MARBLEHEAD – Howard Stern, the new cantor at Temple Sinai in Marblehead, didn’t start out singing on a bimah.
Originally from New Orleans, he began on a different musical path: studying music theory, voice, and composition.
“I always thought I was a composer and a theorist,” said Stern, who has a doctorate in composition and theory from Brandeis, and whose dissertation was a cantata for soprano and chamber ensemble.
But while working on that dissertation, he realized he was running low on money and needed a job. An observant Jew, he “didn’t work on Shabbos,” he said, “but there was nothing wrong with a cantor working on Shabbos.”
He found a cantorial position at Temple Shalom in Milton, where he worked for four years. He was well qualified to serve as cantor, with his trained voice and Judaic studies background. He has a bachelor’s degree from Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and a master’s in music theory from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He also studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, which at the time had a campus in Israel; and at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Over the years, Stern has taught at eight Hebrew schools in the Boston area, including Prozdor at Hebrew College in Newton; Temple Shalom in Medford; Kesher School in Cambridge; and Temple Israel in Boston. He’s been a lecturer on music at Harvard, where he received the Bok Award for Distinction in Teaching. And since 2010, he has been a music specialist for the Medford Public Schools.
He’s also served as the High Holidays cantor at Temple Emeth in Brookline, Temple Tifereth Israel in Winthrop, and with the University of Rochester Hillel.
“I think that means I’ve been a High Holidays cantor for 39 consecutive years,” he said in an interview. “That’s how long it’s been since I heard someone else doing it.”
His most recent cantorial job was at Temple Shalom of Medford, where he served for 20 years, up until this year. In Marblehead, he will replace Cantor Emeritus David Aronson, who has been the cantor at Temple Sinai for 32 years, since 1990.
“His voice just struck us when he davens,” said Temple Sinai president Alan Barnett. ”We loved his personality. His melodies are inspiring.”
“He has a really soulful, beautiful voice,” said Deborah Shelkan Remis, a member of the cantor selection committee, and daughter of the renowned cantor Gregor Shelkan, who served at Congregation Mishkan Tefila of Newton.
“Having not only grown up with my father who also taught so many cantors, I’ve heard a lot of different voices,” she said. “You could tell he was singing from his soul.”
Linda Matchan can be reached at email@example.com