Living la vida loca
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Living la vida loca

Woodcliff Lakes cantor looks back at long, unexpected career

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Cantor Mark Biddelman stands in the sanctuary in Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley.

As they are about to retire, very few cantors can look back at 47 years in one shul.

Even fewer cantors can look back at a career that included selling guitars to the Rolling Stones, and to Linda Eastman to give as a birthday present to her husband, Paul. (That’s as in McCartney. As in the Beatles.)

And there is probably only one cantor in the world who can look back at both.

That’s Cantor Mark Biddelman of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake, 71, who has a story to tell.

Mark Biddelman was born in Irvington in 1943, and grew up in Weequahic, that fabled Jewish neighborhood in Newark that produced both Philip Roth and his sort-of-alter-ego, Alexander Portnoy. He and his siblings – he was the middle of three children – were second generation Weequahic; his father was born there as well.

Cantor Biddelman’s grandfather, Selman, who was born in Odessa and made his way to New Jersey around 1905, was a military tailor. Once he got to Newark – his right-off-the-boat destination – he worked in dry goods. Soon he opened a dry goods store in Newark, near Springfield Avenue; the store eventually was moved to South Orange. It’s long gone, but the building, with the words Biddelman’s Woolens painted on its chimney, still stands.

“I never had any store-bought clothes when I was a kid,” Cantor Biddelman said.

Selman’s son Meyer, a CPA, worked his way through Rutgers as a Hebrew tutor and a philatelist – he collected first-day covers and was able to sell them occasionally, one at a time, to get some cash, his son reported.

Cantor Biddelman’s mother, Miriam Bierman, who is 98, also was born in Newark. Her father, Harry, “had his own business,” he said. “He was in the brassiere business, in competition with Maidenform in the 1930s and ’40s.” As we know, Mr. Bierman lost that fight, but still both he and his wife, Lena, and the Biddelmans lived comfortably.

His mother “came from a totally nonobservant family,” he said, but Meyer Biddelman was Orthodox, and once they married Miriam Biddelman took to Jewish observance quickly and naturally, keeping a kosher home, throwing herself into Jewish organizations, living by cycles of the Jewish calendar.

“We lived two doors down from Young Israel, and we belonged to it, as well as to another synagogue that we never went to,” Cantor Biddelman said. “I went to cheder after school every afternoon, and I used to go to services a lot with my dad. He was a great davener.

“He had a pleasant voice. He was one of the lay leaders who davened the early part of the High Holiday services.

“One of my earliest memories was sitting next to him during a bat mitzvah. A boy was up there, chanting the Torah, and I remember tugging on his sleeve, saying, ‘You will never get me up there doing anything like that.'”

That changed quickly.

“We had a junior congregation of sorts on Saturday morning,” he said. “When I learned how to read Hebrew and chant the prayers, at 7, I was leading services.

“I was a fantastic reader,” he said. “From the time my older sister went to Hebrew school, she brought her machberet” – her Hebrew school notebook, lined for Hebrew letters and vowels – “home and she would write letters. They fascinated me. I couldn’t wait to get to school to learn to do that.

“And I became proficient in Hebrew reading. I couldn’t understand a word of it. I didn’t until I went to college. But I could read anything!

“And I loved to sing. When I was six, I would perform live shows for my friends. My dad had built a little shed in the back of the house, where we kept our bicycles. We had an opening there for a window, but no glass. That was my stage.

“Al Jolson was my hero. I had all of his records – ‘Mammy’ was my favorite song – and I would perform it for my friends on my little stage.”

(Cantor Biddelman’s fascination with Al Jolson has never left him, and he has collected Jolsoniana all his life. He now has a huge amount of Jolson-related stuff, he said.)

“I probably started singing almost professionally when I was 5 or 6,” he continued. “My first gig was at an organization called Pioneer Women. Something to do with Israel.” (Pioneer Women was the Labor Zionists’ women’s organization.) “My mother was president, and asked me to come to a meeting and sing a couple of Israeli songs. That was my first taste of singing in public.

But soon it became clear to the Biddelmans, as well as to many of their neighbors, that it was time to move. The neighborhood was growing poorer and the city more hostile. The Weequahic community didn’t disband entirely until right after the Newark riots in 1967, but even in the early 1950s it was starting to change. So was the surrounding countryside, as large numbers of returned GIs bought houses in newly sprouted developments. Meyer Biddelman moved his accounting business from Elizabeth to Route 22 in Mountainside, and he followed his business partner when he moved to Springfield.

