Howard Haimann, 77, of Morristown has been singing for a lifetime. By the time of his bar mitzva in April 1948, he was already a member of the choir at the Morristown Jewish Center.
“I can remember standing around the bima with three or four of my friends,” he told NJJN. “We sang with the men. The service was more traditional back then and there were only male voices, so the kids would be the high voices. That was even before Cantor [Arthur] Sachs,” he said, referring to the hazan who served the community from 1955 until 1977.
An accountant by profession, Haimann is the third of five generations of members of what is now Morristown Jewish Center Beit Yisrael.
“I have a photo of my grandfather at the laying of the cornerstone of this building,” he said, in an April 27 interview at the synagogue.
That evening, at kabalat Shabbat services, the community honored him for the 65 years his voice has been part of the congregation choir.
Other longtime choir participants who were honored included Lee Doswell, who helped lead the ensemble; Maimon Attias, the synagogue’s previous cantor; and members Paul Green, Eleanor Knapp, and Susan Waldman.
Haimann, however, has the distinction of serving the longest of the group. Still, he had some reservations about all the hoopla. “Look, there are a lot of people over the years who have done a lot for this building and don’t get thanked. All I do is sing on the High Holy Days. I do not keep the building going as other people do,” he said.
He further sees his participation in the choir as a kind of investment. “Our forefathers had the foresight to build this building so it would be available for me. And I feel it’s my turn to pass that on to someone else, so I’ve maintained my membership here all these years.”
Haimann recalled the hours he spent in the building as a youngster.
“When I was a little boy, what we call the ‘gold room’ now was a gymnasium. I’d like a dime for every hour I spent on that basketball court! I was here all the time — six days a week. We lived here! Between Sunday school and sports — there was even a bowling alley and we used to set the pins.”
“But,” he pointed out, “they had to throw us off the basketball court on Friday afternoons when it was going to be Shabbat.
“I really benefitted.”
A family tradition
Music was a Haimann family tradition. His mother, a talented pianist, would often play accompaniment at the synagogue. “There was a period of time when I was the only bass,” said Haimann. “How could I say I wouldn’t come?” But really, he said, “I never thought of not singing.”
Haimann has sung behind four cantors: Sachs; Andrew Beck, who served the congregation until 1979; Attias, who retired in 2009; and Vadim Yucht, the current cantor.
For a while, Haimann recalled, there were a few paid members of the choir, and in the early ’70s, there was even a paid organist. “It was controversial; people objected to having a musical instrument in shul on yontif,” he said. “I personally liked it. It’s a lot easier singing with accompaniment than without.”
He remembers singing through high school, but took a break during college and his time in the National Guard. Sachs led the choir when he returned.
“His wife sang, his daughter sang, his brother sang — but his brother was the only bass,” said Haimann. “So I went up to the cantor and volunteered. I asked if he needed some help. Nobody says no.”
By his telling, Sachs was a cantor’s cantor, and sang in the style of Yossele Rosenblatt, the best known cantor of the early 20th century. “When you think of a cantor, that’s what he sounded like.” He noticed that under the leadership of Sachs, “the choir became more formal and was less an adjunct to the service.”
The music changed under Attias’s leadership. With his Moroccan background, he introduced “a different sound, but equally enjoyable,” Haimann said. “He was a very well-liked man, and you could always feel a bond between his pupils and him. He was very warm.”
Through all the cantors and all the years, he’s enjoyed the grateful response from congregants.
“It’s nice walking down the aisle after services and hearing people say, ‘You guys sound good!’”