First, a follow-up to last month’s report about my guitar. Miss Martin is back home! Dave Collins and Hesh Breakstone of Ann Arbor Guitars promised to have the repairs done by Christmas, but they called me the day after Thanksgiving and said she was ready. Neck re-set, fingerboard re-fretted, bridge fixed, cracks repaired—a complete makeover. When I got to their shop, upstairs from the now defunct Herb David’s Guitar Studio, Hesh handed me Miss Martin. I sat down and started playing—and smiling. She sounded better than she ever has—and I’ve been listening to her closely for 41 years! A little louder, but more importantly, clearer and cleaner – no buzzing anywhere and with true intonation up and down the neck (she’d been getting a bit testier about playing in tune of late). She also—and don’t misunderstand me here—felt better to my hands than she ever has, the frets smoother, the action lower. To say that I am happy—and grateful—is a vast understatement.
When I went to pick up Miss Martin I brought my second guitar for repairs too. Miss Martine—the e is not a typo, it’s her newly acquired name—has been Miss Martin’s understudy for about thirty years and has served me admirably the few times Miss Martin has been in guitar hospital. And, more importantly, she became Emily’s guitar a few years ago, hence the extra e on the end of her name. She, it turns out, also needs some attention from Dave and Hesh. Emily is looking forward to having her back. Meanwhile we’re sharing Miss Martin.
I started writing the rest of this piece on Thanksgiving Day. It’s traditionally a day to share with family, and to reflect on gratitude, and I was fortunate to be able to do both. Here are some of my reflections.
I learned to sing from my father. He had a magnificent voice and sang professionally, though he was not an entertainer. He was a cantor in synagogues for most of his life, starting soon after his Bar Mitzvah and continuing almost without interruption well into his eighties. (He even managed to lead services in the forced labor lagers in which he was imprisoned in Poland for most of WWII.)
He served in a number of communities in his native Hungary, including eventually in Budapest at the Dohany Templom, the largest synagogue in Europe. He last sang there at Shabbes services in early 1957, shortly after the November 1956 Hungarian Revolution, and just a week before our family left Hungary and emigrated to Israel. There he continued to serve as a cantor for a small village near Haifa, though during our stay there he also added chicken farmer and grocery store manager to his resume. When we immigrated to the United States in late 1959 he settled our family in Kingston, N.Y. where he was cantor until he retired at the age of 65. He and my mother then moved to New York City so he could be closer to the only one of his sisters living in the US. His retirement lasted less than six months. He discovered he didn’t like retirement, New York or, truth be told, his sister. He found work at a synagogue near Ft. Lauderdale and went back to being a cantor. He only finally retired after he was hit by a car while walking home from synagogue one Friday night after services. He spent a couple of weeks in the hospital with broken ribs and internal injuries, and finally agreed with my mother that it was time to stop working.
San and Laz, circa 1962, when they were about thirteen, with Cantor Herman Slomovits in the synagogue in Kingston, NY. See if you can guess which is San and which is Laz.
My twin brother, Laz and I started singing with him soon after we began talking. We became his two-boy choir at services even before we began attending elementary school, and we didn’t stop till we left home to go to college. He rarely taught us music formally, but we absorbed from him, almost by osmosis, it seems to me now, much of what we know about singing; vocal production technique, ease with singing a capella, and how to blend and harmonize with other voices.
I started inviting my daughter, Emily to join me on stage when she was eight years old. Of course, we’d been playing music together at home long before that, but, like my father with me, I rarely actively taught her musical skills, we just played and sang together. To my great delight, like me, she also absorbed, adapted and found her own ways of making music. Listening to her sing and play the violin, watching her grow as a human being and as a musician, and sharing the stage with her in performances, have been among my life’s greatest pleasures.
Emily met Jacob in kindergarten, and when they became fast friends soon after, I got the chance to watch him grow up and become a terrific musician and human being too. Emily and Jacob played music in many ensembles and settings throughout their schooling, and a few years ago the three of us began playing concerts together. Teaching them has never been my intent, or an aspect of our relationship—in many ways they are both already way more highly trained musicians than I am. (That’s not false modesty, just accurate reporting.) But, I hope I have been able to give them a variation of the same gift I received from my father. It’s what I hope the audiences that have come to hear Laz and me over the years have experienced at our shows. What I got from my father, genetically and technically, has been invaluable, sure. But I’ve come to realize that his greatest gift to my brother and me was giving us a living example of the inestimable value of music—for musicians and listeners alike. The joy and meaning he, and the people who listened to him, so obviously found in music, was both compelling and irresistible to me. I wish the same for Emily and Jacob—and for you.