Cantor Martin Feldman singing at the Congregation Sherith Israel's 150th anniversary  celebration in 1999. (Photo/File)
Cantor Martin Feldman singing at the Congregation Sherith Israel's 150th anniversary celebration in 1999. (Photo/File)

At 95, Sherith Israel’s Cantor Martin Feldman reflects on a harmonious career

It’s a sunny Thursday in May in downtown San Francisco. In a barber shop just off Union Square, tucked into the entrance of a parking garage, Cantor Martin Feldman is getting a haircut.

Sitting in the barber’s brown leather chair, the nonagenarian bursts into song. It’s a rendition of “I’m a Little Latke,” a tune he used to teach his Sunday school students. The barber doesn’t mind — he’s been cutting Feldman’s hair for more than two decades.

Feldman retired in 2003 after 43 years as cantor at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. But the relationship has continued: He still shows up for High Holiday services and he sings for synagogue happenings here and there. On June 2 at 6 p.m., the congregation will celebrate Feldman’s milestone 95th birthday with Kabbalat Shabbat and a party. He of course plans to sing.

Feldman began as a cantor at the Reform shul in 1960. Articles in this publication chronicled his appointment during the Eisenhower administration, his retirement during the younger Bush’s first term, and many moments in between.

He sang at most every service, taught religious school, performed more than 1,000 b’nai mitzvahs for teenagers and adults both, and officiated weddings and funerals. He touched the lives of countless people.

Cantor Martin Feldman celebrating 43 years at Sherith Israel in 2003.
Cantor Martin Feldman celebrating 43 years at Sherith Israel in 2003.

Throughout the years, he could hardly go anywhere without encountering someone from the synagogue who knew him.

We used to go out all the time, and they always recognize me,” Feldman said. “They say, ‘Remember my bat mitzvah? Remember my wedding?’ I say yes!”

Despite his long career, Feldman never planned to be a cantor.

Born in Newark, New Jersey, to a family that loved music, Feldman was not particularly religious when he grew up, he said. As a boy, he sang in the all-male choir at his family synagogue, but when it came time to pick a career path, he chose teaching. He studied at Montclair State Teachers College, and on the side, sang as a tenor in a quartet at the local synagogue. One day, when the cantor fell ill, he was asked to step in.

“After the service, a woman came up to me [and said], ‘Oh cantor, you have a beautiful voice,’” Feldman said. “And that put a bug in my head.”

After that, Feldman changed course.

Many crescendos and highlights in my life are connected to Sherith Israel. It enriched my life considerably.

He attended Hebrew Union College in New York, studying to become a cantor and a religious school principal. For two years, he was a student cantor at Temple Beth Abraham in Tarrytown, New York. He heard about an opening at Sherith Israel, and soon was driving across the country to take the position as cantor.

“I drove from New Jersey to San Francisco,” Feldman recalled. “How I did it, I don’t know.”

Feldman met his wife, Nancy, in his early years at Sherith (she asked him to play tennis with her). This year, they will have been married 61 years.

The Feldmans in the Jewish Bulletin (this publication's former name) in April, 1995.
The Feldmans in the Jewish Bulletin (this publication’s former name) in April, 1995.

As cantor, Feldman wore many hats. For years he taught youth choir and organized musical theater productions with the children for holidays. He helped run a program that brought congregants to nursing homes to visit Jewish patients.

Nancy Sheftel-Gomes (a different Nancy) remembers joining the program and telling Feldman that she didn’t have a car to make the visits. He insisted on picking her up from work and driving her to the nursing homes.

“Once you get to know him, you’re on his forever list,” Sheftel-Gomes said.

One of Feldman’s primary duties was to prepare children for their b’nai mitzvah. Upon his retirement, he told J. that he had presided over an estimated 1,700. He assisted with Sheftel-Gomes’ adult ceremony. He also taught Sherith’s current rabbi, Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf, for her bat mitzvah when she came of age. Many years later he was there when she was being installed in the senior rabbi position in 2016.

Having grown up attending services and religious school at Sherith, Zimmerman Graf has known Feldman nearly her whole life. She can clearly remember his holiday services and the smile on his face as he sat behind her at her bat mitzvah, feeding her lines.

“Every time I recite birkat haCohanim [the priestly blessing], I hear his chant of it in my mind,” Zimmerman Graf said.

In his more than 60-year affiliation with Sherith, Feldman has shared the bimah with many rabbis. He came in under Rabbi Morris Goldstein, a leader in Reform Jewry in the Bay Area who served Sherith from 1932 to 1971. He then worked for 31 years with Rabbi Martin Weiner, retiring just a month before him (Weiner died last year at 83). As cantor emeritus, he participated in the installation of the late Rabbi Larry Raphael in 2003.

Since retiring, Feldman remains active. He takes classes at the Fromm Institute for Lifelong Learning at the University of San Francisco. He goes to the symphony and orchestra. He even goes to the gym.

For years after his retirement, Feldman performed High Holiday services on cruises. He and his wife traveled the world.

Feldman still officiates weddings when asked, though he’s doing more funerals these days, he said. He remains connected to many of his former congregants and says they often talk on the phone. It is his relationships with the people that he cherishes the most.

“Many crescendos and highlights in my life are connected to Sherith Israel,” Feldman said. “It enriched my life considerably. I’m very grateful for the opportunity of being a cantor in that synagogue for 43 years.”

Lillian Ilsley-Greene
Lillian Ilsley-Greene

Lillian Ilsley-Greene is a J. Staff Writer. Originally from Vermont, she has a BA in political science and an MA in journalism from Boston University. Follow her on Twitter at @lilsleygreene.