Cantor Morris Wolk’s first high holiday service at the Plainview Jewish Center was memorable, to say the least. The Conservative synagogue was hopping with 900 members back in 1974 and, with no assigned holiday seating, worshippers stood against the walls of the packed sanctuary and adjoining social hall. As Wolk, then 26, began chanting the prayers, a dispute over seats between two members escalated into fists flying.
“It was sort of like Dodge City — a Wild West,” says the cantor, now 70.
Fortunately, the episode was an anomaly in his 44-year tenure that ends July 31 — but not without the congregation singing Wolk’s praises one last time at a retirement party on Sunday.
The cantor and his wife, Geraldine, 68, will relocate to Riverdale, which they chose for its strong Jewish community and proximity to public transportation. Gerri, as she’s referred to by friends, plans to continue working as a certified public accountant and director at EisnerAmper, with no current plans to retire.
Throughout the years, at annual galas that coincided with his various work anniversaries, the synagogue has honored the cantor and Gerri. Last month, a sisterhood-sponsored farewell brunch paid tribute to her.
“The cantor and Gerri have been amazingly comforting and caring,” says ritual chair Kym Newborn, 58, whose parents were synagogue founders. “It’s a loss for us.”
The warmhearted feelings are mutual and seem to infuse the cantor’s compact study. Its dark-paneled walls are lined not only with photos of family but also of synagogue members, as well as congregants’ tokens of appreciation, including needlepoints with Judaic themes and a plaque that reads: “A teacher gives, a teacher shares, but most of all a teacher cares.”
Slim and dapper with his signature bow tie, Wolk is both a teacher and scholar of Jewish music as well as an Anglophile, well-versed in English history.
“People love him,” says Rabbi Steven Conn, 58, who joined the synagogue nine years ago and is the fourth rabbi to serve with Wolk. One of the cantor’s most endearing qualities is his delicious sense of humor, notes Conn.
That comes across as Wolk reflects on memorable moments during his tenure. He recalls an incident with a youngster who came to his office for a bar mitzvah lesson and wanted one of the Hershey’s Kisses that the cantor keeps in a Mason jar on his desk. After telling the student that he would receive candy afterward, the cantor was mortified when the youngster finished his lesson and asked in a rather loud voice and with the door open, “How about that Kiss now?”
The Bronx-born cantor grew up in a kosher home with a dentist father, who worked on Saturdays, and a stay-at-home mom, who was a former teacher.
When the cantor was 8 years old, his family moved to Yonkers and joined the Lincoln Park Jewish Center. During those years, he enjoyed accompanying his paternal grandfather, a retired tailor, to Saturday services and to his grandparents’ home for a “Shabbat lunch.”
Describing himself as a rare kid who loved Hebrew school, he would play cantor and rabbi with his “nerdy” friends. It was before his bar mitzvah, Wolk says, that he also discovered his passion — but didn’t pursue it — for cantorial music. The revelation occurred as he was going through a cabinet that contained his parents’ collection of cantorial recordings from the 1920s.
“I didn’t know the words,” Wolk says, “but the sounds got into my soul, and the Brunswick recording of a baritone singing a cantorial number blew my mind.”
After his bar mitzvah, the cantor attended the synagogue’s seriously academic Hebrew High School, which enabled him to take the Hebrew regents. He became friendly with an instructor, a rabbinical student, who encouraged the future cantor to pursue his undergraduate degree at Yeshiva University’s James Striar School for students with no yeshiva education.
With his parents’ support, he took Sunday courses at the Jewish Teachers Seminary, which had a music division and led to private lessons with one of its teachers — legendary cantor David Koussevitzky.
Still, Wolk’s parents expected their only child to become the proverbial Jewish doctor. After a lackluster performance in organic chemistry, Wolk majored in English. He also enrolled in the Philip and Sarah Belz School of Jewish Music, a part of Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary.
In 1969, as a recent college graduate who was halfway through his cantorial training, he scored a cantorial position at a Clifton, New Jersey, Conservative synagogue. There, he met the yeshiva-educated Gerri, then a Syracuse University student, and her father the synagogue’s rabbi. The couple married in 1971.
BEING THERE FOR CONGREGATION
In the years that followed, the cantor earned a master’s in music education from Columbia University, was admitted to the Cantors Assembly after passing an interview and an exam, and received an honorary doctorate from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
He also trained 2,400 bar and bat mitzvah celebrants, many of whom, through the years, asked him to preside over other life-cycle events. Maxine Marcus, 48, a war crimes prosecutor in The Hague, says the cantor officiated at her bat mitzvah, wedding and parents’ funerals, her daughter’s baby naming, her eldest son’s bris and, last summer, his bar mitzvah in the Netherlands.
Wolk has also been with children on their deathbeds, “the most wrenching part” of a cantor’s life, he says. He will never forget the youngster stricken with lymphoma and on life support two months before his bar mitzvah. In response to the grieving mother’s request to “bar mitzvah my son,” the cantor sat on his bed and recited the Hebrew words that the teen would have spoken at the milestone occasion.
“Of course, I was crying,” he says.
But it hasn’t been a one-way support system. Hundreds of congregants came to his parents’ funerals, and many traveled to Clifton, where Gerri sat shiva for her parents and her brother, then 23, who died of an aneurysm.
Members have also turned out for the Wolks’ celebrations, including the brises and bar mitzvahs of their sons, Michael, now 34, and Ethan, now 31; Michael’s wedding and rabbinical ordination; and the 90th, 100th, 101st and 102nd birthdays of Wolk’s father, who was 102 when he died in 2013.
“I came from a small family, with no siblings, and there’s a great truth in saying you’re part of a synagogue family,” says Wolk.
To that family, the couple are leaving tangible gifts — as in the daily sanctuary’s custom-made ark doors and Hebrew school’s smart boards, all courtesy of the memorial funds the Wolks established in his parents’ names.
But, according to congregants, the Wolks have touched their lives with warmth and humor — in the form of their hospitality; Gerri’s luscious soups; the cantor’s off-key singing performance as Harold Ickes in a production of “Annie”; and the spirit that he brought to holiday and Sabbath prayers, including those he chanted to “Jingle Bells” and the Beatles, Klezmer, Caribbean and Jewish tunes.
Still, he regrets the demise of the synagogue’s choir: As older members moved or passed away, the younger ones showed no interest in choral singing. “My proudest achievement — working with the choir — is my biggest disappointment,” he says.
In his retirement, Wolk anticipates spending more time with his family, including Ethan, an Air Force sergeant in a post-baccalaureate pre-med program, Michael, a rabbi in Louisville and Klara Rose, the Wolks’ 22-month-old granddaughter. He also wants to volunteer, take courses and continue the vocal training that has enabled him to expand his repertoire to opera.
“Vocally and physically, I could have kept on going,” says Wolk, but guided by Psalm 116, he added, “I want to begin my retirement ‘in the land of the living,’ without compromised health and still in possession of my skills and faculties.”