The Art Of The Cantor

The Art Of The Cantor

Fifty years on, Lincoln Square’s Sherwood Goffin lowers his voice.

Associate Editor

Cantor Sherwood Goffin
Cantor Sherwood Goffin

Editor’s Note: Cantor Sherwood Goffin, longtime chazzan at Lincoln Square Synagogue and a giant of cantorial singing, died yesterday at age 77. Below is a piece our columnist wrote on him in 2016. (April 4, 2019)

The nusach (liturgical mode) for Mincha on a late Shabbos afternoon is wistful, gentle, more reflective than the robust melodies of Friday night or Shabbos morning. “If Reuven Van Winkle,” said Cantor Sherwood Goffin, were to awake after a 70-year nap in the forest, and goes to the nearest shul, he should be able to immediately know whether it is Shabbos or Rosh HaShanah or Shavuos,” each with its own nusach, the time-honored mood for different times of day and year, as delivered by the chazzan (cantor).

Old friends, seeing “the Chaz” as he is affectionately known, sense something wistful, reflective, a mood of late afternoon in one of the greatest cantorial careers of modern times. Unlike a previous generation of cantors, he is less celebrated for his voice — strong, nevertheless — than for his intangible attributes. Like all great singers, when Goffin sings (and he is an accomplished Jewish singer, as well as cantor), when he prays, you believe him, you believe all the more in yourself, in the enchantment of prayer.

His retirement is being commemorated on March 27 at Lincoln Square Synagogue, where he’s been the chazzan since 1965. In the room will be everyone from Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, the shul’s founding rabbi, to Paul Shaffer, once the musical director for “Saturday Night Live” and David Letterman. Dozens of boldface names were attracted to Goffin over the decades. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan, for example, was Goffin’s student, Lincoln Square’s first bat mitzvah (bat Torah, the shul called it, in those pre-bat mitzvah days). He taught her Megillat Ruth for the occasion.

Morning rain darkens the wooden planks that replaced the windows of the old white shul, built for $1.25 million in 1970, waiting for the wrecking ball. About a hundred yards south, in a building $50 million away, is the shul’s new home. Like a new pair of shoes, not quite broken in, it still pinches though better fitting the needs of the congregation. The abandoned building holds lost friends and lovers, the oft-told stories, the small familiarities of a thousand mornings and twilights. Goffin carries his own private memories, simchas and family funerals…

For Goffin, the old shul is not even that white building but a first floor apartment at 150 West End Ave., where Lincoln Square Synagogue was cradled. Goffin was a student, working as a chazzan in a small shul in the northeast Bronx when Rabbi Riskin telephoned. He didn’t have a chazzan, nor enough members skilled enough to lead davening.

“We had worked together at Yeshiva University seminar weekends,” Goffin recalls. “I warmed up the crowd with the guitar, then he talked Torah.”

Goffin learned to play guitar while at Yeshiva University. Before long, “my room started filling up.” Then there was a major event at Yeshiva’s Lampert Auditorium when Goffin was the musical interlude, his debut. He sang Shlomo Carlebach’s ethereal “Haneshama Lach”; the Yiddish love song, “Tumbalalaika”; and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Strange, it now seems, no one just sang Jewish, as they might today, Goffin remembers, “not even Shlomo,” whom Goffin remembers singing “Going Over Jordan.” Goffin planned to sing a fourth Carlebach song, but “my mentor, Professor [Abraham] Hurwitz, father of puppeteer Shari Lewis, told me to stop at three, ‘leave them wanting more.’” In a scene out of “Broadway Danny Rose,” the professor “would take me to the International Guild of Prestidigitators — the magician’s union.” Every performance is a sleight of hand.

At a kumzitz (Jewish hootenanny) Goffin met a young woman, Batya, whose loveliness stayed with him.

Then they found themselves at the Pine View, a legendary Catskills hotel, “when Van Harris, the famous comedian (and the hotel’s entertainment director), asked me to be the lawn singer. I worked an hour a day. Batya did early education in the day camp. By Chanukah we were engaged.”

