Hazzan Sam Fordis: A Conversation in Word, Music and Mitzvot

The Conversation would often begin “Hi Davey, Sam…” I knew instinctively to reach for my checkbook because Sam always a had a mitzvah opportunity at any moment: a dog needing surgery and adoption, a student who needed a violin or the bow for it; a book to sell about famous violinist, a seat for a concert he produced of a promising rising star, (a ticket) or a solo to perform for his many retirement concerts, repeated at least three times or more that I can recall. Mary observed: “this is Sam’s real retirement…no reprise this time…”

My Dad and he would meet briefly at CBS, RCA or at Warner’s perhaps Bill Finnegan’s Piano on Sunset to recap their high school days on their separate ways to buy this or that for their musical work and family passions.

As a shalich tzibur, there was none more beautiful and inspiring—and all have their stylistic temperaments, but he had few peers.  Sam’s nuanced and focused singing and interpretations speak (tomes) of his intimate knowledge of Hebrew, of music, and the liturgy. Even if he now and then mangled a French opera text ces’t la vie, it was Sam singing and that is what mattered.

He knew the classics in opera and Yiddish so very well; He praised high achievement and genuine effort and excellence—he eschewed frauds and bravura that fell short of true art or best effort; he seldom cared about his vocal health and sang with passion whether the notes were there or not, it was always min halev umin Han’shama—go translate that! (from heart and soul)

Sam, as much the artist, was a role model of a true working synagogue professional —doing the work of 20 or more persons without complaint or excuse. He told me once of his sporting a fabulous tan in a summer of the 1950’s, because he hand- copied each vocal part of a piyut or choral score in his backyard before Xeroxing made the art of copying a stealthy way to reproduce someone’s life’s work without compensating the artist.  Sam always sent a nedavah, a gift of money to any composer he copied by hand or later by technical means.

He taught all of us Hazzanim that to be a balanced professional, you got your hands dirty, your tallis sweaty , our egos in check, our physical self strong,   and that we had better love the sacred work, and all of it, or move on to a different calling. Fatigue was out of the question, illness meant that Kol Nidre was still sung, and a child or cantorial student’s needs came before your own, maybe not good CPE, but again, Sam had his own therapy for living—musical passion and life itself.

He created gems of choral arrangements, cantorial recitatives or edited them, always with his stylized initials at the double bar, against the norm of the music copyist, but he wanted to remain responsible for any errors or omissions.  He wrote effortlessly for the synagogue and created the Cantors Ensemble and The Cantors Trio with soul mates Uri Frenkel and Allan Michelson -- ask who they are today if you don’t know, and recordings make the question moot and somewhat naïve.

He was intimate with so many of the illustrious, to name only  a few: Helfman, Goldman, Glantz, Putterman, Pinchik, Propis, Hanig, , Breen, the Hammerman brothers , Sendrey, Klass,  Jospe, Bernstein, Salkov, Weisser, the Koussevitzky brothers, Adler, Beimel, Rumshinsky, Lish, Urstein, Katzman, Glick,  Schulhof, Bennett, Isaacson, Lam, Gole, Finkelstein, Perl, Discount, Shmilick Kelemer and his brother Berle and so many more: alive  and in  memory.

Among them also, Rabbi/Hazzan Dave Kane in whose place I stand, humbly. They were soul mates and punster buddies, may Dave and Etta be blessed with years and more grandchildren, the newest of which they meet today in NY.

Some of the original members of the Cantors Ensemble, may they live to the healthy age of 120, are seated among us today, some singing, others in retirement now; vocalists, arrangers too join our chorus to pay Sam respect: He conducted so many concerts for us , performing too: playing  violin soli--his kippah often flying off his tousled hair, he forever  mopping his soaked brow and pate—licking his lips deliciously. Cajoling, praising, and sparring. Who could forget a Sam Fordis deep tissue rub or Rolfing if you were uptight before a davening or concert?

He always was a pinnacle of George Gobbles’ sartorial splendor, wearing brown socks with a tuxedo, or blue or brown or black in diverse combinations (he was asked to raise his pant legs before each rehearsal or performance to be sure that he had on the just the WRONG pairing) He laughed with us at his expense and saw nothing amiss for they were only socks…

He trounced many of us at tennis, and could out smoke us with those blasted Benson and Hedges menthol incense sticks he liked at one time. He would take on Boards of Directors, studio heads and conductors without shame and sometimes without reproach.

Sam prevailed the inevitable struggles with those less than he in terms of  true  talent on the pulpit, and in concert, in ensemble or in large orchestra-- exiting when integrity demanded it,  recreating himself when the appointment ended or he exhausted his patience, or their budget. He would move on and started over seemingly at will if life demanded it.

He had three or four or more careers in progress at the same time; he taught all of us, to be flexible, of high opinion and genuine,  and to thoroughly know our craft and calling.

As a teacher of the formal school of hazzanut in its pure form, Sam easily adapted to the Jewish cultural practices of the day nourishing female candidates in an otherwise male dominated genre, long before it was normal to do so.

He understood prejudice and the evil politics of disassociation, enduring the plague of McCarthyism.  Rabbi Bergman and others gave him unflinching support and a livelihood. Here, too at Mt. Sinai, where he found a position.  A Shaliach tzibur b’kahal, he represented his people both on and off the pulpit and in the pit—in real time , in living.

As a violinist and concertmaster for the most prestigious of orchestras and in partnership with smaller ensembles: his solo work we have heard today sings of this Hazzan/artist.

On the violin He possessed a strong tone and attack, with style. His playing was critically acclaimed and phrased, of clean articulation.  He was an intimate with Ben Pollack, and many of the great bands and their conductors. Mills,  Gross, Heifetz, Zimbalist, Piatigorsky, Oistrackh, Stokowski, Szigeti, Milstein, Menuhin, Serkin, Chung and Morini, and artists like Henry Roth, Avram Shtern, Bernstein and Koussevitzky, producers like Allan Blye and so many others--some here today, and from all around the world . Many of these greats now called on High and still others, who could not be with us to celebrate this unique soul print, knew him as a loyal friend and fellow craftsman.

He toured the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland and Austria.

Our Rabbis have spoken of Sam as pulpit partners and friend, his children described living with the man, none more loving and a help mate than his Mary, may she be blessed with 120 in good health. We Hazzanim and singers, his students all,   bring to this holy table our own reminiscences to be shared at the seudah later today.  We esteem Sam as a Shaliach tzibur and mentor of such a broad stroke and long reach. We are encouraged to follow his example of being well rounded and firmly grounded in what we do.

Sam was one of The Greatest Generation: in service to this blessed land, to the sacred calling of the pulpit and cheder, and to mitzvot that he managed to give us the opportunity to perform at any moment with that surprise phone call.

God gave him voice and soul, koach and purpose, and we who remain are better for those gifts used so wisely.

The Zohar in its mystical utterance praises those who keep the portals to heaven open with the gift of Music and Song.  We love Sam for helping to keep those portals open for all our days and years, and beyond.

Hazzan David Silverstein