“It was a tiny little farming town then,” Cantor Biddelman said. “It had almost no Jews. But we bought a brand-new house in 1953, and we had the house until my mother left it about 4 or 5 years ago.

“Springfield had big pansy fields,” he added. “It was the home of the Baltusrol Country Club – I lived across the street from it. But the only time I was in it was when we crawled under the fence to the pond, to look for balls. And later we would park cars there. But Jews couldn’t belong to the club.

“The town was largely Italian Catholic, and I experienced my first anti-Semitism there. I was bullied for the first time – because people there didn’t know what Jews were, and also because I was a small kid – less than five feet tall at my bar mitzvah.

“But I wasn’t picked on only for my size. I also was picked on because I was Jewish.”

Being a pioneer Jewish family in the newly blooming suburbs was, like much of life, a series of tradeoffs. In Newark, “schools were always closed on the Jewish holidays,” he said. “Not in Springfield. They wouldn’t even give us a religious excuse for missing class. It was counted as an absence. My father fought hard for many years to get us some semblance of a day off for the holidays.”

On the other hand, the neighborhood was beautiful, open, safe, and in general welcoming.

Although there was no synagogue in Springfield, there was one, a Conservative shul, in Milburn. “As soon as I got into Hebrew school there, I got active in junior congregation,” Cantor Biddelman said. “I had to learn Sephardic Hebrew – in Newark I had learned Ashkenazi.”

The shul’s first home was in an old nightclub building. “It had a little ballroom, which we used as the sanctuary,” Cantor Biddelman said. “It was two floors, with a large staircase with a huge mirror on the wall next to it.

“The mirror had a huge crack running through it. They didn’t want to try to remove it – who knows what was underneath – so my father, who was an amateur artist, painted a tree with huge branches on the mirror.” The tree and its branches hid the crack.

The suburbs kept on growing, and more and more Jews moved away from the city. Soon, the Jewish Congregation of Springfield – now Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael, then as now Conservative – was founded.

A local beer truck driver who belonged to the shul, a man with a beautiful bass baritone voice, heard young Mark Biddelman, then a soprano, and suggested that he audition for the High Holiday choir at the Schley Street Synagogue, back in Newark. “That was my first paid gig,” Cantor Biddelman said.

Mark Biddelman became less involved with shul life after he became bar mitzvah, but he was active in USY and AZA; he was a USY regional officer. And he’d lead davening occasionally. But he devoted most of his time to high school acting. He did some sports, because “everyone else did,” he said, but “I wasn’t very good at it.” He lettered at pole vaulting – back then, the poles were steel and landings were on sand. He played football for a year – “what I lacked in size I had in speed” – but “the next year I got into all-state chorus, and the rehearsals and football were both on Saturdays.” So much for sports.

This was the beginning of the folk revolution, and the Biddelman family were foot soldiers. “In high school, my brother and I had a group called – I don’t know if it had a name – but I do know that we played at the Café Wha? and I think at the Bitter End.” They played guitar; the venues were hallowed Greenwich Village ground then. “We did a lot of Peter Paul and Mary and Kingston Trio stuff,” he said.

Because his ambition was to become an actor or a singer, Cantor Biddelman applied to Carnegie Institute of Technology, which “had a fantastic drama program.” To his surprise, though, he was not happy there. “I really enjoyed the classes – but I came from a lily white, close-knit Jewish community, and suddenly I was put into this world of actors, and I was totally unprepared for it. I felt that this was not the place for me.”

After one semester, he dropped out.

What to do next? He moved back home, took the songs he’d been writing all along, “and I started peddling my wares, knocking on doors in the Brill Building,” he said; that was the famous Manhattan building that housed record producers whose seemingly capricious choices could make or break careers. He sold a few demos. He did not break through to a stellar career. In fact, he said, “I was striking out left and right.

“My parents were on my back. They said that I should go back to school, and get an education in something. I didn’t know what I wanted to do except be a performer, so they said, ‘Okay. Why don’t you learn the High Holiday liturgy? Then you can get yourself a job on the holidays.'”

