebrew school. That was, until, Cantor Berkovits arrived.

Cantor Berkovits came to Omaha just before my Bar Mitzvah year. As anyone who knew him will attest, he was a breath of fresh air. Cantor Berkovits was young - this was over 30 years ago. Truth is, Cantor Berkovits was always young (I never did know his age). Even when we worked together ten years ago he was “young.” Even until the very end he was young. He was a youthful presence, although he was a wise, old soul. Back in the day, however, he was physically young too - strapping, to be exact. He was fit to the point that my first memory of him was lining up behind the other boys to literally throw my hardest punch into his stomach. Seriously, he had a six pack of abs and no matter how hard we punch, he did not flinch (granted a bunch of Jewish tweens ain’t exactly MMA but, still, the Cantor had game!).

Most people didn’t know this, but Cantor Emil spent some time playing professional baseball. I don’t believe he ever played in the majors but he did spend some time playing in the minors for the Dodgers as I recall. He gave it up, however, because he was groomed for the cantorate, loved Judaism and saw his future, quite clearly as a cantor. Thank God for all of us that he did.

Anyways, throwing that punch did a couple of things to me (I don’t think it did a damn thing to that grade A specimen of a man).

  1. It made me realize that being cool and being clergy weren’t mutually exclusive (a seemingly foregone conclusion in my mind up until that point as his predecessors and colleagues may have been able to sing, but they definitely were not cool, not like Cantor Emil!).

  2. It made me rethink my relationship to Hebrew school. You see, Cantor Emil took a liking to me (actually to everyone but it felt unique to me - that was his gift). He gave me a chance, then another and many more after that. You see, I was not going to have a Bar Mitzvah. I was essentially told it wasn’t possible (at least according to the rabbi). Cantor Emil, however, sat with me and my mom and said, “the truth is Jason is a terrible student, is definitely not ready for his Bar Mitzvah, but let’s do this anyways.” And we did).

  3. Lastly, it made me rethink my relationship with God. I did not do well with the rabbi who shared that God was not central to the conversation of Judaism. It was about text and study. It was about prayer and Halacha (Jewish law). Cantor Emil, however, though a learned, observant and pious man, never stressed any of that. It isn’t that I remember having so many “God conversations” with him. Cantor Emil was just one of those people where it felt godlike because he felt godlike - when I was with him it just felt like I was in the presence of God. And I was!

Although I walked away from Judaism after my Bar Mitzvah, it wasn’t because of Cantor Emil. On the contrary, he was my lifeline to Judaism. When my grandmother died tragically and I returned to the synagogue, it was Cantor Emil who got my family through. And every time I returned to Omaha for a visit, I would join my grandpa at the morning minyan (services) to spend time with Cantor Emil.

When I returned to Judaism, and decided to become a rabbi, Cantor Emil was one of my first stops along the way. After he got over his shock, he was supportive and helpful and even made me a crash course of things to do to get ready for rabbinical school. It was like my Bar Mitzvah all over again, Emil giving me cheat sheets and Jewish hacks so I could, once again, finagle my way through the process. Thanks to Cantor Emil, once again I passed (barely).

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And then, perhaps one of the greatest thrills of my life, I applied to Congregation Shirat Hayam to become the first rabbi of this newly merged synagogue. Lo and behold, who do I find waiting for me at the door - my childhood cantor. Cantor Berkovits and I were now working together as colleagues. I was technically in charge, but Cantor Emil was realistically in charge. He was supportive, gracious, deferential and flexible. He let me make stupid decisions even when they went against his better judgment (“Are you sure you want to sound the shofar on Shabbat? Are you sure you want to cut the Mussaf service and replace it with a yoga routine? Are you sure you want to sing White Christmas on Rosh Hashana?” I can hear him saying in the back of my head to this day. (Seriously, all of those decisions sounded good at the time - or so I thought). Cantor Emil, however, let me lead, let me fall and was always there to pick me back up again, ready to deal with the failures but never, ever calling me, or making me feel like, a failure. Because Cantor Emil was gracious. Cantor Emil was compassionate. And Cantor Emil was my friend.

Perhaps my two greatest memories of Cantor Emil are the following.

The first came after I gave a rocking sermon on Yom Kippur. The last time he saw me give a speech was my Bar Mitzvah and, although I had my shortcomings as a pulpit rabbi, public speaking never was one of them. I had come a long, long way since the last time he’d heard me speak. Immediately after those first Rosh HaShanana services he came into my office and handed me a gift. I opened it and what did I find? The Bar Mitzvah talk I gave, 30 years earlier - the original, with more remarks on it than actual black text. He handed it to me and said, “I’m proud of you - the speaker you have become, the rabbi you have become, and the man you have become.”

This was, perhaps, the greatest praise I have ever known.

The second was fifteen years ago. My father, as most of you know, took his own life. My step-mother called the synagogue to tell me the news. Cantor Emil took the call and took upon himself the role of telling me. All I remember is being held in his arms, bracing myself against that giant of a man (albeit inches shorter than I) and wailing like a child. When I told my mother this she reminded me that it was Cantor Emil who officiated at my grandmothers funeral (also a suicide), and comforted my father and grandfather. So, of course, it was Cantor Emil to see me and my family through, once again. That was Cantor Emil, in so many ways he saw me, my family and so, so many others through it all.

It says in the Jewish texts, “Find for yourself a rabbi (cantor) and acquire for yourself a friend.” More often than not those two roles are found in two separate people. However, once in a great while, once in a lifetime if we are lucky, they are found in the same person. I know for me, but imagine for many, they were found in the same person, the same, extradorinaiy man - Cantor Emil Berkovits.

That was Emil.

He was my teacher.

He was my cantor.

He was my colleague.

And he was my friend.

I will miss you Cantor. I will always be grateful for you Cantor. And I will always love you Cantor.

You were an extraordinary Cantor.

You were an extraordinary Friend.

You were an extraordinary Man.

And you always will be an extraordinary soul. I know my dear Cantor, we will meet again.

Love your student, your congregant, your colleague and your friend.

Rabbi Baruch HaLevi