‘Living Torah’

‘Living Torah’

Family, friends remember Temple Emanu-El’s Cantor Kurt Silbermann

Cantor Kurt Silberman and his daughter, Judy Freilich, laughed together at Ms. Freilich’s Englewood home a few years ago. (COURTESY ARY FREILICH)
Cantor Kurt Silberman and his daughter, Judy Freilich, laughed together at Ms. Freilich’s Englewood home a few years ago. (COURTESY ARY FREILICH)

Cantor Kurt Silbermann, who died on Saturday at 92, probably would have liked a red sports car, his son-in-law, Ary Freilich, said.

But as a clergyman at Temple Emanu-El, then of Englewood, for more than 30 years, he often had to preside at funerals, and then drive, way up in the procession, following the hearse, to the burial. Then he’d have to park at the cemetery, right in front of the plot. Everyone would see his car.

So his desire for a red car didn’t matter. “He would always get a bland car,” Mr. Freilich said. “He felt that anything else would have been inappropriate.”

When he retired, in 1988, synagogue members gave him a going-away present. It was a maroon Toyota Camry. Not red — that would have been too much of a leap — but not brown either. Part way to red.

That story defines Cantor Silbermann. He was thoughtful, selfless, and real; that goodness coming from him evoked goodness and generosity from others. (Who gets a car as a thank-you gift?)

Kurt as a child, in Munich
Kurt as a child, in Munich

His story began in Munich on July 14, 1923, where he was born into the equivalent of a modern Orthodox home, the son of Hermann and Mira Silbermann. His father, a salesman, was a part-time cantor, and both Kurt and his older brother, Fred, sang in the shul choir. Their parents put Fred on a Kindertransport to England, and then the three remaining Silbermanns were able to get visas, get to England, and then sail across the Atlantic to New York Harbor.

They arrived on August 31, 1939. On September 1, the Nazis invaded Poland, and World War II officially began.

“Just last week, Kurt told me what it was like to wake up in the morning, that first morning, and see the Statue of Liberty,” Rabbi David-Seth Kirshner said. (Rabbi Kirshner heads Temple Emanu-El, now in Closter; although he arrived long after Cantor Silbermann retired, the two men were close, and Rabbi Kirshner officiated at Cantor Silbermann’s funeral on Monday.)

“When he saw the statue, he was overcome with tears,” Rabbi Kirshner said. “He realized that it meant freedom. He also told me that he never saw one sunrise without thanking God for the blessing of coming to America.”

When they got to New York, the Silbermanns moved to join the German-Jewish immigrant community in Washington Heights. “They lived the classic immigrant struggle,” Mr. Freilich said. “They lived in a modest apartment. Dad went to work, the boys went to school. It was a financial struggle, but Kurt had ambitions. He went to college, and got a master’s.”

The family joined Beth Hillel Synagogue, led by Rabbi Leo Baerwald. “It was very formal,” Mr. Freilich said. “Rabbi Baerwald wore morning dress.” (That’s morning dress as in a one-button, two-tailed coat, a waistcoat, and trousers.) Soon, Hermann Silbermann became the shul’s cantor.

When the Silbermanns arrived in New York, Kurt did not speak English. He learned quickly, though. He also joined a youth group; many of its members later moved to Bergen County. That included Sophie Heymann, who retired just over a year ago as mayor of Closter.

“And another one of the group’s members was a fellow they nicknamed Kissus,” Mr. Freilich said. That’s because his full name was Heinz — later Henry — Kissinger.

It was in Washington Heights that Kurt Silbermann met Inge May. According to all observers, she was the love of his life, and he was hers. The two were married for 68 years.

Kurt and Inge surrounded by friends and family at their wedding.
Kurt and Inge surrounded by friends and family at their wedding.

Inge came from Munich, just like Kurt, but “she came from a completely assimilated background,” Mr. Freilich said. She quickly realized, however, that as much as they loved each other, when it came to being Jewish, she was the one who would have to change. “She decided that he wasn’t going to become more like her, so she would have to become more like him,” he said. And she did.

They complemented each other. He was more gentle; she was more assertive. Both were charming.

When it came time to chose a career, Kurt Silbermann, choir singer, cantor’s son, music lover, decided, quite logically, to become a cantor. “He was an opera fan,” Mr. Freilich said. Up until just about the time he was ready for cantorial school, no such institution existed, but he became a member of the first class at the music school at the Hebrew Union College in lower Manhattan. “Although HUC had some serious musicians and musicologists, it was a whole different Jewish world,” Mr. Freilich said. It is one of the leading institutions in American Reform Judaism; Cantor Silbermann’s background was Conservative, and his own personal observance then was strict, as it remained throughout his life. “He was somewhat worried that by moving there, he would be out of the mainstream,” Mr. Freilich continued. “He was very gratified, some years later, when he was given an honorary doctorate by JTS.” The Jewish Theological Seminary is the Conservative movement’s flagship school. HUC also gave Cantor Silbermann an honorary doctorate.