When Lincoln Square could still fit into that small apartment, Rabbi Riskin told him, “Someday, this will be the biggest shul in the world.” By 1970, the shul was being called “the flagship of Modern Orthodoxy,” and written about in “Time.”

Glenn Richter, an early member of the shul, was national coordinator of the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, Yaakov Birnbaum’s second-in-command. Rabbi Riskin was SSSJ’s chairman. “I sang at the Jericho March in 1965,” the first major Soviet Jewry rally, Goffin remembers. He drove in from Long Island’s Jericho, which so delighted Birnbaum that he announced to the crowd that a special guest had come all the way from Jericho itself!

Glenn and Lenore Richter were one of the first weddings at Lincoln Square, or rather, at the apartment on West End. “The bride’s chair was in the lobby next to the doorman. The building couldn’t wait to get rid of us.”

Lincoln Towers, the complex within which 150 West End was located, offered a small parcel on Amsterdam Avenue. New York City, in the early 1970s, was in a downturn, and West Side rents were cheap enough for young people and artists, precisely the people that upstart Lincoln Square was happy to have, and the more established shuls were happy to let them.

On a relatively small lot, Rabbi Riskin had the idea of building a shul-in-the-round, if only because 500 could be seated in a steeped circle compared to 250 in “flat” pews. The intimate circular design put Goffin in the middle, easy for everyone to hear and see, all the easier to stimulate congregational singing.

“From 1970,” said Goffin, “the shul just exploded.” Latecomers would sit in the aisles. “On Simchas Torah we had to close off Amsterdam Avenue, close to 3,000 people dancing in the street. It was a phenomenal time.”

It had become a full-time job and Goffin figured, “I might as well learn how to do it right,” studying the cantorate in Yeshiva and from masters of the art.

“In those days,” said Goffin, “chazzanim never sang niggunim [popular inspirational melodies],” other than a few times, such as the Days of Awe melody wrapped around Borchu. “Until 1915, there was no congregational singing, anywhere. Young Israel (which had no rabbis or cantors in their first decades) created the idea of congregational singing, taking niggunim from wherever they could get it, even from Reform cantors, such as the Shema that everyone knows, and Ki Mitzayon.”

Goffin didn’t want to do the same niggunim every week, so “I started keeping track, eventually with a cycle of seven weeks.”

Congregational singing drew in young people, he said, “but now it has run amok, they throw anything in,” time-honored nusach discarded rather than understood as a possible musical relic of the Holy Temple or David’s harp. Goffin, who teaches at Yeshiva’s Belz School of Music, said, “My passion in life is teaching balabatim [lay leaders] how to daven properly. In Teaneck, 50 people came four weeks in a row to learn how to [lead] davening.”

Cantors are disappearing. Cantor Yanky Lemmer, who became Lincoln Square’s second cantor a few years ago, will succeed Goffin, but “too often when cantors retire, they’re not replaced,” Goffin said. “Partially because of Lincoln Square’s success with outreach and adult education, shuls hire assistant rabbis for that, but often can’t afford both a chazzan and an assistant rabbi. They figure they could always find someone to daven. The quality went down.”

Mati Lazar, director and conductor of the Zamir Chorale, hailed Goffin as “a defender and passionate practitioner of nusach, niggunim, Jewish folk music.”

Richter, a congregant since the apartment days, said, “Sherwood has been the unifying force at LSS through the best and most trying times for the shul, the consummate mensch, the gold standard of being a Jew. He and Shlomo Carlebach were the musical troubadours of the Soviet Jewry movement.”

On the ark-wall of most shuls are the Hebrew words, “Da lifnei …” (Know Before Whom You Stand), meaning God. “The chazzan,” adds Goffin, “also has to be aware of who stands behind him. Who is the congregation? What are their needs, their joys, their sorrows? What will appeal to them, touch their hearts? You need a strong tefillah antennae to sense when they are with you or not. If not, I can feel it right away.”

And what will it be like, after all these years, to daven alone? “I’m not davening alone,” he said. He’s part of a shul he loves. “I stand by my seat and sing harmony. It’s like singing duets.”

As he once told the congregation, “I have heard your prayers, and you have heard mine. … We have joined together all the tears, all the words of our hearts, all the dreams of our minds.”

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