Agreeing that the idea made sense, he found a cantor who could train him. That cantor, Abe Levit, had graduated from the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion. “He kept telling me that I should be a cantor,” Cantor Biddelman said. “I didn’t want to be – but I thought that if I went to cantorial school, it would further my musical education. It would also further my Jewish education – I hadn’t had any since my bar mitzvah. And if I couldn’t succeed in pop or acting, I could always get a job for the holidays.

“So I applied, but not with the intention of becoming a cantor.”

Cantorial school at HUC then was undergraduate – which worked for Mark Biddelman because he had completed only one semester of college. It was a five-year program; unlike today’s curriculum, 1962’s did not include a year in Israel.

“We studied traditional chazzanut as well as Reform,” Cantor Biddelman said. “We used the Union Prayer Book. I learned a lot of stuff that I had never been exposed to before, and that certainly helped me get and keep this job.”

Because the faculty knew that he had a traditional background and already knew how to daven, Cantor Biddelman was offered a High Holiday job on his first day of cantorial school. “I had never done a service in a Reform temple in my life,” he said. “I had never set foot in one. It was a good learning experience.”

He learned quickly. For the next three years, he was the student cantor at the Reform synagogue back home in Springfield, working for Rabbi Sy Dresner. “He came from an Orthodox background, so we saw eye to eye,” Cantor Biddelman said. Rabbi Dresner, who now is rabbi emeritus at Temple Beth Tikvah in Wayne, was very active in the civil rights movement. He was a Freedom Rider, and took other brave and dangerous actions. He was a wonderful role model.

“And I earned enough money to be able to buy my first car,” Cantor Biddelman said.

In 1967, during his third year of cantorial school, Cantor Biddelman went to Eddie Bell, the West 49th street store where he always went to buy guitar strings. There, after a long talk with a salesman, he learned that the owner was liquidating the business. He had been in it for 25 years and was ready to retire. A friend, who was an entrepreneur, “got an idea. He said, ‘How would you like to buy a guitar store?

“A month later, we owned a guitar store.”

Eddie Bell was in the middle of a row of music stores; then, at the beginning of the explosion of rock, all of them flourished. (Today, almost all of them are gone; only Sam Ash remains, undisputed king of the block.) “So when I graduated two years later, I didn’t need a full-time job,” Cantor Biddelman said. “It was a very successful business.” Soon the first partner was gone; eventually a second one came and went, but Mark Biddelman remained. He was having fun.

Many of the stores on the street sold Gibson guitars, but “I was the only legitimately registered Gibson dealer in the city. Two months after I bought the store, the Rolling Stones called me, because they wanted Gibsons.” It wasn’t that they didn’t have guitars already, Cantor Biddelman explained, but this was their first American tour, and they wanted to buy American guitars and play them. “They couldn’t come to me, so I had to go to them,” he said.

“I had to fight my way through a throng of teenage girls to get into their hotel. I got up into the room, and they were there, running around in their underwear,” he said. Mick Jagger wasn’t there, but the rest of them were, of course including Keith Richards. “They picked out their instruments. The funny thing was, there was no way of getting anything shipped quickly.” FedEx did not yet exist, and UPS was not fast, and Gibson, it turned out, did not know who the Rolling Stones were and did not see why they should rush anything.

Eventually, it got sorted out, and the Stones had their new Gibsons in time.

Cantor Biddelman also met Bob Dylan in 1967, about a year after his famous motorcycle accident. The guitar Cantor Biddelman sold Dylan, a Gibson J200, was the one Dylan used on Nashville Skyline, the cantor said.

“He was just like he was now,” Cantor Biddelman said. “Very withdrawn. He wanted to know if we had a private entrance, and we got him in through a back door in a back room.”

“I didn’t know who Linda Eastman was at first,” he continued. “She was looking for a small guitar for her husband – she didn’t tell me who he was. “I had one Martin – it was a half-size or a one-third size. I had given it to my daughter, but she didn’t play it, but it was exactly what Linda Eastman had been looking for.” Eventually he learned that Ms. Eastman was Linda Eastman McCartney, and that Paul was the Beatle. “After she left, we all got a little crazy,” he said. “I sold a guitar to Linda Eastman for Paul McCartney’s birthday present!

