When Cantor Martha Novick took up her post at Temple Emanu-El in Westfield in 1987, she was part of a pioneering and controversial wave of women entering the cantorial field.
Now, 25 years later, she has seen her reputation spread far beyond the walls of the synagogue as an innovator in the field of liturgical music, and a leading member of the cantorial profession in the United States.
The congregation’s leader, Rabbi Douglas Sagal, described Novick as “a world-class cantor.”
“Her beautiful voice, coupled with her caring nature, has made her a beloved figure at Temple Emanu-El,” he said.
Sagal said that one of the most extraordinary events for many of his congregants was seeing Novick sing before 6,000 people at the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial last year.
Now, to celebrate her milestone, the Reform congregation is holding an Evening of the Arts on Saturday evening, April 28, open to her admirers — temple members, friends, and community members.
By her request, the evening’s main entertainment will be provided by the Klezmatics, the Grammy Award-winning klezmer group.
“The Klezmatics embody all that is joyful, exciting, and even exotic in the world of klezmer music,” Novick said. “I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the love I have for our temple and how blessed I am to have been here for these 25 incredible years.”
Assemblyman Jon Bramnick (R-Dist. 21) will present a resolution commemorating her service to Temple Emanu-El and the community. She will also be honored by Rabbi Charles Kroloff, rabbi emeritus of the congregation and perhaps the person most responsible for hiring her a quarter of a century ago.
Novick had been working at another Temple Emanu-El — in Edison — for six years, but she had her sights set on the Westfield congregation. “Their approach to religion was exactly in tune with mine,” she told NJ Jewish News in an interview a few years back.
Brought up in a Conservative home in West Orange, she had earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from New York University. She planned to be a concert performer, but decided the competitiveness wasn’t for her. A stint singing at the Armenian Evangelical Church in Manhattan opened her mind to a very different career.
“There I was, standing up and singing for these people, and I saw that I could have an effect on their ability to pray,” she said. “I thought, ‘I could be doing this with my own people.’”
She earned a second bachelor’s in sacred music — from Hebrew Union College School of Sacred Music — and in May 1983 was invested as cantor there.
Novick has continued to sing opera and perform as a soloist at distinguished venues, as well as on television and radio, but, in addition to her cantorial duties, teaching has taken center stage. She teaches at HUC, and also serves on the faculty of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America’s Miller Cantorial School.
In an e-mailed answer to questions sent earlier this week, Novick wrote: “Although I love davening more than many things in life, having the pleasure of teaching kids and making them feel as if they are special would win, hands down.”
She estimated that she has helped close to 2,400 b’nei mitzva students, and she stays in touch with many of them. “I only hope they enjoyed their time with me as much as I enjoyed getting to know them,” she said. “And yes, I have already had the great pleasure of teaching some of their children in preparation for their bar or bat mitzva.”
Looking back over her years at the temple, she said, “I have always considered myself among the luckiest cantors in the world. Our members are among the warmest and most embracing people in this universe.” She stressed above all her appreciation for Kroloff and Sagal, whom she described as “great leaders and teachers of our community.”