This past week, I found out that my cantor from my childhood, Cantor Y’shaya M. Grama, passed away in his sleep. For most of the week, I kept on, knowing that underneath, a sadness had taken over me. But, I couldn’t find a way to meet it in the days of what often feels like my separate secular life. I was sad, yes, but I was also utterly unsuccessful at articulating this loss. That was until I went to shul Friday night, and began to hear song. “Of course!” I realized. “I’d find him here. I’d find my mourning in song.”
Being new to Netivot Shalom, I hesitantly opened myself up to the waves of emotion and loss in hearing the chanting and davening, and knowing deeply and truly that I would never be able to hear Cantor Grama sing from the pulpit again. That I’d never be able to go back to him, and take him up on his offer extended long ago.
“What offer?” you might be asking. Well, let me tell you.
I like to believe I don’t live with regret, but to be honest, I have a few. One of them is that I didn’t say “yes” when Cantor Grama wanted to train me more after my bat-mitzvah. He had worked with me for years, but I had already given up on myself as a singer. Outside of my shul, I wasn’t celebrated as a singer, so I thought, “eh, they’re not being honest with me. I can’t be good, can I?”
At a certain point, in being as teenagers can be, I let it all go.
He was a truly gifted singer. He had the fullest voice. Mic or no mic, he filled a hall. With an operatic voice so deep and prolific, I often wondered why he chose to be in a synagogue, rather than on Broadway. His bio tells some of this story, growing up in a Yemenite traditional family in Brooklyn, attending Lubavitcher Yeshivas and the like. So, shul was his home. He was, undoubtedly, an entertainer, and understood the importance of stage performance in all of his work. He even had times in the year when he’d hold evening gala events, singing show tunes along with Hebrew ones.
While he spent many years teaching me song, he so rarely taught in words. So, unfortunately, I have little of his story to tell.
As I write this, there’s still a part of me that wishes I could go back, walk into his study on the second floor and say, “Cantor, I was wrong all those years ago. Please, teach me. I want to take back my no. I was scared. I didn’t know.”
I could write this now, and say I’m going to go on to cantorial school, reclaim this memory and his voice, but that, at least in this moment, isn’t true. But, what I can say is I am ready to begin small, in something new. In joining my voice with others in the small communities I’m finding here in Northern California.
I take his passing as I take each new day in my new city, watching the leaves turn even here in California (who said there’s no fall in California?). I take this as a reminder of returning to what I have known, to build something new. And I take it as a reminder that I come from something very good, and that memories do live on.
Thank you, Cantor Grama, for offering a space for a young pudgy tomboy kid to shine. Thank you for being my earliest teacher who showed me that the Jewish tradition, that song and faith and love, is also very much so mine. May your memory forever be a blessing.