December 3, 2008
Rabbi Jacob Pressman takes a bow
Rabbi Jacob and Marjorie Pressman with Michele Lee. Photo by Maxine Picard
Rabbi Jacob "Jack" Pressman has always been an entertainer. He's charming and funny -- quite the talented singer -- and possesses a flare for stage drama so becoming that at times it seems as if his persona as rabbi is secondary. Such was the case on Nov. 23 when Rabbi Jack performed what he called his "swan song" to the spotlight -- a romp through his favorite Depression-era show tunes, a jaunt on the Temple Beth Am stage for people who have listened to him and loved him throughout the years.
More than entertaining, "Four Score & 10 and Rabbi Jack's at it Again," his self-styled homage to his 90th year performed to a crowd of 400 friends, family members and admirers, was a nostalgic trip down memory lane.
"People who haven't seen me for a while greet me with a mix of surprise and confusion," Pressman said, seated on the stage adjacent to a baby grand piano. "They'll say, 'We've seen your name on the temple -- we thought maybe you'd be dead.'"
Indeed the rabbi has aged only a little since 1950 when he first took the pulpit at Temple Beth Am (then the Olympic Jewish Temple and Center), and history has proved him a seminal figure in the development of L.A. Jewry. Pressman was a founding father of Camp Ramah in California, University of Judaism (now American Jewish University), Brandeis-Bardin Institute and Los Angeles Hebrew High School, among other projects.
Twenty-three years since his retirement (and 139 more sermons, 40 funerals, 20 weddings, 275 doctors visits and a weekly column for the Beverly Hills Courier since his last stage performance in 2004), a delicate and fragile Pressman returned to the pulpit for what he said would be the last time. The concert served as a kind of public oral history for Pressman, complemented by aptly themed show tunes that spurred him to recount pivotal events in his life and the life of the country.
Inclined to provide historical context between each song, Pressman said he feels show tunes are often better markers of history than books. Along with Mike Burstyn, veteran of the Yiddish stage, Pressman led the audience in a rendition of "Tumbalalaika." He then moved into a melancholy solo of "Brother Can You Spare a Dime," which seemed to stretch its resonance from the Great Depression of the 1930s to the financial woes of today. Then it was "Happy Days Are Here Again."
At times the show was silly (actress-singer Michelle Lee tried to outfit the rabbi in coat and tie in an unrehearsed bit before the finale), and other times sad (he spoke of the daughter-in-"love" the family recently lost to cancer), and then, he would lift spirits during duets with friends -- Rabbi Susan Leider of Temple Beth Am, theater actors Burstyn and Lee, and Monty Hall all joined him on stage.
Pressman's selections expressed the range of his experience. From, "I Just Called to Say I Love You," when he met wife, Marjorie, to "Sunrise, Sunset" through which he watched three children grow up and leave home. Pressman's children, Rabbi Daniel, Joel and Judith Pressman, each paid their father tribute with letters, poetry and song. Rabbi Joel Rembaum, senior rabbi of Temple Beth Am, where Jack Pressman is rabbi emeritus, presented Rabbi Jack with a birthday cake.
Of all the public roles Jack Pressman has played in his life, he makes no secret that the most rewarding was his private role as husband. To close the show, he evoked more memories as he sang the title song from "The Way We Were" and asked his wife to stand from her seat in the audience -- the vantage point from which she has been his partner in all of his accomplishments.
"She's been my inspiration, critic, provider and supporter," Pressman said to a captivated crowd. "We're winding down 70 years together in which we made love and a family and Jewish history." And just to her, he added, "You have been the wind beneath my wings."
(From left) Alan and Judy Bunnage, Rodney and Beth Freeman, Marshall and Susan Temkin. Photo by Maxine Picard
The Pressman children: Rabbi Daniel of San Jose, Judith from Israel and Joel. Photo by Maxine Picard