After nearly a half-century, Lincoln Square Synagogue on the Upper West Side is getting a new cantor. Cantor Yaakov Lemmer, a native of Brooklyn’s fervently Orthodox Borough Park neighborhood, is succeeding Cantor Sherwood Goffin, who has served at Lincoln Square since its founding in 1965.
Cantor Lemmer, who currently serves at Congregation Anshe Sholom in New Rochelle, began his singing career as a soloist at Young Israel-Beth El of Borough Park, where he studied under the synagogue’s Cantor Ben Zion Miller. He later studied at Yeshiva University’s Belz School of Jewish Music, and has taken part in cantorial concerts in Israel and several foreign countries.
The cantor will begin his duties at Lincoln Square, a prominent Modern Orthodox congregation, on Sukkot, alternating on Shabbat during the next year with Cantor Goffin. The Jewish Week caught up with Cantor Lemmer by e-mail.
Q: Many people grow up in Brooklyn’s Orthodox neighborhoods. What inspired you to be a chazzan?
A: My father’s passion. Growing up, Sunday nights were “radio night.” My father would sit down in the living room and tune in to 89.5 on the FM dial for two hours of Jewish soul. That was the legendary radio show hosted by chazzanut maven, Charlie Bernhaut. That was a great introduction.
What cantors were your role models when you were young, and how have you emulated their work?
Obviously, all the greats of the golden era. [Mordechai] Hershman, [Yossele] Rosenblatt, [Zavel] Kwartin etc. However, I started in the Beth El choir in Borough Park where I learned a whole lot under Cantor Benzion Miller. I then went on to study under Cantor Noach Schall.
You performed this summer at the Jewish Cultural Festival in Krakow. Was it a hard decision to go to Poland, which many Jews still consider one big graveyard? What was your most memorable experience in Poland?
It was not a hard decision. I’ve been to Poland many times. The fact that there is so much Jewish blood soaked into the ground works both ways. On the one hand, it is eerie and haunting, maybe even revolting; on the other hand though, there was so much vibrant Jewish culture there for close to a thousand years. I try to find a balance between celebrating the life that was, and respecting and davening for the lives that were lost.
How much pressure is there in replacing a legend like Cantor Goffin?
A whole lot. There aren’t many chazzanim (if any) who are so devoted to their congregation. Big shoes to fill.
Anshe Sholom is a Modern Orthodox congregation, and Lincoln Square Synagogue is a flagship institution in the Modern Orthodox world. How does someone with your background, who looks definitely haredi, fit into the Modern Orthodox world?
LSS is a warm and inviting community. When the issue (or non-issue) of my dress code comes up, I joke around with Modern Orthodox rabbis and try to make a deal with them. “I’ll go to your tailor if you’ll go to my barber.”
Here, though, I couldn’t use it. You see, Rabbi [Shlomo] Riskin [a former LSS rabbi who now lives in the West Bank] was at my introductory Shabbos and he was wearing a bekitcheh [long black frock]!
The welcome I received was truly inviting.