There’s a case to be made that if you want to get to know Cantor Lawrence Avery, don’t bother reading this story. Get yourself to Teaneck’s Congregation Beth Sholom on Sunday, November 13, and listen to the concert, presented in his memory, performed by his students, now cantors themselves, filled with music he wrote, music he sang, and music he listened to, and join in to sing some of the songs he composed.
But then, Cantor Avery wasn’t only a man of music, though he was that, through and through. He also was a mensch. And that’s something better conveyed through words.
Cantor Avery was 88 when he died in 2015. He grew up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, said Adina Avery-Grossman of Teaneck, one of his two daughters. “He grew up around the synagogue and chazanaut,” she said.
His father was an amateur chazzan; his mother a “pretty talented pianist,” Ms. Avery-Grossman said. “Both were devoted to developing his talent.”
So after attending the Yeshiva of Crown Heights, Cantor Avery went to Manhattan’s High School of Music and Art. Then he went to the Juilliard School, where he earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degrees in vocal performance — and “met my mother” — Sara Lee Liss of Baltimore — “a Juilliard mezzo soprano. It was a Jewish match made in heaven at the Juilliard school.”
Along the way, Avery Cohen changed his name. He thought that Lawrence Avery sounded more like a tenor.
After graduating, the Averys decided not to take their voices on a grand tour of Italy, their daughter said. “Instead, they settled down and built a home and family. The place my father took his first job was where they stayed.”
That place was Beth El Synagogue Center, in New Rochelle, N.Y., the Conservative synagogue where Cantor Avery sang for 45 years. The Averys lived in New Rochelle until Ms. Avery died, and the cantor moved to Teaneck to be close to his daughter.
“I really grew up under a baby grand piano in our living room,” Ms. Avery-Grossman said. “There always music. My parents sang together for many many years in concerts. My first memories are of fabulous accompanists coming to the house and running programs with them. There was always some opera or Hebrew or Yiddish music in the house.
“When they weren’t rehearsing or he wasn’t prepping for the next set of holidays, he was composing. I’d be upstairs studying and he would be tinkering on the piano for hours, banging out melodies.”
“My parents were really accomplished singers,” Ms. Avery-Grossman said. “Imagine going to your shul for a concert on Chanukah and hearing the cantor and his opera-singer wife. It did not hurt that she looked like Jacqueline Onassis. They really brought glamour to Jewish music in that day.
“As I got a little bit older, 12 or 13, I was invited to sing in some of the concerts he was putting together, with arrangements he had made for two voices,” she said.
But there was much more to his life than performance. “The phone would ring nightly with students who would ask my dad for a recommendation, or can you mail this — then it was fax me, and then email me — an arrangement for a particular key or a particular number of voices. He was very generous.
In 1992, as the congregation marked Cantor Avery’s 40th anniversary there, the New York Times wrote about him. The story quoted Arlene Bookman, whose daughter, Pamela Bookman, had been declared the cantor’s thousandth bar/bat mitzvah student.
“What’s remarkable is his enthusiasm,” Ms. Bookman said. “It’s not like Pamela is his first student, it’s like she’s his only one.”
(In what may be a tribute to his work with her — or to be fair, may be unrelated — Pamela Bookman went on to clerk for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg and now teaches contract law and civil procedure at Temple University Law School.)
It’s a devotion to teaching that was appreciated when he taught and coached cantorial students, first at the Reform Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and later at the Conservative Theological Seminary of America.
Cantor Jeff Klepper was one of Cantor Avery’s students at HUC in the 1970s. Cantor Klepper was the sort of guitar-wielding singer who would go on to record Dylan parodies “Just like a Chazzan” and “Cantillation Row” — in other words, someone of a very different background than an old-school cantor like Lawrence Avery.
Yet they connected.
“I could see that Cantor Avery was someone who drew you in, with eyes that sparkled and the sweetest voice that God ever created,” Cantor Klepper wrote. “He was like a master magician with a secret knowledge to impart.
“I saw him as a cantor’s cantor, a teacher with an incredible wealth of knowledge. And that voice of his! Because his tenor voice was light and lyrical rather than powerful, he had to rely on his brains — his phrasing and interpretation — to dazzle you, which he did, always. He was a consummate vocal artist, driven to excellence. Having developed his vocal gifts to their fullest potential, he could communicate like no other cantor I have known.”
This side of Cantor Avery was something Ms. Avery-Grossman understood fully only after her father died.
“My sister and I did not realize the legacy he left for so many people, who have their own prized handwritten musical scores of arrangements he wrote just for them,” she said. “It’s spooky how much of someone’s soul can be transferred through the music into their students.”
An early iteration of next week’s concert was held in New Rochelle, featuring many of performers who will sing in Teaneck next week.
“The most moving thing was to hear how many of them, even if they weren’t a tenor, sounded like my father,” Ms. Avery-Grossman said. “There was something in the way he could turn the phrase and interpret the text.”
One of those singers is Cantor Ronit Wolff Hanan, who is Beth Sholom’s musical director.
“Our connection goes back to my father, who was a cantor in White Plains for 25 years,” Cantor Hanan said. “He and Cantor Avery were colleagues, and kind of had a mutual admiration society going on.”
When she moved to Teaneck, Cantor Hanan became friends with Ms. Avery-Grossman and met Cantor Avery on his visits to Teaneck. Later she studied with him at the JTS cantorial school. “He was a wonderful teacher,” she said. “He had high standards. He pushed people to be their best.”
“When he moved to Teaneck, he would often be in Beth Sholom for services, and you could always count on him for a great critique,” Cantor Hanan said. “It might be the choice of melodies, or he might say you should really sing a little lighter here, or you should give a little more feeling to this particular part of the text, or slow down here, make us feel the changes. The text changes and the music changes from minor key to major and you want everybody to feel that.”
Cantor Hanan and Ms. Avery-Grossman run a program called “Lunch and Lein,” where they teach Beth Sholom’s fifth graders to read the Torah.
“We have always used the musical trope sheets that Cantor Avery wrote out,” Cantor Hanan said. “He used to sit in on the classes when he was in Teaneck. He would pipe in, ‘Take that slowly; don’t rush through it.’ He would give the fifth graders a taste of his wonderful critiques even then.”
Save the Date
What: A musical tribute to Cantor Lawrence Avery
Who: Six cantors, three choirs, and one pianist
Where: Congregation Beth Sholom, 354 Maitland Ave., Teaneck
When: Sunday, November 13, 4 p.m.
What else: Free and open to the community