Cantor Jacob Friedman of B'nai Israel Congregation in Rockville has been through a lot worse and bounced back, but his retirement after 23 years at B'nai Israel still saddened him.
At a testimonial dinner in his honor at the synagogue this week, Friedman spoke wistfully of the proposed law that would extend the mandatory retirement age to 70 (he must retire at 65 by snagogue tradition). Still a vigorous man at 65, Friedman is taking his training to the Hebrew Home for the Aged in Rockville, where he will be rabbi (teacher), cantor (ritual singer) and ritual director.
Born in Czechoslovakia, Friedman came to the United States in 1946. He spent most of World War II in various concentration camps, escaping from Dachau three days before the Allies moved in. During the war, more than 13 member of his immediate family - including seven brothers and sisters - and 125 family members in all, were killed in concentration camps.
After the war, Friedman worked in France with Aliah Bet, a Jewish organization that smuggled Jews into Palestine while it was a British protectorate. During those years, he was reunited with his four surviving brother and sisters.
A distant relative in New York got Friedman a job as a cantor at a synagogue and a late plane so delayed Friedman and his sister that he arrived at the synagogue just half an hour before Yom Kippur, the most holy day in the Jewish year.
He did not even have time for the traditional meal before beginning the 24-hour fast. He chanted the ritual melodies all that evening and all the next day until sundown. "My sister fainted, but I made it," Friedman said.
While he was in New Jersey he met his wife Fay on a blind date.
"I said I would carry a Yiddish newspaper and she said she would wear a green jacket," Friedman said. But on thinking it over she decided to wear her newer black suit, and Friedman could not find her.
Finally, he went up to the woman in the black suit, who seemed to be looking for someone, and introduced himself.
"The first thing I asked her was whey she didn't wear the green jacket," Friedman said. They were married less than eight months later, and have five children - two girls and three boys.
Soon after the wedding, which was so big it had to be held in a hall instead of the synagogue, the Friedmans moved to Boston, where he became cantor at the largest orthodox synagogue in New England, Agudath Israel.
His move to Washington in 1954 was prompted by his wife: Agudath Israel did not keep him busy enough on the Sabbath, and he often took free-lance cantorial jobs to make extra money. Mrs. Friedman did not like to have him away from home on the Sabbath.
The move to Washington came as a shock to his family and friends. Friedman was trained and had always worked in the orthodox tradition. His switch to the more liberal conservative tradition was seen by some as a break with his faith.
Joseph Tudor, a B'nai Israel member who was on the hiring committee in 1954, remembered that Friedman was chosen because of his orthodox background.
"We wanted him to help us retain the orthodox tradition," Tudor said. B'nai Israel had recently changed from orthodox to conservative services.
Friedman found the two approaches almost the same.
"The only difference was the mixed seating," Friedman said. In orthodox synagogues, women and men do not sit together.
B'nai Israel was also impressed by Friedman's integrity. They had offered him an enormous fee to come for the High Holy Days the previous year, but Friedman refused because he did not want to leave his Boston synagogue without a cantor on such short notice.
Four of Friedman's five children were among an audience of mor than 300 at this week's testimonial dinner, the first such affair to be held at the new B'nai Israel building on Montrose Road. The speeches were punctuated by a musical program at which the new B'nai Israel cantor. Robert Kieval, and his wife, opera singer Gayna Sauler, both performed.
Friedman said in his speech that although he is retiring, he is not going away. The Hebrew Home is about two blocks from B'nai Israel.
"I want to remain involved," he said.