‘It’s not about singing — it’s about people’

‘It’s not about singing — it’s about people’

Questions for Cantor Perry Fine

Cantor Perry Fine, whose 18th anniversary at Congregation Beth El will be celebrated June 6, with the synagogue’s children’s chorale, in 2008. Photo by Nomi Colton-Max
Cantor Perry Fine, whose 18th anniversary at Congregation Beth El will be celebrated June 6, with the synagogue’s children’s chorale, in 2008. Photo by Nomi Colton-Max

On Sunday evening, June 6, Congregation Beth El will be celebrating Cantor Perry Fine’s 18 years of service with the Conservative synagogue in South Orange, with a gala concert at the South Orange Performing Arts Center.

Fine received his master’s of sacred music and investiture as hazan from the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he has served on the faculty for the past 13 years. In anticipation of the anniversary celebration, NJ Jewish News asked him some questions about his career.

NJJN: Your involvement with liturgical music began so early. What attracted you to it?

Fine: I grew up in an Orthodox shul in Baltimore. My cantor, Hillel Lipsicus, of blessed memory, asked me after my bar mitzva if I’d like to be part of his High Holy Days choir. It was, of course, an all-male choir and I was the boy soprano soloist.

During that summer I learned the High Holy Day liturgy by rote. For the next 20 years or so, I continued to sing in synagogue choirs and I was hooked. It wasn’t until I was in my early 30s that I decided that I wanted to become a hazan, but it was those early positive experiences that formed my emotional ties to Judaism and to Jewish music.

NJJN: If you had not become a cantor, would you have considered a different kind of musical career?

Fine: If you would have asked me that question as a teen, I might have said musical theater. I performed in musical theater in my teen years with a community group in Baltimore and loved it, but as a career, it was not meant to be.

NJJN: What is your favorite liturgical piece?

Fine: Hard to say. I think my favorite setting of the liturgy comes from the Zihronot section of the Rosh Hashana Musaf service. The prayer is called Zaharti Lach, and it describes this intimate, tender relationship between God and the Jewish people.

NJJN: What do enjoy most about being a cantor?

Fine: Being a cantor is not about singing; it is about people — being there for your extended family, your congregation during the best and worst of times, and sometimes using music to touch their hearts. It is about making a difference — or at least trying to.

NJJN: What stands out as the most meaningful change in these 18 years?

Fine: The thing I am most proud of is the many members of our community, of all ages, who have developed skills to be better connected to the tradition. I speak of Torah, haftara, and m’gillot readers whom I have trained over the years. The many shlihei tzibor, particularly teens who have been part of my Sha’tz club (a teen lay davening group), and in my choirs both at Beth El and community interfaith Voices In Harmony [which he helped found].

NJJN: What do you do most enjoy outside of your work?

Fine: My time with my family, my wife Miki and my sons Daniel and Yonatan; politics — I’m a news junkie; sports — my hometown Baltimore baseball team, the Orioles, who test my loyalty, but a fan is a fan. I like to putter around in the garden, work out, spend time with friends.

NJJN: Does any particular experience at Beth El stand out as a highlight?

Fine: My experience with the Beth El Chevra Kadisha, formed this past year, has been life changing. There is nothing quite like being part of a tahara team…or comforting a mourner. These are expressions not just of kavod (honor) but of love, and I am proud to be part of a community that has given life to these ancient mitzvot.

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