Jewish Week
March 2020

Big City, Small (Jewish) World

By Jo Frances (Meltzer) Brown

What are the odds that the mohel preforming our cousin’s grandson’s bris in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn was born and raised in Syracuse, NY? And, what are the chances that his grandfather, Reverend Isadore Jacobs, the rabbi of Chevra Shas, a cantor, a mohel, and the community’s shohet and my zayde, Hyman Meltzer, were best friends and fellow congregants at Chevra Shas, their tiny Orthodox shul on Irving Avenue in Syracuse. As Cantor Sherman prepared to leave our thrilled family, having performed the bris of little Teddy, the eight-day-old first child of our Philadelphia cousins, we chatted, disbelieving the myriad connections we quickly discovered.

A little background: Cantor Phil Sherman is the former cantor of New York’s fabled Spanish Portuguese Synagogue and the “go-to” mohel in the New York metropolitan area, who made a life cycle event so meaningful and rich that we couldn’t stop talking about it with friends at our co-op’s holiday party that night. They not only were familiar with Cantor Sherman’s reputation, but their own grandchildren had had “close encounters” with this man!

“Call me Phil,” and so we did. Turns out that Phil and I have many friends and places in common. As a graduate of the Columbia University/Jewish Theological Seminary Joint Program, he knew my good friend Rabbi Carl Wolkin, a Syracusan, who is emeritus rabbi of Congregation Beth Shalom in Northbrook, Illinois; Rabbi Paul Drazen, the late emeritus rabbi of Temple Adath Yeshurun; Rabbi Peter Rubenstein, a colleague at the 92nd Street Y and rabbi emeritus of Central Synagogue; and Rabbi Scott Perlo, associate director of the Bronfman Center of 92Y and on and on... Oh, and did I mention that Phil, along with his high school choir, sang with Cantor Harold Lerner in the world premiere of “Haggadah” and was a good friend? Yes, he was the very same Cantor Lerner who had prepared me for my bat mitzvah in 1963 and officiated at my marriage ceremony at Temple Adath in 1985. Phil’s mom, Malvina, taught Hebrew school at Temple Adath. Finally, Cantor Phil was also a close friend of my late cousin, Joel Renert, both having attended Jamesville-DeWitt High School, where Phil’s mom, Malvina, also taught. Cantor Phil and Joel’s sisters, Marcia and Dana Renert, continue a decades long friendship with Phil.

So, what does all of this add up to? Living in a city of eight million people sometimes feels strange and even overwhelming, even after 48 years. There are people everywhere and crowded sidewalks and subway platforms are the norm. Sometimes, I don’t run into a single soul I know all day long until I reach my apartment building. Yet, here was Cantor Sherman, initially a total stranger, now morphing into a friend with whom I have so much in common. New York—huge and often impersonal—suddenly became our own little shtetl as we discovered these generational connections. Two miracles happened yesterday in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn: first, the big miracle of welcoming a new life and second, the little miracle of making a new and fascinating friend with a shared past. I wonder where the story will go from here.

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