Cantor Edward W. Berman had his own funny phrase to replace the name of one of the tropes when he worked with b’nei mitzvah students — “Just whack it!”
Ambassador Michael Oren, Knesset member and former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., was among his students. Oren grew up in West Orange at B’nai Shalom (then the Jewish Center of West Orange), where Berman was the cantor for 10 years. Oren told NJJN that when he reads Torah or hears a certain note, “I always have that [phrase] in my mind.”
After a long illness, Berman died April 9. He was 89.
Berman’s pedagogy remains one of his legacies, as he was sought by renowned cantors and beloved by b’nei mitzvah students of all abilities — even those with severe disabilities, long before inclusion became a mainstream idea. For his young students, Berman offered transliterations and other creative methods for teaching prayers and Torah reading.
Berman “took a 13-year-old ADHD kid that had been thrown out of Hebrew school multiple times and taught me my parsha,” Oren said. “I did well at my bar mitzvah, and it was due to him.”
Still, he never lowered his standards for accuracy, according to his three daughters, who spoke with NJJN on May 1.
Another of Berman’s students was minimalist composer Steve Reich, who came to the Jewish Theological Seminary, where Berman was teaching, to learn cantillation in the 1970s. In an email to NJJN, Reich called Berman an “extremely kind and knowledgeable teacher,” who passed on the Lithuanian tradition of cantillation, which Berman had learned directly from the renowned Solomon Rosowsky.
Reich remembered how Berman taught him using recorded cassette tapes and notated sheets of Torah trope, as well as some trope from the Prophets and “Song of Songs.”
“We would meet, I would chant, and he would correct me,” recalled Reich. “Now, over 40 years later, I am certainly not qualified to layn in shul on Shabbat, but I did learn what I most wanted, a knowledge of how cantillation is constructed: fixed short melodic patterns to mark stress, punctuation, and interpretation of the sacred text.”
Berman, a tenor, did not limit himself to chazanut. He performed operas — “La Bohème,” “La Traviata,” and “Madame Butterfly,” for example — in local theaters such as the Gristmill Playhouse in Andover and the North Bergen Opera Association, and in venues such as the West Orange Public Library, churches, and synagogues.
He was a longtime member of the Chamber Music Club, originally based in Newark, comprised of classical musicians and singers, which held monthly performances in members’ homes, followed by what his daughter, Jackie Berman-Gorvine, called “jam sessions.” He performed with them as late as 2010. The last time his daughter Caren Shapiro heard him perform was just a few days before he died. He sang the Irish classic, “Danny Boy,” one of his favorites, to a doctor at the New Jersey Menlo Park Veterans Memorial Home in Edison, where he spent his last years.
Born in Roxbury, Mass., in 1930 to Eli and Anna Berman, he attended the Boston Public Latin School and earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Harvard University in 1951, where he was a soloist in the Harvard Glee Club.
He attended Harvard Law School for a year before deciding it was not a good fit. Instead, he chose the cantorate, encouraged by his friend, Cantor Abraham Levitt of Temple Israel in South Orange, a forerunner to Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel. Levitt “admired his vocal talent, and felt his intellect and good nature would auger well as a teacher of children and adults,” said Jacob Ben-Zion Mendelson, a renowned cantor and another close friend.
Berman graduated in 1959 from the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Cantor’s Institute (now the H.L. Miller Cantorial School and College of Jewish Music), and served in the U.S. Army while in cantorial school.
He’d been singing since he was a child in his synagogue, Congregation Mishkan Tefila in Roxbury, now in Brookline, Mass., according to his daughters, but he had no formal training before college. He would eventually learn from teachers associated with the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, and The Juilliard School and would become a sought-after coach.
Mendelson called Berman a “terrific voice teacher” who helped him through a difficult issue. “I was going thru a time when a chronic hoarseness was preventing me from singing as well as I should,” Mendelson wrote to NJJN in an email. “He diagnosed the problem, gave me vocal exercises to combat the program, and after a month I was back to myself.”
In 1962, Berman married Ethel E. Strauss and together they raised four children. “There was music in our house every minute of the day,” said Shapiro, of Montclair. “When I would come home from school, there was something, either classical music or opera or Jewish music. He was always listening and singing along, and he had speakers in all the rooms on the first floor, these giant speakers.”
He had many interests and studied each of them deeply, his daughters recalled. For his African violets, he rigged special heat lamps to properly care for the flowers. For his ever-growing collection of books, he designed and built a customized bookcase, and he subscribed to more than 100 magazines.
Berman lived in West Orange for five decades and served as cantor at the Jewish Center of West Orange from 1962 until 1972, when its membership dropped significantly and the congregation was forced to do without a cantor, according to a letter of recommendation written for him by the congregation’s then-rabbi, Harold Mozeson.
Berman worked at the Jewish Center of Paramus for three years before joining Congregation Beth Mordecai in Perth Amboy, beginning in 1975. He also worked for congregations in Long Island and upstate in Clifton Park, N.Y. His teaching stints included the Jewish Theological Seminary and Rutgers University’s music department as a voice instructor.
Shapiro recalled that many cantors would visit their West Orange home for coaching. “We all had to be quiet in the house because these cantors would come,” she said. “He would have them in the living room, and he would be coaching them, and he would tell them how to breathe, and he would tell them how to stand. And it would get louder and louder.”
At the 50th reunion of his Harvard class, Berman-Gorvine remembered him joking that he was the poorest person there. But in other ways, she said, he was the richest. “He was a trailblazer because he followed his dreams,” she said. “He was a true artist, and that was his passion.”
Reich perhaps speaks for many of Berman’s former students when he said, “Thank you Cantor Berman for being such a fine teacher and passing along our beloved living tradition.”
Predeceased by his wife, Ethel, he is survived by four children, Caren (Ted) Shapiro of Montclair; Elliot Berman of Cooper City, Fla.; Anna (James) McLaren of North Caldwell; and Jacqueline (Martin) Berman-Gorvine of Potomac, Md.; 10 grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
Services were held April 12 with arrangements by Menorah Chapels at Millburn. Memorial contributions may be made to the H.L. Miller Cantorial School and College of Jewish Music at the Jewish Theological Seminary, 3080 Broadway, New York, N.Y., 10027, or to the charity of your choice.