Eight years ago on the 10th of Nisan (March 21 on the Gregorian calendar), my father, Rabbi Herschel Schacter, passed away. A few days after he died, his obituary appeared on the front page of The New York Times. The obituary highlighted his service as a chaplain in the American army in 1945 and his activities aiding survivors in Buchenwald, a concentration camp outside Weimar Germany, upon its liberation by the American army.
On his yahrzeit I recall the many decades of his robust and influential voice, as I remember the years at the end of his life, when his voice was completely diminished.
My father served as a pulpit rabbi in the Bronx for more than 60 years. During that time, he was the president of the Mizrachi-Hapoel Hamizrachi; founding chairman of the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry, and the president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. In 1971, he spearheaded an international conference in Brussels to highlight the plight of Russian Jews. He met with American Presidents Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Bush Sr. to advocate on behalf of the Jews, both in the U.S. and abroad.
He was known internationally for his powerful oratorical skills. I admired him for all his activism on the part of the Jewish people. My father’s powerful voice shaped American Jewry for decades.
But what I savored just as much were the intimate family moments, many of which involved music and singing.
Until I was 10 years old, my family spent our summers in Moser’s bungalow colony in Monticello, New York. There, as Shabbat would come to a close, I would sit outside on the swings as I listened to the music coming from inside our large, ramshackle bungalow. In the waning hours of Shabbat, my extended family would gather in our bungalow for Seuda Shlishit. My father would sit at the head of the large wooden table while surrounded by my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.
There are certain zemirot, or songs, that are sung at the third Shabbat meal, and our family has a tradition of singing specific melodies to these zemirot. We are a family of singers. My father’s strong voice dominated and my mother’s sweet voice harmonized as the extended family joined in. I absorbed these melodies so deeply as a child that it was as if I were swimming in them. Sixty years later, I can still hear and feel these melodies, as I remember the cool country air wafting around me while I watched the setting sun.
In the 1950s and ’60s, almost every Friday night, my parents invited the teenagers from our shul to our home for Torah, dessert and zemirot. My father would provide the Torah, my mother would provide the baked goodies, and the warmth of our family added to the zemirot. My brother and I were a part of these Friday night events. We were expected to listen to our father’s Torah; sometimes we were called upon to answer some of his Torah questions. But there were Shabbatot that my brother and I tired of sitting at the table, so we would make our way under the dining room table. There we would sit between the ornately carved mahogany legs. Sometimes we would listen to the conversation happening above our heads. Other times we giggled, or we were simply just bored. It’s the melodies that remain with me; it’s the songs that I’m attached to. Hearing my father’s voice above all other voices, hearing his melodic booming voice, lives deep within me.
My family’s Pesach seder was filled with rich and meaningful tradition. The table was beautifully set using fine china, crystal and silver. The ritual objects were placed on the table with great care and thought. Over many years my father would add new ritual items to the table.
Beginning in the early 1970s, he placed an additional matza on the table, which was called the Matzah of Hope, symbolizing the plight of the Russian Jews, and prayed for their freedom. In addition to all of us reciting every word of the Haggadah out loud, in unison in a particular melody, my father brought additional readings to the Seder. We read in Hebrew and Yiddish and English, and we sang in Hebrew and Yiddish.
During the second half of the Haggadah, after the meal, there was one long passage, Nishmas Kol Chai, that my father sang in the traditional nusach of his father. It was a different melody than the one we sang for the rest of the Haggadah. In those moments my father transformed before my eyes and became an Eastern European Hasid, living in the middle 1800s. My father’s voice haunted me. He usually sang most of this passage on his own, with my brother and I quietly following along, as the guests looked on. The Pesach Seder in my parents’ home was filled with solemnity and a bit of awe. Picture a holiday meal in your dining room, but with an incredible Surround Sound system of voices chanting the Haggadah. That’s what it was like.
When he reached his mid-80s, it was apparent to us that his mind began to deteriorate and his voice began to falter. That voice, which led generations of Jews, became weaker and weaker. Slowly, his great ability to connect faded. For the last decade of my father’s life, he suffered from Alzheimer’s. For the two years prior to his death, he couldn’t speak or sing. For all of his adult life prior to this illness, he was a well-known public speaker, a powerful orator who delivered speeches before thousands of people, across continents in multiple languages. As his Alzheimer’s worsened and his capacity to speak continued to diminish, this particular loss — the loss of his voice itself — felt extraordinarily cruel to those of us close to him.
On Erev Pesach of the first year that my father was no longer able to leave his home and join my family due to the severity of his disorientation and agitation, I went to his house to bring him a small piece of Pesach. I was devastated that my father, a man who had been a leader of world Jewry, would be spending the holiday not knowing it was Passover. I prepared a ke’arah, a Seder plate, and placed it on the table before us. I brought a large Haggadah with many colorful pictures. I sat close to my father, took his finger in my hand, and went through the highlights of the Haggadah as I sang all the familiar tunes.
I cried my way through, as I sang his favorite Pesach melodies. I couldn’t help but think back to the Seder nights of my childhood. I remembered so clearly all the melodies he sang, the way his voice carried above all others. I hoped that in these moments that I was sitting in his house, singing to him, that I was bringing him some comfort, some joy.
My life began with being infused by the melodies my father introduced, by listening to him sing, by absorbing his values through the songs we sang. His life ended with my singing to him.
Two years later I visited my father on Father’s Day. He no longer recognized anyone and had not spoken coherent words in many, many months. So on this Father’s Day, I sang to him. I knew that he responded to melody, and that his face relaxed when I sang to him. One song after another, I sang for 45 minutes without taking a break. I was completely shocked that when I stopped singing, he looked me straight in the eye and said clearly and in the full voice that no one had heard in months: “One more song.” For a fleeting moment, I believe we connected. We connected through song. We connected through the medium that had meant so much to both of us for all our lives.
For the last five months of my father’s life, he lived in the Zicklin Hospice, across the highway from his home. He couldn’t chew solid foods, and he wasn’t able to stand or walk on his own. We each visited him regularly, multiple times a week. In addition to surrounding him with pictures of his family, I put a Hebrew song book at his bedside. Because he was no longer able to speak or converse, I hoped that when he received visitors, people would sing to him. Whenever I visited I sang to him. This was as much a comfort to me, as I hoped it was to him.
My life began with being infused by the melodies my father introduced, by listening to him sing, by absorbing his values through the songs we sang. His life ended with my singing to him. I tried to connect to my father, when he was no longer connecting to the world. I tried to reach my father by singing to him.
On his eighth yahrzeit I remember him. I remember not only his public speaking voice. I remember his singing voice, the voice that lives inside my soul.
Miriam Schacter, LCSW is a psychoanalyst in private practice in Manhattan and is on the faculty of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, an Orthodox rabbinical school.