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Building a deep bench

Cantor Bruce Siegel teaching tropes at Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester.

JUNE 29, 2017 – A baker’s minyan of 13 Jews are crowded elbow-to-elbow around two tables pushed together in the Beit Midrash at Temple Ahavat Achim in Gloucester. It’s Sunday morning, and the gentle rise and fall of unison voices fills the room with the chant of mercha, tipcha, munach, and etnachta. Fingers follow along the lines of a handout: “Cantor Siegel’s Handy Trope Helper.” Bruce Siegel, Cantor Bruce to students, is teaching his weekly cantillation class to a student body ranging in age from thirty-something to over eighty.

“I offered to teach an adult class if we got four or five people interested,” Cantor Bruce explains. “I never expected  a dozen to sign up.” Although he has taught Torah tropes to several hundred bar and bat mitzvah students over the years, the bulk of them at temples in New Jersey where he served for 14 years before retiring to Gloucester, this is his first large group of grownups. “Before this, I might have taught a dozen or two in total, mostly adult women who had not had the opportunity of a bat mitzvah when they were growing up.”

Siegel says music is in his genes – his mother was a concert pianist – but he is largely self-taught. “It started when I was growing up in Beverly. We had an old piano in the basement, and one day I picked out the one-finger melodies to the ‘Ballad of Davie Crockett’ and the Mickey Mouse Club theme song,” he says. Inspired by the dating success of a piano-playing buddy in high school and armed with a year of piano lessons, Siegel went on to become an accomplished musician in his own right, adding guitar, harmonica, dulcimer, banjo, and ukulele to his pianistic chops. He especially likes the banjo, echoing Steve Martin in saying it is impossible not to be happy while playing banjo. After a long stint in radio, he stumbled into cantorial music, then studied under Harold Lerner in Syracuse. From Upstate New York he headed south to Georgia. There, he spent years switch hitting between the different melodies of a Conservative congregation and a Reform temple in Savannah, before heading back north to New Jersey.

Summers in Gloucester convinced him and his wife, Anne, to return to his New England roots and settle on Cape Ann after he retired in 2014. Now he happily alternates between volunteering at B’Nai Abraham in Beverly and Temple Ahavat Achim, where he brings the joy of Jewish music to kids in the Sylvia Cohen Religious School. He confesses that teaching cantillation to adults presents special challenges: “Kids haven’t built up the mental blocks that can hold back grownups.” His teaching style with all ages is a relentlessly positive, anyone-can-do-it attitude. “The rabbis didn’t invent the system of tropes to make it hard; they wanted to make it easy, so anyone and everyone could chant Torah. If you have a pulse and a metabolism, you can do it. If preteens can learn this, so can you,” he says.

His goal at Temple Ahavat Achim is to build a “deep bench” of congregants who can chant Torah. Toward this end, he is focusing first on core tropes he claims will cover “eighty to ninety percent of your alliyot.” The current class has been working on three groups, patterns based on the terminal tropes of etnachta, sof-pasuk, and katon. After a summer break, Siegel will lead the group into less traveled trope territory to round out their repertoire and ready them for whatever cantillation challenges they might encounter.

Not everyone was convinced at the outset when the new adult class started in May, but on a recent Sunday, after chanting an alliya, one of the skeptics exclaimed, “Is that all there is to it?”

Siegel’s infectious grin broadened. “That’s all. In fact, I wasn’t even singing with you. After the first couple of notes, I dropped out. You did it on your own.”

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