From Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul

Here I Am

Like the grasses showing tender faces to each other, thus should we do, for this was the wish of the Grandfathers of the world.

Black Elk

There were two special synagogues in my childhood. Congregation Beth El was a huge synagogue in my hometown of Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Another Beth El in Gloucester, New Jersey, was as tiny as the other was large. It was there that I met Cantor Charles Goldhirsh. Wanting to increase my Jewish knowledge and ritual skills, I asked Cantor Goldhirsh to be my teacher. “Okay,” he said in his heavily accented voice, “I’ll teach you. But if you start, you have to finish.”

So Cantor Goldhirsh and I began our relationship as teacher and student. It turned out that Cantor Goldhirsh was also a member of my other Beth El, so we attended services and studied together. He taught me to lead the prayers and to chant the melodies for weekdays and Shabbat. A fast friendship soon developed between us.

At the same time, my relationship with my beloved rabbi, Howard Kahn, deepened as well. In my early twenties, because of Rabbi Kahn’s influence, I decided to study for the rabbinate. When Cantor Goldhirsh said to me, “If you start, you have to finish,” neither of us knew how far I would eventually take my studies.

I think of Cantor Goldhirsh every Rosh Hashanah. Not only was it when I met him, but it was also when I lost my teacher and friend. Cantor Goldhirsh died between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur while I was in rabbinical school. In his eulogy, Rabbi Kahn mentioned the cantor’s profound influence on a young rabbinical student. And even though Cantor Goldhirsh did not live to see me ordained, we did get to share the pulpit together as student rabbi and cantor in a Jewish home for the aged in Philadelphia. He knew I was going to finish what I—we— had started.

Many years later, I decided to write about him for the Rosh Hashanah issue of the bulletin published by the synagogue I serve as rabbi. My congregants had heard me speak of Rabbi Kahn, but I wanted them to know about the other special friend and teacher in my life. So I reminisced and wrote about Cantor Goldhirsh, never imagining the role he was about to play in my life that year.

It began when the cantor of my synagogue had a medical procedure before the High Holidays. He expected to be ready for the holidays, but with less than a week to go before Rosh Hashanah, our cantor announced that he would not be able to sing on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur.

All of a sudden, we were plunged into turmoil. What should we do? Try to bring a substitute at the last minute? Let the rabbi (me!) take over for him? Just in case, I began to prepare to substitute for the cantor.

Many of the prayers were simple enough, but others really needed a cantorial setting. Perhaps the most important of these was a prayer called Hineni. Hineni is the very first prayer the cantor sings after taking over the leading of the service. It is a powerful and dramatic prayer in which the cantor begs God to accept his prayers on behalf of the congregation, despite the fact that his human failings make him unequal to the enormous task of praying on behalf of so many other persons. As one of the highlights of the holiday liturgy, Hineni could not simply be chanted. Hineni had to be sung the way a real cantor would sing it. No problem, I thought. I’ll learn it from a tape.

I went to my set of prayer tapes. No Hineni. I went to the tapes from cantorial class in rabbinical school. No Hineni. Of course not. Rabbis might have to help out leading the prayers from time to time, but the rabbi never has to do Hineni. That’s always the cantor’s job. But this year, it was mine.

I began to contact friends. Did anyone have a tape of Hineni? No one did. What was I going to do? Was I even going to need to do Hineni? Maybe the synagogue was going to bring in someone else to substitute for the cantor. Did I want them to do that? I didn’t know. Which was worse, the pressure of preparing to do something I was not really trained to do, or the pressure of working with a stranger without adequate time to prepare together? I didn’t know. All I knew was I was starting to feel pretty panicky about Rosh Hashanah that year.

I sat down to think. I decided I wanted the success or failure of our services to be in my own hands, not in a stranger’s. I called my president, Paula Harris, and told her I did not want a substitute cantor. “Okay,” she said, “let me talk to the board, and I’ll call you back.” She went off to talk to her board, and I went on searching for that elusive tape of Hineni. No luck.

Later that night, the phone rang in my study. It was Paula. We would do it the way I wanted, she said. No substitute cantor. I listened to her as I stood behind my desk. And as I thanked her for listening to me, my eye fell on an old, wooden box in a bookcase.

To this day, I don’t know what pulled me to that box, but something did. I looked inside. Tapes. Old tapes from fifteen years ago or more. One of the tapes had a small label on it. The label read “Goldhirsh.” I put the tape in a player and hit the play button. There was my old teacher’s voice, saying, “Now this is the prayer for the cantor to sing before Musaf.” And Cantor Goldhirsh began to sing Hineni.

I stopped the tape and started to cry. Then I listened to Cantor Goldhirsh’s Hineni. When had he made this tape? I had never studied High Holiday prayers with him. But there it was. And then, as the tape came to an end, my dear, late friend had one more thing to say, one last, precious gift for his student. “This is Cantor Goldhirsh. Ben, I hope you’ll do a good job. I know you will.”

Was this just a coincidence? Maybe, but if you believe that, you have more faith than I do, even if it is faith in coincidence. Rabbi Kahn always taught me that there are no coincidences, and I am not a big believer in coincidence. But I do believe in God, and I believe in the neshamah, the human soul. I believe that there are bonds between loved ones that death cannot destroy. And I know that after being without him for more than ten years, my dear, old teacher was still teaching me.

All of a sudden, my panic was gone. Everything would be all right. I would not be alone this Rosh Hashanah. Cantor Goldhirsh would be with me on the pulpit. After all, what does the word Hineni mean? “Here I am!” And there he was.

Rabbi Benjamin Sendrow

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