Longtime Peninsula Cantor Herbert Epstein dies at 72

After receiving the news that Cantor Herbert Epstein had passed away, Rabbi Sanford Rosen said he awoke the next morning to mischievous thoughts of his former colleague's Purim antics.

Epstein was known to don all the hats of the Purim tale one by one, giving his own shpiel on the spirited story.

Family and friends at his funeral wished the longtime cantor at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo could have made this year's celebration. The 72-year-old succumbed to a long illness on Thursday of last week in Palo Alto. But his passing didn't stop those who loved him from giving the whole megillah on his life at a standing-room-only service.

"There were a lot of people who wanted to say something but it was limited to four of us," said Rosen, who is a founder and rabbi emeritus of the Reform synagogue.

Fresh out of cantorial school in 1955, Epstein was Rosen's first and only cantor at the then-new congregation.

The rabbi called him "an absolutely excellent cantor" and a "scholar of all music, but especially Jewish music.

"When he sang for Shabbat or holidays…it was always with a tremendous amount of feeling and kavanah [intention]. He put his heart and soul into it," Rosen said.

In addition to serving as cantor, Epstein gave singing performances for special Jewish events, tutored b'nai mitzvah students, organized instrumental groups for kids and taught special musical topics.

"He would lecture on things from Sinai to Broadway. He found ways of analyzing how Jewish American composers drew on the Jewish musical tradition, which he traced back to Sinai," Rosen said.

Epstein began his musical career as a boy in New Jersey, singing in a Jewish community center men's choir conducted by his father, who was not a cantor. Cantor Martin Feldman of San Francisco's Congregation Sherith Israel, a boyhood friend of Epstein's and a member of the same JCC choir, said his colleague showed promise from an early age.

"He [came to be] a wonderful composer of Jewish music," Feldman said, noting that Epstein's lapse in attendance at cantorial professional conferences may have had something to do with his music not being recognized.

"That was a great frustration [to him]," Feldman said.

"His music was worthy of being performed. Even while he was sick he was adept at composing at his computer."

Epstein retired from Peninsula Temple Beth El in 1984.

Epstein kept the severity of his condition to himself for some years. He confided to Rosen just two weeks ago that he was seriously ill. A lover of life, the cantor emeritus changed his name to Maim (water of life) in his final days to ward off the Angel of Death, Rosen said.

Epstein's son David of Newark said as a sports-loving youth, he took his father's gifts for granted. But as the young jock grew older, he came to appreciate his dad's passion for music and Judaism.

"He had a very beautiful voice and could move people with it. He also was an inspiring teacher of Hebrew. So many bar mitzvah students were inspired to study further," David Epstein said.

He added that his father was an amateur linguist, who delighted in word plays, double meanings, synchronicity and gematria (Jewish numerology). In his later years, he took an interest in scientific and mystical ideas from a philosophical or theological perspective.

Epstein is survived by his wife of 40 years, Roslyn Epstein of San Mateo, and another son, Jonathan Epstein, also of Newark.

Donations can be made to Peninsula Temple Beth El, 1700 Alameda de las Pulgas, San Mateo, 94403, or Jewish Home for the Aged, 302 Silver Ave., S.F., CA 94112.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.