Max Helfman and Me

by Cantor Sheldon Merel Several months ago one of my cantorial colleagues was researching music by Max Helfman, and I wrote the following: “I believe your best source about Max Helfman is Jack Gottlieb in NYC. Jack and I spent the summer of 1950 in Brandeis Camp in California studying with Max Helfman, and his assistant, Chuck Feldman, later of Wilshire Blvd Temple in Los Angeles (another good source). After Max’s death, Jack helped Max’s wife, Florence, gather and collate much of Max’s manuscripts." I first met Max Helfman the summer of 1950 when I and three of my classmates, just entering our second year at HUC-SSM, went to Brandeis Camp in the Los Angeles area during July and August on music scholarships. We were among a small group of singers, instrumentalists, composers and dancers, mostly separate from the younger campers, who had come there to study and perform with Max in programs for the campers and visiting parents. It proved to be a small version of a Jewish Tanglewood of the West. We lived in tents, rehearsed in small cabins and in the dining room. Max invited several outstanding Jewish composers as guests to lecture at the camp, which was a revelation for us. Regardless of who may have rehearsed our choir, when Max conducted he brought out sounds we didn’t know we had. He was powerful and inspiring. Those I recall in our group of musicians were Ehud Wyner, Jack Gottlieb, George Weinflash, Larry Ehrlich, and of course, Chuck Feldman who was on staff as Max’s assistant and accompanist. The summer of 1950 was perhaps one of the most exciting times of my musical life, second only to an opera workshop I attended with Boris Godowsky in West Virginia. To sit at Max’s feet as he lectured or conducted was unforgettable. After the summer of ’52, back in New York, we cantorial students continued to sing with Max to raise money for the Brandeis Institute, just before Brandeis made its home in Los Angeles. Upon our return to the School of Sacred Music, upon our recommendation, Max was invited to teach conducting, and once again we were privileged to learn and watch him in action. Max was a wonderful raconteur and used to tell us about the years he was the music director for Cantor Abe Shapiro at Beth Abraham Temple in New Jersey. Max would compose new music for this great tenor while riding the trains to New Jersey from his home in New York City, and scribble notes on pieces of manuscript paper, ready for performance that same Shabbat morning. Max shared many of his manuscripts originally written for Shapiro with me, which later became much of the core of my own repertoire for over 50 years. Some of it was later published but I savor the copies in Max’s hand. In 1982, at my congregation, Beth Israel in San Diego, I presented an evening of Max’s Shabbat service with orchestra and choir, arranged by Richard Neumann. I was thrilled that Max’s widow, Florence, then living in Laguna Hills, came to San Diego with her son, David, to hear the service. In a small way, it was my personal tribute to one of the most memorable persons in my life who helped me grow as a person, cantor, musician and concert artist. Zecher Tzadik Livracha. In tribute to Max Helfman’s tremendous contribution to Jewish music, I have included three major compositions of his in my recently released CD, CHANTS OF A LIFETIME FROM SYNAGOGUE TO OPERA, performed with choir and organ: K’VA-KA-RAT (the ending of the Uneh-taneh-tokef), ADONAI,ADONAI, and his arrangement of KOL NIDREI. For more information, reviews, and a direct link to purchase, go online to Sheldon Merel, cantor emeritus of Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego, California, 11/03/10