Cantor still galloping: Retirement Martin Feldman just might be busier than ever

Martin Feldman may be about to become an octagenerian, and he may have stepped down as cantor at San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel in 2003, but he has never retired.

In fact, he’s busier than ever.

“I take classes at the Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning [affiliated with USF] four days a week,” said Feldman, who grew up in Newark, N.J., was ordained as a cantor in 1958 and came to San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel in 1960.

“I lead religious services for the Jewish holidays on cruises, I still perform a tremendous amount of lifecycle ceremonies, I play tennis three times a week, and I work out at the San Francisco JCC and attend

lectures there,” he added.

On May 30, Sherith Israel will celebrate both Feldman’s golden cantorial anniversary and his 80th birthday, which is June 2, during a festive Shabbat evening featuring Cantor Emeritus Feldman, Cantor Rita Glassman and Koleynu, the choir Feldman established at the synagogue.

Feldman also will receive a 50-year plaque from the American Conference of Cantors when it meets in San Francisco next month. He will be joined in that honor by one of his Hebrew Union College classmates, Irving Schilkas, who currently lives in Florida. The conference will include two concerts, one at Congregation Emanu-El and one at Congregation Sherith Israel, at which Feldman will sing.

“Cantor Feldman is a historical figure as a cantor,” said Rita Glassman, who succeeded Feldman at Sherith Israel in 2003. “His skill as a cantor and an artist is formidable. He’s an interesting combination between consummate cantor, performer and mitzvah-doer. When Marty smiles, the whole world smiles.”

Providing support to people at

crucial lifecycle moments sustains Feldman after more than a half-century of service to others, his faith and himself. He helped train more than 1,700 b’nai mitzvah students and has officiated at numerous weddings, baby namings, funerals and b’nai mitzvah.

“As a cantor, I love the opportunity to be intertwined with people during happy and sad times,” Feldman said.

He recalled a bar mitzvah student he helped train in the early 1960s, when Rabbi Morris Goldstein was at Sherith Israel. Last year, the former student, now a grandfather, asked Feldman to officiate at his mother’s funeral.

Next month, Feldman will perform a cruise-ship wedding for a woman who is the mother of one of Feldman’s bar mitzvah students.

Feldman beams as he remembers the vast number of ceremonies he’s done across the generations.

“He is a very caring, educated, serious and sincere cantor,” said Hans Cohn, cantor emeritus at Temple Beth Jacob in Redwood City. “When I was very seriously ill, he wrote or visited me regularly. He’s one of the finest human beings I’ve ever known.”

Cohn, who studied with Feldman at HUC more than 50 years ago, said Feldman possesses a striking sense of humor and didn’t take all their professors seriously.

“But nothing would shake him,” added Cohn.

Not even his retirement from Sherith Israel. Although the transition was difficult, Feldman succeeded with wit, perseverance and compassion bundled with a cantorial showman’s style.

“A couple of years ago, I invited Marty to sing with me on Yom Kippur,” Glassman said. “It was a very important and daunting moment for me to walk in together into a synagogue where he’d been for 43 years.”

“It was also an important moment for the congregation,” she continued. “We sang ‘Elu Devarim,’ by Ben Steinberg, from the Mishna about ‘these are the obligations we must do without measure, but the study of Torah leads to them all.’ When we finished, the congregation applauded as if the sky had opened. That never happens on the High Holy Days.”

Obviously, music is an integral part of Feldman’s life. He and his wife, Nancy, see 24 symphonies, 12 performances of the opera and a dozen ballet performances each year.

Married in 1962, Feldman and his wife have two children and six grandchildren, and they travel several times a year to the New York Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Feldman also attends several HD simulcasts from the Met at Bloomingdale’s in San Francisco.

But the music that truly touches Feldman’s heart and soul is Jewish music. “Sacred music brings us closer to our precious heritage while continually strengthening our faith in God,” he said.

Feldman stressed that traditional Jewish liturgy has the same power as classical operas and symphonies. And that music is our legacy, one in which Feldman is a proud and reverential part.

“The music in our tradition in its purest form,” he said, “must be retained to have a sense of continuity in the hope that what is true is also lasting, because there can never be a substitute for authenticity.”

Feldman may never retire, but he remains vital and authentic as a comforting vessel for people’s hopes and prayers.

A celebration of Cantor Martin Feldman’s 50th cantorial anniversary and his 80th birthday, featuring a variety of Jewish/cantorial music with musicians and the synagogue choir, will be May 30 at Congregation Sherith Israel, 2266 California St., S.F. Doors open at 6:30 p.m., service at 7 p.m., oneg follows. Information: (415) 346-1720.

Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a freelance writer.