For the January issue of Jmore, I took on the assignment of writing a feature article about Hazzan Emanuel C. Perlman of Chizuk Amuno Congregation and his transition from Hazzan to Hazzan Emeritus.
Editor-in-Chief Alan Feiler asked me to write this piece, in part, because of the long relationship I’ve enjoyed with Hazzan Perlman. I was both honored and nervous to assume this task because of the challenge to write an objective story about the retirement of someone who has played such a prominent role in my life.
Those who know Hazzan Perlman know he is one of a kind.
He is a man of God, someone who always looks for the best in people, someone who has a majestic voice, and someone who doesn’t think twice about going above and beyond the call of duty.
For those of you reading this who don’t know Hazzan Perlman, I hope that my account, in conjunction with my article, gives you a better idea about the kind of man he is and, for more than two decades, the kind of leader he has been for this community.
I first met Hazzan Perlman as one of his students. I was in seventh grade at Krieger Schechter Day School, and I was preparing for my bat mitzvah at Chizuk Amuno. Hazzan Perlman, along with my bat mitzvah tutor, spent countless hours making sure I was prepared to take my place among the Jewish people.
Following my bat mitzvah, Hazzan Perlman asked me to become a tutor — and I spent the remainder of my middle school years, as well as my high school years, working alongside the cantor to make sure my students were ready for this major milestone in their lives.
Each week, all of the tutors would meet in Hazzan Perlman’s office, where we would spend hours talking and updating the hazzan on our lives and our progress with our students. While it is typical for a cantor to work closely with his/her b’nai mitzvah students, what may not be as common is for a hazzan to become invested in those students’ lives.
Hazzan Perlman has always truly cared.
Middle school wasn’t the easiest time for me, and to this day, when my family talks about Hazzan Perlman, my parents mention how he went to bat for me whenever I was having a hard time. They still tell me that the hazzan was the one who believed in my potential the most, and I remember always feeling like he was proud of my accomplishments.
Every middle school student deserves a champion, and he was mine. That was a move he didn’t need to make — after all, I was just one of thousands of his students over the years.
Once I graduated high school and went off to college, my tutoring years came to an end. During those four years, my regular interactions with Hazzan Perlman diminished. But I always knew if I needed any type of advice or spiritual guidance, Hazzan Perlman was just a phone call or email away.
When I got engaged to my now husband, there was no question in my mind who would officiate at our wedding. My husband, Brad, whose family are also Chizuk Amuno congregants, didn’t know much about Hazzan Perlman. To Brad, he was just the cantor of a synagogue. During our yearlong engagement, we met with Hazzan Perlman numerous times during which he provided us with counseling, an ear to listen and a place to talk about what we were most looking forward to about married life.
Hazzan Perlman didn’t just listen to us — he heard everything we had to say, including all the minute details we shared. I still remember this quote from our wedding: “Brad wants two children and Aliza wants four, so they have decided to compromise at four.”
In my opinion, he definitely heard that right!
Two-and-a-half years after our wedding, when I was 24 weeks pregnant with our oldest daughter, tragedy struck our family. My mother-in-law, a perfectly healthy 59-year-old woman, was diagnosed with a deadly heart disease. She was in the hospital for three weeks before passing away.
It was during that time that I really recognized the power of music and how magical Hazzan Perlman’s voice truly is. My mother-in-law was in a medically induced coma, and Hazzan Perlman came to the hospital multiple times to be with my family and me.
During one of his visits, he sang to my mother-in-law, and as he was singing, she started moving her body. It was as though she was feeling God through his voice. Everyone in the room was speechless. To this day, I still get chills thinking about it.
Hazzan Perlman has been there with me during times of extreme sorrow and extreme happiness. He officiated at both of my daughters’ baby-naming ceremonies and not only helped my husband and I pick Hebrew names for both of our daughters, he was the only living person who knew our daughters’ names before they were born.
In fact, when I interviewed Hazzan Perlman for my recent article, he said the following to me: “I remember when you told me your younger daughter would be named Brooklyn — I still smile from that. The fact that not only did we name your girls together, but in some respects I knew who they were named for and I was there for those moments, is special.”
Hazzan Perlman also made a point to visit me in the hospital after the births of both my daughters because it was important to him to bless them as soon as they were each born. It didn’t matter that my older daughter, Lila, was born on erev Pesach — after his blessing, Hazzan Perlman conducted a mini-seder for us in the hospital room to ensure we didn’t miss out on the first night of Passover.
That is just who he is.
For the last 18 years, Hazzan Perlman has played a pivotal role in every one of my life milestones. I could tell you quite a bit more about the impact he’s had on my family and me. As former First Lady Michelle Obama once said, “Success isn’t about how much money you make. It’s about the difference you make in people’s lives.”
I can tell you firsthand that Hazzan Perlman has not only made a huge difference in my life, but I’m sure in the lives of many of his other students.
As Hazzan Perlman gets ready to make this transition to Hazzan Emeritus, I urge everyone to take this time to acknowledge the enormous contributions he has made to our community. He is a humble man, but if anyone deserves our utmost respect and gratitude, it’s Hazzan Perlman for the 21 years he’s spent going above and beyond in our Baltimore community and around the world.
Aliza Friedlander is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.