The Rev. Abraham Lopes Cardozo, a descendant of a prominent Dutch Jewish family who served as a cantor for more than six decades and worked to preserve the musical traditions of Spanish and Portuguese Jewry, died Feb. 21 in Lenox Hill Hospital in Manhattan. He was 91, and had been in poor health since fracturing a hip last year.
Rev. Cardozo (known by the title which learned Jews, who did not have formal ordination, used in previous generations to identify themselves) was the cantor at Congregation Shearith Israel on the Upper West Side for 38 years and a teacher of Sephardic-Occidental liturgy at Yeshiva University’s Belz School of Jewish music.
Knighted by the Queen of the Netherlands in 2000, he died a year after he visited Amsterdam for the airing on Dutch television of a documentary about his life, "Homage to Abraham Cardozo."
"Reverend Cardozo was not only the voice of our congregation in prayer but the voice of a community destroyed, the Jewish community of prewar Amsterdam," Rabbi Marc Angel, spiritual leader of Shearith Israel, New York City’s oldest synagogue, said at the funeral. Rabbi Angel called Rev. Cardozo "an ember that survived the fire" of the Holocaust.
"He was very beloved, very kind, very loyal to the congregation," Rabbi Angel said. "He was the best representative of our tradition."
"He didn’t do anything for personal fame or glory," said Rabbi Herbert Dobrinsky, Yeshiva University vice president for university affairs and a co-founder of the school’s Sephardic studies program.
"He was an eager teacher. He wanted to share his knowledge. He felt that was his duty."
Rev. Cardozo was born in Amsterdam to a rabbinical family that traced its roots to the 15th century Iberian Peninsula, the time of Jewish expulsion from Spain and Portugal. His great-grandfather was the Sephardic chief rabbi of Amsterdam, and his father was leader of the boy’s choir in the Dutch city’s Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue.Rev. Cardozo began his musical career playing the piano and accordion at Jewish functions, and earned a degree as Hebrew teacher at the Ets Haim Seminary in Amsterdam. In 1939 he left his homeland to become a teacher and cantor in Dutch Guiana, now Surinam, on the northeast coast of South America. He left the Netherlands before the Shoah, which claimed his entire family.
He went to Surinam, taking with him notebooks containing extensive notes on his community’s liturgy. The documents are now housed in Amsterdam’s Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue.
On a visit to New York in 1944, he was invited to chant at services at Shearith Israel. Impressed by his musical talent and knowledge of Sephardic liturgy, the congregation invited Rev. Cardozo to join its staff. He served there from 1946 until 1984, when he became cantor emeritus, participating in services until his health began to fail.
Rev. Cardozo recorded several records and CDs of Sephardic nusach, or religious melodies, and published a booklet, "Music for the Sephardim," for the Herzl Institute.
He first returned to Amsterdam in 1975 to take part in the 300th anniversary celebration of the synagogue where he had begun his career.
"He knew the liturgy backwards and forwards," said Randall Belinfante, librarian at the American Sephardic Federation, who had studied Jewish music with Rev. Cardozo. "He knew every piece of liturgy that is used throughout the Jewish year."
Rev. Cardozo is survived by his wife, Miriam; two daughters, Deborah and Judith; seven grandchildren, and one great-grandchild.