NOVEMBER 1, 2018 – Bruce Siegel is a native of Beverly, and went on to become a cantor who served congregations in New York, Georgia and New Jersey before retiring. These days, he volunteers to read Torah at temples in Beverly and Gloucester. Bruce and his wife Anne live in Gloucester. The couple has a son, Joshua, who is married to David Bowles.
Bruce, tell us about your family. Are you married? If so, to whom? Where do you live? Do you have children/grandchildren? What are their names?
I married my Anne right out of college, and we’ve been together more than 50 years. I never cease to be amazed that she’s put up with me for this long. After 25 plus years as a hazzan, we retired to Gloucester, where we had vacationed for more than 40 years. Anne has her degree in library science and volunteers in the archives/library at the Cape Ann Museum. We have one son, Joshua, who is a graphic artist in Los Angeles, and a son-in-law, David, who is an educator at the Getty Museum. No grandchildren yet … despite my lobbying!
Could you tell us about your upbringing, your parents/family, and where you grew up?
I grew up on Parsons Drive [in Beverly], right outside Temple B’nai Abraham’s current front door. Dad worked for GE in Lynn while going to BU at night for his engineering degree and holding down a part-time job in a kosher butcher shop. Mom was a conservatory-trained concert pianist who took care of the house and three children. Whatever musical chops I have most likely came from her. For kids growing up back then, it was the best of times, and Beverly was the best of places. For us, life was straight out of “Leave It To Beaver” and “Father Knows Best.”
When did you first become interested in Judaism, and how did it influence you during your early years?
I hate to admit it, but Hebrew school was a drudge, and being Jewish was not terribly important. A few years ago, I wrote a song entitled, “I Didn’t Learn a Thing in Hebrew School.” The kids loved it; the school principal, not so much. Synagogue melodies were the only things that stuck with me. After I became a bar mitzvah, I was out the door like a shot [I think the rabbi was glad to hold the door for me. I was not his favorite student], and didn’t go into a shul for 15 years.
Two events turned me around. First, I saw the birth of my son and second, like most of the country, the riveting miniseries “Roots” drove home the importance of knowing where you came from.
Why did you decide to become a cantor?
Actually, Anne bullied me into it. We were in a tiny 30-family congregation in central New York when, after some wifely prodding, I started to lead the Friday night service. Realizing that my knowledge of Jewish music was extremely limited, I searched out Cantor Harold Lerner, a master hazzan in Syracuse who agreed to take me on as a student. I was working as a radio production tech/disc jockey at the time; but within three or four months of learning 10-15 folio pages of music every week, I knew that being a cantor was what I wanted to do.
Could you tell us about your cantorial career, and the congregations you’ve served over the years?
I served for a number of years as a part-time cantor/teacher in congregations in Cortland and Binghamton, N.Y. [sort of a cantorial apprenticeship]. Then came a stint in Savannah, Ga., and then 14 years in New Jersey. I’ve trained somewhere around 350 kids [and a number of adults] for bar/bat mitzvah, taught Jewish music to hundreds more, taught all manner of subjects in Hebrew high school and adult ed settings.
What do you love about being a cantor?
Making music is a joy. Getting paid for it was as rewarding as a profession could get. And if that weren’t enough, I got to cross paths with so many people, adults and kids, who enriched my life; it’s a debt I can never repay. Working with young people [especially my b’nai mitzvah kids] was particularly wonderful. I got to show them that they were capable of more than they’d dreamed possible. And they always made me look good. Dozens of my kids became first-rate Torah readers [Shabbat and Yom Tov] and carried their skills off to college and beyond. What greater reward for a teacher can there be?
What do you get out of volunteering?
I read Torah every Shabbat, alternating between the Beverly and Gloucester shuls, and teach adult ed classes at both. When Rabbis [Alison] Adler [Temple B’nai Abraham] and [Steven] Lewis [Temple Ahavat Achim, Gloucester] want to take some time off, I’m happy to take up some of the slack. They’ve been wonderfully welcoming and have pretty much given me free rein. Phoebe Potts, the school director in Gloucester, lets me teach music to the TAA munchkins, which is great fun; and Deb Schutzman, the principal in Beverly, just asked me to start teaching music monthly at TBA.
Retirement is a double-edged sword; the stress level of a 24/7 occupation is gone, but it’s often replaced with the deadly urge to park permanently in a rocking chair. To be perfectly selfish, volunteering is for my well-being; if other folks like what I’m doing and get something out of it, that’s a terrific bonus!
What motivates you to make a difference in other people’s lives?
Do I? Really? I suppose that everything I’ve done is anchored in a single idea: that being Jewish is a good thing. A really good thing. If I’ve imparted anything to my students let it be that. If my kids have gone out into the world taking pride and pleasure in being Jews, and if I am in any way even minimally responsible, then I will have done my job, and, contrary to the words of one of their favorite songs, they will, in fact, have learned something in Hebrew school.
Many congregations no longer have full-time cantors. What’s the future of the cantorial profession in America?
Hard to say. The days when the cantor would walk in, daven the service, and leave are long over. Congregations want their cantors to wear a lot of hats – the new motto of the Cantors Assembly, “Singing is just the beginning,” reflects that. That’s the reality. Of course, the biggest change in the profession is the role of women. After being shut out for so long, women are now beginning to dominate the field. Unfortunately, when congregations experience declining membership and ever-tightening budgets [as often seems to be the case nowadays], they see the cantor as expendable. Times change, and, sadly, cantors aren’t having the easiest go of it today.