‘It’s all about relationships’
Questions for Cantor Howard Stahl
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills will celebrate Cantor Howard Stahl’s 10th anniversary at the congregation with a commemorative Friday night service on Oct. 23, featuring a performance by singer/songwriter Debbie Friedman and a talk by Rabbi Daniel H. Freelander, senior vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism.
NJJN caught up with Stahl to talk about music, mitzvot, and the Mets.
NJJN: What’s your favorite musical genre (outside of liturgy, of course)?
Stahl: My tastes are so eclectic. Among classical music, I’d have to say opera. It’s visual, and it’s got choral music, instrumental music, vocal music, and dance. I think it’s the richest musical art form. But I also love jazz, pop, Broadway tunes, and contemporary ballads.
NJJN: So do you have a favorite opera?
Stahl: Definitely Otello by Verdi. It’s not a fun opera, but it talks about the human condition and the psychological manipulation that Iago does to destroy frail, fragile Otello. And while Otello is frail and fragile, he was also a great warrior. It’s a testimony to Verdi, a man who had a great career — he was over 80 when he wrote Otello — and it’s full of magnificent music.
NJJN: Do you have a favorite liturgical piece?
Stahl: You probably think I’m going to say Kol Nidrei, but I’m not. Actually, it’s a setting of Birkat Kohanim, the ancient priestly benediction, written about 50 years ago by Max Janowski. It’s a powerful setting. I’ve sung it in churches for interfaith services, and for High Holy Day services here. Aside from the High Holy Days, the last time I sang it was at [Rabbi] Barry Greene’s funeral [former religious leader of B’nai Jeshurun, who died in December 2008]. So it has particular meaning for me, as it had for Barry.
NJJN: What’s the best part of your job?
Stahl: The best part of my job has nothing to do with music. I never really consider myself a musician or a singer. I don’t have the personality for it. To me, it’s all about relationships. It could be sitting with a congregant, helping them through a difficult time, or sitting with a kid — a two-year-old, a four-year old, even a 20-year old — and watching them absorb everything like a sponge. It’s communicating with the congregation on a multitude of levels: laughing, crying, sitting over a cup of coffee shmoozing, or really learning.
NJJN: What do you like to do when you’re not at the synagogue?
Stahl: Disconnect. I like to get out on the golf course and embarrass myself. I must be the world’s worst golfer. Or read. Or do a crossword puzzle, especially the Sunday Times puzzle, which I can finish in a couple of hours. And I’m also the patron saint of lost causes. I’m a lifelong, committed, diehard New York Mets Fan. I was at opening day at Shea Stadium, and I was at closing day. I love them, but they frustrate me.
NJJN: Of all the great moments at B’nai Jeshurun over the past decade, is there one that stands out from the rest?
Stahl: There are plenty of personal moments; they usually involve a bar or bat mitzva. But the greatest public moment since I’ve been here was the 160th anniversary celebration of Temple B’nai Jeshurun last year in Newark. Over 1,000 people were there. People who grew up there were weeping and crying, and people who had never been there came and were moved. It was a great melding of the history and the future of this congregation.