“I also sold Arlo Guthrie a guitar. He bought it with a $150 check from John Cameron Swayze, the news announcer and spokesman for Timex watches. He was a kid – it was for his 18th birthday. It was his first Martin.

“I also sold occasionally to Judy Collins and to Peter Yarrow. I had a lot of famous people. I got good at what I was doing. I also became an excellent repairman. I am very handy.

“It was a lot of fun.”

It was during this time – 1967 – that Mark Biddelman married Bette; “She is a homemaker, an artist, a photographer, and she does a lot of crafting types of things, ceramics, macramé, jewelry making, innovative greeting cards,” he said. The couple has one daughter, Terra, and a grandson, Elijah, who both live in Austin, Texas.

Because of Eddie Bell, “I did not need a full-time job,” Cantor Biddelman said, and of course he had not thought of the full-time cantorate as an option for him. “But my parents came across an ad for a part-time position at this synagogue” – Emanuel – “when it was in Westwood. I interviewed with Rabbi Ungar” – Rabbi Andre Ungar, its charismatic rabbi, had recently started what became a 41-year tenure there – “and he said to come in for an audition.” He got the job.

It was a perfect match. Like Cantor Biddelman, Rabbi Ungar had grown up Orthodox, and had deep roots in the Reform world as well. Emanuel is Conservative, but it draws on its clergy’s traditional understanding as well as their liberal ideology.

The Biddelmans moved to Paramus in 1971 and to Hillsdale two years later, to a house that had a huge peace sign in front of it during the Vietnam war era.

In 1981, Emanuel moved to the large sunlit building, with its breathtaking views all the way east to the Palisades, miles away. The next year, Cantor Biddelman liquidated his business and became a full-time cantor. The times had changed, and the retail guitar business wasn’t fun anymore. “I still have some stuff, and I still do some guitar repairs here and there,” he said. He plans to sell more of it on eBay once he retires.

Cantor Biddelman’s love of guitars, of all kinds of music, and of combining the traditional liturgy with other kinds of soul-stirring music, has led him to create two services, both of which he still loves and often uses. “In 1970, I started writing the music for a rock service,” he said. It was a Friday night service, and included parts for guitar, drum, and flute. At first, it was controversial, because most Conservative synagogues, like all Orthodox shuls, forbid instrumental music on Shabbat and holidays. In fact, he said, “even in HUC, when I was in school, I would have been expelled if I had brought a guitar into the building. It was unheard of. It was blasphemy.” But times changed, and eventually those restrictions were relaxed. “The first Friday night service we did, it was standing room only,” he said.

The first service is called “Shiru l’Adonai shir chadash,” and the second is “B’mangino alizot.” The Hebrew name of the second service means, “With merry melodies.” It’s taken from the signoff from Merrie Melodie cartoons, and it is Cantor Biddelman’s trademark signature line.

There are many other innovations Cantor Biddelman has instituted. Chief among them is Shabbat Yachad, the Carlebach-like service that ushers Shabbat in with joy on Friday nights. He also has a service called La Vida Loca, based on Argentinian Jewish melodies, that he performs with his friend Cantor Ilan Mamber of Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff.

Cantor Biddelman is retiring now, after 48 years, rather than waiting until the perhaps-more-resonant 50, because “I love my job, but the 365-day-a-year part can get to you,” he said. “I am 71 years old. I am not an old guy, but I am not young anymore either.

“You start seeing your mortality when you are 70. Time is not on my side anymore. I want to keep on doing things – but when I want to do them.”

He plans on compromising by being available for the things he most loves to do, when he is needed to do them. He will be the second cantor for the shul’s overflow High Holiday services, and he will fill in as necessary when the new, as-yet-nonexistent cantor needs him. He will not move away, and he will not leave the shul. “After all, this is my family,” he said. “This is my home.”

It is hard to know what 71 looks like, but it does not seem to look like Mark Biddelman. The cantor is small, thin, upright, clear-eyed, and fast. He also sports a stud earring in one ear.

Why?

“It was on my bucket list,” he said. “I have wanted to do it for years, and when I turned 70, I realized that if I didn’t do it now, I wouldn’t do it.” So he did.

How does it feel? “Great.”

What’s left on the list? “Nothing, really. Just to do what I want, when I want to do it, and to be happy.”

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