This is the story of two fathers and two sons. It’s the story of a voice believed to be silenced forever, and of a shidduch that brought the voice very much back to life.
Most of all, it’s the story of a grieving man who reached out to a rabbi and, by great good luck, found a way to reconnect with the father he had recently buried.
Cantor David Lebovic led generations of Philadelphia-area residents in Shabbat and holiday prayer, first at Temple B’nai Aaron in Wynnefield, and later at Temple Sholom at Large Street and Roosevelt Boulevard in the city’s Oxford Circle section, before retiring and moving to Florida about 25 years ago.
A native of Czechoslovakia born in 1919, he was forced into slave labor in Hungary during World War II, eventually escaping to Russia and winding up back in Prague, where he joined up with a Czech brigade to liberate the capital city.
Later, he would fight in Israel’s War of Independence, and again in the 1956 Sinai war. A Talmudic scholar trained in the classic Eastern European style of chazzanut — Jewish liturgical music — he found work as a trucker in the newly minted Jewish state, serving as a part-time cantor before moving his wife, Malvena; daughter, Eva; and son, Joseph, to the United States in 1960.
Lebovic died on Jan. 26 at the age of 94. Shortly after the funeral, Joe Lebovic, himself a cantor at Congregation Beth Tikvah in Marlton, N.J., received a condolence call from Rabbi Elliot Perlstein, the spiritual leader at Ohev Shalom of Bucks County in Richboro since 1976.
The Perlsteins and the Lebovics go way back.
Perlstein grew up in Temple Sholom, where Cantor David Lebovic served as his cherished role model. The two maintained what Perlstein describes as a close and warm relationship long after the Oxford Circle synagogue disbanded in 2001 and merged with Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park.
At some point during that condolence call last winter, as the men exchanged memories, Joe Lebovic said he would give anything to hear his father’s voice one more time. Hoping to make that happen, Perlstein turned to Dr. Bernie Grossman, an Ohev Shalom congregant who had in his possession a remarkable set of recordings.
“My father sang in choirs his whole life, especially at the High Holidays,” said Grossman, an oncologist/hematologist in private practice. “He was a machinist and a teacher, but at one point in the 1960s, he decided he wanted to become a chazzan, and he asked Joe’s father to teach him.”
So it was that Herman Grossman, known as Bucky, sat in David Lebovic’s home as his mentor recorded more than 50 hours of chanted liturgy: the stately cadences of Kol Nidre, the celebratory melodies of the Hallel service, the Selichot prayers that usher in the solemn season of the New Year, the Birkat Hamazon, or blessings after the meal.
And more, much more.
“Everything you wanted to know about being a chazzan — for the most part, it’s all there,” Bernie Grossman says of the 15 or 20 tapes he kept stored in a metal tin and lugged with him wherever he moved over the years.
“He was a tenor with a great range,” Grossman said of the late cantor. “He could do things with his voice that only great cantors could do — a yodel, or a falsetto, say.
“The way he embellished the music was so beautiful,” added Grossman, who often davens the Musaf service at his synagogue on Rosh Hashanah.
Bucky Grossman did fulfill his dream of becoming a part-time cantor, serving congregations in Ewing and Cinnaminson, N.J. When he died in 1977, the tapes wound up in his son’s hands.
About seven or eight years ago, the physician vowed to have the reel-to-reels converted to digital form. He would document their contents and arrange them systematically by holiday and type of service.
“I spent months at night going through each tape, cataloging whether it was for Rosh Hashanah, how to conduct a wedding, count the Omer, whatever,” Grossman recalled. “I also found the corresponding Hebrew in the texts and copied it down.”
He made about 10 copies of the finished product, packaged in a loose-leaf binder. He gave copies to Perlstein and others at his synagogue. He also tried — unsuccessfully — to get a copy to Joe Lebovic.
And so matters stood until a frigid January day earlier this year, when the younger Lebovic called the son of his father’s friend and heard him say, with much feeling, “You don’t know how many years I’ve been waiting to get this phone call from you.”
The “reunion” of father and son took place several weeks later, when the tapes exchanged hands. Lebovic, an optometrist practicing in Camden, sat down to listen to the Rosh Hashanah section of the recordings in the comfort of his Cherry Hill home.
“The first time I heard the tape, it sent waves of emotions through me that I can’t even begin to describe,” he recalled. “When I was mourning for my father, I mourned not only for losing him, but for not having my mentor there to prop me up.”
Whenever the younger Lebovic struggled to interpret a line of music, whenever he had a question about cantorial etiquette or the nuance of a Jewish law, it was his father to whom he’d turn. “Having the tapes there gave him back to me a little,” he said.
For Grossman, too, the process of restoring the tapes has held profound meaning, allowing him not only to learn the Sheva Brachot (seven blessings) he had the pleasure of chanting at his daughter Sarah’s recent wedding, but also to feel a sense of contributing to the preservation of a rich cantorial tradition.
“Why did I do it?” he says. “Simple: I did it because I wanted the music to live on.”