By Stacey Dresner
WEST HARTFORD – Looking back over his more than two decades at The Emanuel Synagogue, Hazzan Sanford Cohn recalls many highlights.
One was “Ruach Shabbat,” the musical Friday night service featuring a band, which was instituted at the shul in 2000.
“It was a new form that had taken hold across the country at that point,” Cohn recalled. “It really got people excited about different types of melodies and forms of prayer.”
He also considers his relationship with all of the professionals at Emanuel, a Conservative synagogue in West Hartord, a highlight, especially Rabbi David Small.
“He has been incredibly supportive of my efforts and our musical program here, as well as having become a close friend and colleague.”
And of course, one of his most meaningful experiences has been working with bar and bat mitzvah students.
“I adore my students,” he said. “I love watching them grow and watching them gain confidence in preparing for their services. And in most cases, gaining an increased connection to their Jewish heritage.”
Now, perhaps the biggest highlight of all will take place on Nov. 17 when The Emanuel presents “A Cantorial Celebration,” honoring Cantor Cohn for his 21 years of service to the synagogue. The concert is also a part of the celebration of the Emanuel’s Centennial.
“We’ve got this great revue of either cantors who have served the Emanuel through the years, or cantors with whom I’ve shared a special relationship,” Cohn said.
The featured performers include Cantor Gideon Zelermyer, who grew up at The Emanuel Synagogue when his father Gerald Zelermyer served as its rabbi. In 1997, at the age of 21, Gideon Zelermyer notably served as High Holiday cantor at the synagogue alongside his father, at a time when the shul did not have a cantor. Zelermyer is now cantor at Shaar Hashmayim in Montreal, Canada and a renowned international performer.
“I’m so excited to be coming home to celebrate 100 years of The Emanuel Synagogue and 21 years of Cantor Cohn,” Zelermyer said. “My musical connection to Emanuel goes back to sitting on Cantor Arthur Koret’s knee as he taught me how to sing with an ‘opera voice,’ continues with being taught for my bar mitzvah by Cantor Don Gurney and being the youngest member of the High Holy Day Choir, and culminated in acting as cantor in the two years prior to Cantor Cohn’s arrival in West Hartford. Emanuel gave me a chance to explore my love for Cantorial music, so I’m honored to lend my voice to the centennial celebration!”
The concert line-up also includes Cantor Thom King of Beth El Congregation in Baltimore, Md., who served at the Emanuel for two years, and Hazzan Faith Steinsnyder, who has taught at both Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Theological Seminary and was named one of the “Top Ten Jewish Female Vocalists” by Moment Magazine. Michael Zoosman, who grew up at the Emanuel, will also be on stage at the concert. He now is staff chaplain at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center in Bethesda, Md.
Cantor Laura Breznick and Jacob Greenberg, both graduates of the former pre-cantorial major at the University of Hartford in which Cohn was an instructor, will also perform.
Breznick is now cantor at Temple Sholom in New Milford and Greenberg is a student at the H.L. Miller Cantorial School of JTS.
“I wanted to include the two of them because they were my students and we’ve maintained a connection,” Cohn said.
Cantor Joseph Ness of Beth El Temple in West Hartford will be featured along with the the Beth El Orchestra. Ness has also been instrumental in helping Cantor Cohn organize the musical program for the concert.
“We have been close friends for years. He has been a godsend in this – he has been orchestrating and pulling music out of his files,” Cohn said.
Cantor Cohn praises the concert committee and its chair, Ken Simon, for their hard work.
He called the recruitment of the cantors on the lineup “a group effort” with Simon.
“He has been an amazing organizing force behind all of this,” Cohn said.
“I love music. I love the music of the synagogue,” Simon said.
A close friend of Cantor Zelermyer’s, Simon said he “really wanted him to come back to The Emanuel to do a concert. Two years ago I asked him if it was time and he said, ‘Yes.’ Then I learned about the concert that had already been set for Nov. 17 to celebrate 100 years of Emanuel music and 21 years of Sandy Cohn being our cantor. I have developed a relationship with Sandy Cohn and we are good friends. And so it seemed like a perfect fit. We sat down together and ended up with an incredible line-up of truly great singers.”
The music that will be performed at the concert is varied.
“It’s about half cantorial music – some of the big pieces from the cantorial repertoire,” Cohn said. “We have a little Yiddish. We have some English musical theater. I’m doing one song in Ladino. Even though I don’t have any Sephardic heritage I’ve always been drawn to the Ladino language and the musical repertoire. There is something about it that really touches me. I just had to include some in the program.”
