September 29, 2005
Cantor Carries on Tennis Tradition
Steven Walfish's life is ruled by the three Ts: tallit, tefillin and tennis.To illustrate this point, when his son Sam was in first grade, he asked his dad to drop by the school and join other fathers in talking about their professions.
So the elder Walfish appeared in full regalia and talked about what it means to be a cantor in a synagogue.
Then he stripped off his robe, displaying the tennis shorts and shirt underneath, and discussed the job of managing three municipal tennis centers.
Walfish credits one of his professions to his father, the other to his mother.
His Polish-born father and Holocaust survivor, Heshel Walfish, has been the legendary cantor at Beth Israel for 50 years, and at 85 he shows no sign of slowing down.
Located at Beverly and Crescent Heights boulevards, Beth Israel was founded in 1899 as the first Orthodox congregation in Los Angeles, and was also known as the Olive Street Shul.
When Steven was 5 years old, Cantor Walfish put his son next to him on the bimah on Shabbat, and the boy starting belting out prayers at the Orthodox service.
By the time of his bar mitzvah, Steven had learned his dad's craft and would pinchhit for him when he was out of town.
At the same time, the boy's American-born mother, Betty, took over the physical education of the only male heir among her four children.
She took Steven bowling, fishing, and, most importantly, instilled in him a lifelong love of tennis.
Now, at 74, Betty Walfish still plays against her 48-year old son, who describes her as "a really sharp player."
By stages, Steven Walfish became a full-service cantor the old-fashioned way, by learning from his father rather than through ordination.
For the past nine years, he has conducted one of the High Holiday services at Stephen S. Wise Temple, a Reform congregation, and tutors bar and bat mitzvah students.
(Full disclosure: Walfish tutored and officiated recently at one of my granddaughters' bat mitzvah, so this report may be biased.)
When The Journal interviewed Walfish last week outside Starbucks on Beverly Glen Circle, a parade of trim-looking women stopped by for cheery hellos.
"All mothers of my b'nai mitzvah kids," he explained.
On a parallel track, Walfish's tennis fervor kept growing. "I am an ardent fan," he said. "If Tom Cruise came by now and sat down at our table, it wouldn't mean a thing to me. But if it was Pete Sampras or John McEnroe, I'd die."
In 1994, Walfish got a chance to combine pleasure and business. With partner Lee Ziff, he formed the Beverly Hills Tennis management company, and soon entered into a contract with the City of Beverly Hills to manage its 26 courts at Roxbury Park, La Cienega Park and Beverly Hills High School.
"We supervise all the lessons, leagues, competitions, facilities and special events," he said. "We have 30 pros, so I can always find somebody to play with."
Recently, Walfish had the opportunity to fuse his two favorite occupations by conducting a bar mitzvah on a private Beverly Hills tennis court.
In preparing Jewish youngsters for the rite of passage, Walfish takes a special interest in the sons and daughters of Russian immigrants and in children with learning disabilities.
"The Russian kids have practically no Jewish background but they have an intense thirst for Jewish identity," he said.
Walfish, a divorced father of a girl and two boys, has developed a personal understanding for children with special needs through his 14-year old daughter Emily.
Emily was born with Rett syndrome, a neurological disorder that prevents her from walking or communicating in any way.
"She is a beautiful girl, she laughs and cries, and living with her -- we would never put her in an institution -- has made her two younger brothers much more sensitive and empathetic boys," Walfish said.
A big man, who erupts frequently into hearty laughter, Walfish puts in pretty long days as cantor, manager of tennis facilities, and "full-time dad." In addition, he "dabbles" in real estate, and hopes to rejuvenate his father's Beth Israel congregation, which now consists largely of Holocaust survivors.
As a religious person, Walfish says he is somewhat conflicted. "My father is from a Chasidic background and I was educated in Orthodox schools, but I have worked mainly at Conservative and Reform synagogues," he mused. "I guess theologically I look at life from a Reform perspective, but my heart and soul are still Orthodox."