Confirming his ties with the Conservative movement, Cantor Silbermann became active in its Cantorial Assembly; he became its president, and headed its placement services in the 1960, 70s, and 80s.

Kurt and Inge with their daughter, Judy, in Norristown, Pennsylvania.
Kurt and Inge with their daughter, Judy, in Norristown, Pennsylvania.

Cantor Silbermann’s first job was in Norristown, Pennsylvania. During their time there, they adopted Judy, and created a family that not only casual observers but even intimate friends saw as extraordinarily loving. “Judy says that she was the luckiest person in the world, to have been adopted by two people who created such a perfect home for her,” Mr. Freilich said.

In 1962, the family moved to Englewood.

Among the friends already in Bergen County were Paul and Inge Wolff, who lived in Bergenfield. (Mr. Wolff died in December.) “I knew Inge from the other side,” Ms. Wolff, who now lives in Cresskill, said. “And Paul knew Kurt from Munich.” They met again in Washington Heights; they were not close friends then, but “on Sundays we would all go to the park or to the beach, and the boys played volleyball there. Kurt was young, and he was skinny, and he was one of the boys.

“I can still see him running and playing ball there.”

After the Silbermanns moved to Englewood, they convinced the Wolffs, who had not been happy with the synagogue in Bergenfield, to join Emanu-El. Then the families became close and remained close throughout the rest of their lives.

As Ms. Wolff describes her friend Kurt, she sets a theme that recurs in every discussion of him. “He was always extremely friendly,” she said. “Very soft-spoken. He listened to everybody. And you would never hear a bad word from Kurt. In all the time I knew him, I never heard him say a bad word about anyone. He was a very gentle person.”

She remembers one surprising detail. “When he was in cantorial school, he needed to make money, so he worked as a silversmith,” she said. She never saw anything that he made, and she never saw him do anything with his hands, but “none of us had any money, and we all had to make some money somehow,” she said.

During his time at Emanu-El, Cantor Silbermann worked with the shul’s rabbi, the famous writer, teacher, and public intellectual Arthur Hertzberg, who died 10 years ago.

“Kurt and his entire family were great friends to our family,” Susan Hertzberg of Haworth, Arthur and Phyllis Hertzberg’s younger daughter, said. “Kurt and Inge were always charitable, in the highest sense of the word, and they extended their personal warmth to everyone around them.”

“Our families grew up together” — Linda and Susan Hertzberg and Judy Freilich are all just about the same age — “and the three of us grew up together, both in synagogue and in life.

“Kurt was always cheerful and always available, and it came from a place of genuine warmth and humility and acknowledgement of every individual. He had a way of relating to every person that made them feel special and admired and encouraged.”

Cantor Silbermann always found the less public part of his job — the pastoral work — as important as the public aspect of it. That made him and Rabbi Hertzberg great partners. They shared the pastoral work, and that allowed Rabbi Hertzberg to travel, speak, and write. “Kurt was so accomplished at pastoral work, and he was so dedicated to it, that it gave Dad the space to pursue other interests,” Ms. Hertzberg said. “They really had a lovely relationship, and definitely worked hard to make each other the best they could be.”

Cantor Silbermann “was a religious leader,” she added. “He was there in good times and in bad, and he and Inge supported our family during our difficult times. They were there for the totality of life, not just for the good times. The admiration of the community was a consequence of their steadfastness, and their support of those around them.”

There was another aspect to the relationship. Cantor Silbermann “had an impish charm,” Ms. Hertzberg said; her father, too, had an impish streak, a sort of roguish charm. Although they both were straight-laced in public, in private they would laugh together. “The robing room was the place for joking,” Ms. Hertzberg said.

Emanu-El was ahead of its time in its move toward egalitarianism, Ms. Hertzberg added. She, her sister, and Judy Silbermann all became bat mitzvah in the late 1960s. “I and my sister were among the many students who Kurt taught trope to,” she said. “He assured every student that they would be able to master what they needed for their bar or bat mitzvah.” Although girls were not yet able to read Torah at Emanu-El then, they read haftarah at Friday night services. “I didn’t realize at the time that most Conservative synagogues were confirming young women instead of allowing them to become bat mitzvah,” she said. “What we were doing was something different.

“He did not make us feel as if we were an afterthought.”

Rabbi Kirshner’s friendship with Cantor Silbermann went back to his time in rabbinical school, and his family connection went back even farther. His father, Phillip Kirshner, who later became a rabbi, first was a cantor, and Cantor Silbermann, in his volunteer role as the Cantors’ Assembly’s placement director, developed a relationship with the men (and yes, at that time they all were men) with whom he worked. So when the younger Rabbi Kirshner — then still Mr. Kirshner — went to JTS, “he always looked out for me,” he said. “We met for lunch, he always asked me how my studies were faring. He couldn’t have been kinder.”

