Jewish Journal

It’s a Board, It’s a Plane…. It’s the Return of the Handy Hazzan

by Cantor Harris Shore, The Handy Hazzan

July 29, 2011 | 12:17 am

...standing at the same amud where the great Pincas Minkowsky once sang

My daughter, Roxy and I boarded a plane to New York June 24th, returning to Los Angeles a little over a week ago …  and it’s nice to be back on blog.  This was our fifth, summer Daddy/Daughter Back East Excursion, visiting some favorite places in my hometown area of Phoenixville, Pa. and also the Mennonite country in and around Allentown, Pa. where we attended the Kutztown Folk Festival and splashed around at the famous Dorney Waterpark.  (I went to college at Franklin and Marshall, which is in Lancaster County, the heart of the Amish country.) Compared to the incredible handy men and women who bring their unique crafts to the Kutztown Folk Festival every year, I am but a mere amateur.  We met a couple of men who have been recycling large tin cans for over thirty years, shaping and cutting out areas of the tin using an acetylene torch and other very individualized tools; then coloring the metal with various shades of polyurethane. The lanterns, planters and other handsome items they create are remarkable. At another booth, we met a woman who has spent the better part of her life hand-building high quality dolls which are truly made in America and much superior to the more ubiquitous American girl dolls which, by the way are made in China. 

NEW YORK: The highlight of our journey was visiting the Eldridge Street Synagogue and Museum in what is now Chinatown, New York City.  Until tourists learn about the history of this “breathtaking, historic National Landmark, “ the big question is usually, “Why did they build such a beautiful synagogue in the middle of Chinatown?”  Of course, when the synagogue was built in 1887, there were few Chinese immigrants living in the area. You’ll read on the home page of the website:

The Eldridge Street Synagogue opened its doors at 12 Eldridge Street on September 4 1887, just in time for the Jewish High Holidays. Hundreds of newly arrived immigrants from Russia and Poland gathered here to pray, socialize and build a community. It was the first time in America the Jews of Eastern Europe had built a synagogue from the ground up.”  Copy and paste to learn all about the history of the synagogue and about the multi-million dollar restoration that began in 1983: http://www.eldridgestreet.org/

My own personal experience could not possibly be reflected in their website.  I was acutely aware of the craftsmanship that went into the original building.  The architecture is predominantly Moorish in style, complemented by Gothic and Romanesque elements especially on the exterior.  Inside, I noticed how bits of the old knob and tube electrical system still remained as part of the “museum.”  Our tour guide pointed out that the magnificent chandeliers in the sanctuary that originally contained countless individual oil lamps were now turned upside down to house chandelier bulbs.  The floors in the main sanctuary are original.  What were those deep, convex bevels in areas behind the pews?  Turns out, it was from decades of shuckling as the men davened three times a day, Shabbat and Yom Tov.
How I wanted to sing in this sanctuary.  The hazzan’s amud is right in front of and facing the Aron Kodesh.  This from elsewhere on the website: “In the late 19th century, a Cantor Craze spread like wildfire through the tenements of the Lower East Side. In an effort to pack the house, the congregation hired Cantor Pinhas Minkowsky, the “Sweet Singer of Israel,” stealing him away from his perch in Odessa, Ukraine.”  I stood where the great Minkowsky must have stood, and slowly began Zilbert’s Birkat Hachodesh.  The acoustics were amazing.  I then sang the Shema.  It was enough.  It made my day… my week!  A small Orthodox congregation, descended from the original kahal, still davens at the Eldridge Synagogue, downstairs in what was originally the Beit Midrash..

I loved this synagogue so much, I inquired if they had interest in hiring a hazzan (me) for the High Holy Days.  I left a message for someone who never returned my call.  It’s not my fault my last name isn’t Minkowsky!  Shortly after Roxy and I returned from our trip, I received the good news that I will be the Hazzan for the High Holy Days at The New Shul for the Conejo in Agoura Hills.  Here’s a link to their High Holy Days information: http://www.tnsconejo.org/content/tns-high-holiday-schedule.  We’ll be adding some Handy Hazzan vocal clips.  Give a listen early August and come join us at The New Shul!  I’ll be sharing the bimah with Rabbi Gershon Weissman, as well as my friend and colleague, Rabbi Michael Barclay.  The evening of August 19th I’ll be guest hazzan for Shabbat services.  Check the website for details!

There’s one tool that hasn’t changed much since the creation of the Eldridge Street Synagogue … the block plane.  This is a very handy tool that can connect a person to the art of woodworking in a way that no power tool can.  Even if you’re not a custom “woodworker,” you may find situations around the house where a plane can be quite useful in performing simple repairs yourself.  A couple of years ago, a custom carpenter and friend named Augusto put together a large cabinet for the back wall of our carport.  I wanted something rustic to reflect the Craftsman period, and decided to use reclaimed (salvaged) wood.  I found some old boards from a 1906 late, Victorian house that had (unfortunately) been demolished.  It felt good to reclaim the wood, and it felt perfect for our needs.  Augusto created three individual cabinets, using dovetail joinery and gluing the boards together wherever necessary.  I found some suitable black, country hinges and matching handles, which I installed.  To bolt the doors to the boxes on the inside, I installed some old slide bolts I found in a salvation …oops … I mean salvage yard.  Finally, wherever there were holes or imperfections in the wood, I plugged them with wood filler. 

With the warmer weather upon us, it’s no wonder that the wooden doors to the cabinets have expanded to the point where it is sometimes difficult to close them.  The easy solution is to use a block plane to shave off a small amount of wood on the vertical edges of the doors where they close.  Take a look at the accompanying Youtube video for a demonstration on how I used a block plane in this instance, thus allowing the doors to close more easily.  It might come in handy.  Tikkun Olam starts at home.  You can fix it! - HH























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CANTOR HARRIS SHORE most recently served as Hazzan for Hollywood Temple Beth El in West Hollywood, and for two years at the Los Angeles Jewish Home for the Aging in Reseda...

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