A Teacher Who Changed My Life


Last night I had a dream that I never showed appreciation to Chazzan Berkowitz, and so I woke with the resolution that I would do so today.

I don’t come from a family of musicians. Though my maternal grandfather was a (non-observant) Yiddish storyteller who loved to sing at gatherings, none of my other grandparents had a musical bone in their bodies. Indeed, my father, who is still with us, is so distinctly atonal that when he sings, dogs howl. We had an old family friend who was a cantor. For years, he was in a coma, and we were told he was brain dead. My father would bring us along to visit him. My father sang to him, and the cantor, in a vegetative state, used to grimace in pain.

When he was younger and healthy, this cantor reckoned that I had Potential. And he worked with me, when I was but five years old, to memorize the first chapter of Genesis in Hebrew. As a young child, that was my claim to fame. But there was another cantor who had an even more significant impact.

Some context: Learning for one’s Bar Mitzvah is a big part of a Jewish boy’s youth. Standing up in front of everyone and reading from the Torah scroll (which for many is basically reciting from memory with some visual aid from the scroll which lacks all vowels and punctuation) is a rite of passage for all observant Jewish boys.

But my parents, like many Jews who do not live in a Jewish population center, had something to prove. If I had been raised “Back East,” I might have read a number of verses, and duly passed through the Bar Mitzvah gate. But when you come from a place like Portland, Oregon, you need to show that you can match the best of them. Sure, I was to read the Haftorah, and the Torah portion itself. But my parents also wanted me to lead all the prayers that day as well. This is not common – at all. To this day, I have never met another bar mitzvah boy who did all of those things.

Jewish prayers follow within a given key arrangement and musical progression that can be hard to learn. But the cantor in the local synagogue (we lived 40 miles away), Cantor Berkowitz, changed my life. He realized that I could carry a tune, and he nurtured it and encouraged me. He taught me the classic nusach (samples are at virtualcantor.com), and then he went to town, pulling out songbooks and hammering away at a small electric keyboard to see what I liked and could sing. I blossomed under the attention, and grew the confidence that I could, in fact, make my parents and my teacher proud.

I went from my bar mitzvah onward to a series of choirs (including this one), and I have been a Cantor myself for many years now, leading High Holy Day prayers (with my choir) in a synagogue we hold in our own home. The melodies I learned from Chazan Berkowitz have carried down to my children in turn. And I have no doubt that if it were not for Chazan Berkowitz, my life would have been very much less filled with music.

The investment by one teacher in the life of one twelve-year-old child can change everything.


P.S. Though I am bad at faces, I think this is the same man.

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  1. Arahant Member

    iWe: Indeed, my father, who is still with us, is so distinctly atonal that when he sings, dogs howl.

    Well, my father has passed on, and he wasn’t Jewish, but otherwise I would swear we were brothers.

    • #1
  2. MarciN Member

    My sixth-grade teacher Mrs. Barrows had a similar role in my life. She decided against all evidence to the contrary that I was a smart person. :) :) In those days, that meant simply that I had to do my homework. :) :)

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  3. Mad Gerald Coolidge
    Mad Gerald

    “If you can’t sing good, sing loud!”

    I have been hearing that phrase my whole life and it infuriates me.  The next time I hear it I will remind the speaker of Roseanne Barr singing the national anthem.

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  4. CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill Coolidge
    CarolJoy, Not So Easy To Kill

    The remark about the comatose cantor grimacing in pain if your father sang cracked me up.

    Thanks for  brilliantly recounting  the influence on your life from the cantor who mentored you. So good to read something upbeat and grateful.

    • #4
  5. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn

    I remember taking my first creative writing class in high school. I have no idea why I signed up: I didn’t see myself as either creative or a writer. But the teacher (I can’t remember her name) was probably the most enthusiastic teacher I ever had–not in a phony way, but in a way that demonstrated her love for her subject and being a teacher. She was wonderful. I think she played a part in my gravitating to writing later on.

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  6. Steven Seward Member
    Steven Seward

    Was that Rabbi Jonathan Sacks walking with Charley Stuart in the linked video?  If so, I hope some of his wisdom rubbed off on the old boy.

    • #6
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