Cantor Breznick said she and Cantor Cohn will be singing “Tumbalalaika,” a Yiddish duet that the two last sang together 10 years ago.
“Hazzan Cohn was one of my first mentors and teachers. He showed me, through our coachings, the beauty of chazanut and its ability to be sung by not only men, but women as well,” Breznick explained. “With his invitation to sing in Emanuel’s High Holiday Quartet while in college, I was exposed to much of the nusach that I would later go on to study in cantorial school. I am grateful for the opportunity to once again join my teacher on the bima as we celebrate his time at Temple Emanuel.
“We have kept in touch over the years, mostly e-mail. Once you are a student of Hazzan Cohn’s he is always someone that you can reach out to for help, advice, and of course, sheet music. I am very much looking forward to once again singing with my teacher and mentor on Nov. 17.”
Rabbi David Small lauded his longtime colleague.
“The profusion of talent that is coming to this concert itself is a tribute to Hazzan Cohn because he is the one that recruited all these colleagues to come and sing at our concert, which is both a Centennial Celebration and a tribute to him,” Rabbi Small said. “And that indicates the kind of man he is, that people want to come because he is a great partner, terrific to work with and has a generous spirit. And that has been my experience too in 18 years of working with him since I came to the Emanuel Synagogue. We are thrilled to both celebrate the Centennial and Cantor Cohn.”
A love of music
Born in Kansas City, Missouri and raised in Louisville, Kentucky, Cohn’s late father Bill cultivated his love for music.
“My father was an amateur singer and I thought, was very good. He used to sing on USO radio during World War II, he would do musicals at our temple. He never took voice lessons…he was strictly a ‘for fun’ crooner.”
And young Sandy and his brother Mark joined in.
“We would all kind of sing along for fun at home, and we would really enjoy all kinds of music together…My brother and I started playing guitar at an early age so that got me into folk music. We were fans of the Beatles and all of the rock music of the sixties.”
The Cohns belonged to a Reform temple. “We were what I call ‘seriously Reform.’ We would go to temple very regularly, most Friday nights, and even as a teenager I would go very often on Saturday mornings, even by myself. I sang in the children’s choir. So it meant a lot to me.”
Despite his love of music, he never considered becoming a cantor when he grew up – his synagogue didn’t even have a cantor.
“I never even knew Reform temples had cantors. Or it didn’t filter down to Louisville.”
At the University of Kentucky he majored in linguistics and minored in computer science. He worked as a computer programmer for two years after college. It was during that time he became affiliated with a Conservative temple in Louisville and began studying with Rabbi Simcha King and Cantor Marshall Portnoy.
“They were big influences on me. Cantor Portnoy taught me a lot of the elements of chanting the Shabbat service, and I started Torah trope with him. And he really encouraged me. I had no formal vocal training at that point – I sorely needed it – and he encouraged me to pursue the profession. I thought he was crazy.”
Cohn gradually became more observant and more learned about traditional Judaism. He spent six months in Israel doing volunteer work and “developing my Jewish identity.”
He went on to study at the Cantors Institute at the Jewish Theological Seminary (now the H.L. Miller Cantorial School), graduating in 1982.
That year he married Beth Polebaum, a student at New York University School of Law. They settled in Manhattan, where she practiced law and he served at his first pulpit – Congregation Kneses Knesset Tifereth Israel in Port Chester, New York.
Over the years, he served at Whitestone Hebrew Center in Queens, New York, Temple Israel in Silver Spring, Maryland, and Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
In 1999, he arrived at The Emanuel Synagogue in West Hartford, whose rich musical history includes the legendary Cantor Arthur Koret.
Koret joined the Emanuel in 1949, succeeding the synagogue’s first cantor, Paul Discount. Koret remained at the Emanuel for 42 years, during which he also taught at the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford. He is considered to be one of the best 20th-century American cantors.
“It was awe-inspiring to assume the position that had been occupied by such a great of the cantorial world,” Cohn said. “I was very fortunate that when I first came I was given High Holy Day music, some of which went back to Cantor Koret, even a piece that we used to do for Yom Kippur that was written by Cantor Koret’s predecessor, Cantor Paul Discount. There are some that may be written in Cantor Koret’s hand.”
“A Cantorial Celebration” honoring Cantor Sanford Cohn’s 21 years and the Emanuel’s Centennial, will be held on Sunday, Nov. 17 at 7 p.m. at Emanuel Synagogue, 160 Mohegan Drive. For more information, call (860) 236-1275 or visit www.emanuelsynagogue.org.