Last week I had dinner with Johnny Mathis.
That’s right, Johnny Mathis. The third best-selling recording artist of all time, whose open-hearted, sultry voice animated our car rides to Lake Tahoe when I was 10, the eight-track cassette seemingly invented just so my sister and I could say, yet again, “Go back to ‘Chances Are’!”
Imagine my surprise when I found out recently he grew up in my hometown of San Francisco, and sang at my cousin’s high school graduation, and hung out in all the best synagogues on the High Holy Days with his Jewish friends, soaking up every last chord of the ancient melodies. And there he was at 75, walking onstage looking like a million bucks, the fantasies of hundreds disoriented and then reframed by the song that accompanied his onstage strut: “Kol Nidre.”
But let’s take the eight-track back a track or two. Before “Johnny” and I ate sandwiches in the green room at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, along with the good folks at the Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation who had brought him to us for a public conversation, I had been listening to him constantly in one of the galleries, where he headlines the exhibition “Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations.” This Idelsohn-curated installation, which explored the mid-century musical conversation between blacks and Jews, was a love letter to the power of a usable past to inspire the future.
This particular chapter of the past began in 1958, when Mathis — flush on the success of some early gold records — decided to go with his heart and record some spiritual melodies that inspired him as a teen. The album, “Good Night, Dear Lord,” included three Jewish songs — the Hebrew “Eli, Eli,” the Yiddish “Where Can I Go?” and the Aramaic “Kol Nidre,” the crowning jewel of the High Holy Day liturgy. It was the rediscovery of this album that inspired “Black Sabbath”; and it was being reminded of this album that inspired Mathis to speak openly for the first time about his engagement with Jewish music, and his view that the truth of art and music brings people together like nothing else.
Mathis was just as sweet and inspiring in person as he is on vinyl, and everyone felt it. After the conversation my mother looked at me slack-jawed as I introduced the two of them to each other, Johnny Mathis hugging her and telling her she had great taste in clothes. I watched grown men and women, heads of banks and Jewish agencies, edge closer to him, their high school yearbooks open to his picture, whispering sotto voce: “Do you remember me from algebra? I had blonde hair then…”
Roger Bennett, one of the four musketeers comprising the Idelsohn Society, explained the generative power of Mathis’ voice even more simply in the opening words of his introduction that evening: “I was conceived to the tune of ‘Chances Are.’”
I might have coasted unreflectively on these memories for years, passively wondering how Mathis mastered the pronunciation of three Jewish languages, or why “Good Night, Dear Lord” disappeared from our collective consciousness for a half-century, if not for a conversation about innovative philanthropy I attended the other day.
Adam Hirschfelder, a program officer at the Koret Foundation and a supporter of jazz and Jewish music in Northern California, brought up his own “Mathis moment” in the context of a conversation about new ideas in Jewish life. At a time when innovation has become a buzz word, he said, a roomful of Jews (including him) heard an old recording of “Kol Nidre” as if for the first time. “Singing ‘Kol Nidre’ is not an innovation,” he said dryly. And yet there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when Mathis walked onstage to a standing ovation. The reason? A heady combination of nostalgia, the chance to hear a legend talk openly and frankly about his inner life, and the commitment of a group of young Jews (The Idelsohns) to find a creative Jewish spark in unexpected places.
After Mathis’ monologue on music and cultural understanding, a group of us slipped into the boardroom for a toast, and to muse on our luck at being present that evening. We poured new wine into the old bottle of our tradition, taking photographs with our evening’s guest cantor to prove we weren’t making this up.
On the sound system Mathis sang “Let it Be Me,” the title track on his new album, a collection of country standards. And for that evening we Let It Be Him. For one night, the Jewish leadership of San Francisco let go of the burdens of quantifying and qualifying contemporary Jewish life, of searching for the language to inspire and cajole a new generation to pay attention. We just Let It Be.
Daniel Schifrin is writer in residence and director of Public Programs at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco.