Like so many parents, Cantor Anna Berman measures time by steps in her three children’s development. Her son Joshua was one month old when she was hired by Temple Har Shalom in Warren; he will be 20 in June.
Her congregants’ offspring also provide milestones: Berman just saw a birth announcement for the child of a boy at whose bar mitzva ceremony she sang. “I sang at his wedding too,” she added. “Some days it feels as if I’ve been here a long time.”
On the weekend of March 8-10, the Reform congregation in Warren put on a three-part 20th anniversary celebration dubbed “Music Is Key” to express their appreciation to Berman.
In their invitation to the community, the temple leaders said, “Cantor Berman has touched each of our families and is a key reason why our Jewish community has grown — locally and globally. Cantor Berman has filled our sanctuary with beautiful melodies for two decades and now it is our chance to honor her with a celebration.”
“The weekend was amazing,” Berman told NJ Jewish News. The highlight for her turned out to be the Friday night service. “I sat with the congregation, for the first time ever. Even when my children had their b’nei mitzva, I didn’t.”
She got to relax and enjoy performances by her students; the temple choir; Josh Greenbaum, religious school assistant principal and youth director; and by Sababa, her “home-grown” band.
“It was wonderful — and hard,” she admitted. “It was strange for me not to be in control.”
On the Saturday evening, there was a big party, with food and dancing. The next day two assemblies were held for the Sunday school children, and the cantor was presented with a scrapbook record of her two decades. Greenbaum sang a song he wrote for her, a take-off of “Together Wherever We Go” from Gypsy.
Where the time has gone is barely in evidence. The cantor, who admits to “dressing in jeans like a teenager, except when I’m on the bima — when I wear a suit,” has a lyric soprano that has dropped only in her “top, top range.” She lowers it deliberately at times, to make it easier for her congregants to sing along with her.
Some of that vocal well-being she attributes to her voice coach, Josh Greene. She has been going to monthly lessons with him since 1990. “I have total trust in him,” she said.
As a child, growing up just outside Baltimore, Berman said, she dreamed of singing on Broadway. “I didn’t really care about being in the limelight, or being a star. I wanted to do what I loved doing.”
The family lived in the largely Jewish suburb of Pikesville. Although her father had at one time been Orthodox, the family was no longer very observant. “I never really knew hazanut existed,” she said, using the Hebrew term for the cantor’s craft.
Berman studied music and journalism at the University of Maryland at College Park, and trained as a preschool teacher. She was working as a lifeguard at the pool at the JCC in Rockville, Md., when a member of Zemer Chai: The Jewish Choir of Washington, DC, heard her singing and invited her to join the group.
It was her introduction to Jewish liturgical singing, and it changed her life. “I fell in love with the music,” she said.
She went on to study at Hebrew Union College, and then joined the Jewish Congregation of Kinnelon as cantor and educational director, before finding her professional home at Har Shalom in 1993.
While the melodies and Hebrew came easily to her, it took her a while to learn the folk staples of the Jewish summer camps and youth groups. While she had been to Jewish day camp, she said, it was at Union for Reform Judaism overnight camps where “the Jewish music scene really changed.”
Since then she has immersed herself in the work of contemporary Jewish musicians like Rick Recht and Josh Nelson and the late Debbie Friedman, who, Berman said, “was an enormous influence on all of us. It was a huge loss when she died. She turned the tide, making it acceptable to play a guitar on the bima, instead of only having organ or piano music.”