But not only did they not overlap at Emanu-El — Cantor Silbermann had been retired for about 15 years when Rabbi Kirshner arrived there — “within weeks of my coming, he and Inge moved to assisted living.

“They were the first people to live there, at Jewish Home Assisted Living at River Vale.”

Rabbi Kirshner visited often. “One incredibly beautiful thing,” he said. “I saw him a few hours before he died, and also the week before. Then, he was sitting on the couch holding Inge’s hand. They were like lovebirds. She, unfortunately, is suffering from dementia now. He was sitting there, holding her hand, telling her stories. Loving her. Sixty-eight years later, and they are lovers who also still are friends.”

Inge and Kurt Silbermann, who were married for 68 years, hold hands; their granddaughters Sarah, left, and Elizabeth share the love.
Inge and Kurt Silbermann, who were married for 68 years, hold hands; their granddaughters Sarah, left, and Elizabeth share the love.

Cantor Israel Singer replaced Cantor Silbermann at Emanu-El. They became good friends.

“There was not even one sentence that he would say without a smile,” Cantor Singer said. “And that smile felt as if it were not an external thing, but warmth and love.” He would officiate at weddings and at funerals, “and it didn’t matter if it were a simcha or a sorrow. He knew that both were touching the most profound essence of life. And he did it with so much respect for the moment and for the person.”

The two cantors shared a love for opera. Often, they and a few others from the shul would go to the Metropolitan Opera, both for morning rehearsals and for performances. “We were lucky to see some of the most amazing singers — Pavarotti, Placido Domingo,” Cantor Singer said. “And Kurt was so prepared!

“He would bring us all sandwiches, and everyone had his name on his sandwich. He was so organized! He arranged everything. He always knew who was bringing the car, and where we were parking. He was so very organized that he always made me feel as if my own life was a mess!”

They had different musical styles, Cantor Singer said; they came from different places at different times. “We bridged two generations,” he said. “He came from Europe, where it was so strict about the text and about the song. And I came from Israel, from the modern world. I was so much younger. I brought the Israeli thing — we can change things at the last minute, improvise — if someone was talking about Argentina, I would sing the Kedusha to ‘Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina.’ Things like that.”

Cantor Silbermann wasn’t particularly fond of such improvisation, “but he came to me many times to tell me how much he loved the cantorial pieces. We were very close. Even with the distance between our two worlds, he touched my heart always.”

Cantor Silbermann was very dignified, Cantor Singer said; that quite possibly was a result of his German upbringing, he added. “I visited him in Englewood Hospital. He always was so well dressed. He was going to leave, and he didn’t want to leave in inappropriate clothes.” Even at the end of his life, he was going to be appropriate.

Cantor Singer went to the nurse and arranged the clothing, he said. And then Cantor Silbermann behaved again in the way that was most true to himself. “He was so appreciative,” Cantor Singer said. “He never took anything for granted. He appreciated everything.”

Ary Freilich summed up his father-in-law.

“He was always warm,” he said. “He was always smiling. But that was never shallow. It was set in a context in which actions and good conduct and proper treatment of others, empathy, respect, decency — they all mattered.

“I am struggling for the right thing to say because Kurt would say to me that people will see to all the good things you do, they will listen to all the nice things you say, and they will forget them, but if you say something wrong, they will remember it forever. If you wrong them, they will remember it forever.

“He said that it is a challenge to converse with people and deal with them in such a way that you don’t make a mistake, and say something unintentionally that would be hurtful. He worked at that.

“He took it as a life goal to be able to relate to many people intimately, and not to damage that relationship by carelessness of the tongue.

“His job had three parts — music, pastoral work, and education. And then there was family, and the Cantorial Assembly. He combined them all, and in each part of his life, people said that he conducted himself in a flawless manner.

“Flawless is a word that gets thrown around a lot. I won’t say that Kurt was flawless, but I never heard him say a bad word about anyone, and I never heard anyone say a bad word about Kurt.

“He was a happy person. He was not cynical and he was not foolish. He accepted the negative aspects of life, and he was determined to live his life in a positive, hopeful, friendly decent manner. He was determined to have a positive impact on those around him.”

Rabbi William Lebeau, a former dean of the Jewish Theological Seminary, was the second High Holy Day rabbi at Temple Emanu-El for many years, so he knew Cantor Silbermann well. He co-officiated at his funeral with Rabbi Kirshner, and Ary Freilich quoted his description of Kurt Silbermann.

“He lived Torah,” Rabbi Lebeau said.

Cantor Kurt Silbermann is survived by his wife, Inge May Silbermann, their daughter, Judy Freilich, their son-in-law, Ary Freilich, their granddaughters, Elizabeth Freilich and Sarah Benedek, and their grandson-in-law, David Benedek.

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