Of Spirit and Song: A Cantor’s Tale


Is it really surprising that Cantor David F. Tilman of Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park, long known for his lilt of a lyric baritone, once had a tryout at the New York Met?

Yet he wasn't performing alongside Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and that other tenor; more like Ron Swoboda, Ed Kranepool and "Marvelous" Marv Throneberry.

"I played right field," Tilman recalls of that 1995 strike for fame.

Of course, that field of dreams was the New York Mets — not the New York Metropolitan Opera — and it was "Dream Team" spring, in which Ellen, Tilman's wife of 30 years, gave him a birthday present of a week playing with and being coached by former stars of the Albany, N.Y., native's favorite team.

Despite his foray into that other field, Tilman, 66, still plays best in the synagogue, where he's been a leader in his field, serving for 35 years as chazzan and music director at Beth Sholom.

And now that he's about to retire — June 30 is his final day before assuming the post of chazzan emeritus — he can reflect on highlights from a double-chai of service to the Elkins Park shul.

On Sunday evening, May 15, Beth Sholom will honor its longstanding cantor with "Hazzan Tilman and Friends," featuring cantors and choral groups, and a symphony made up mainly of Philadelphia Orchestra members.

It's time — as he has often told the congregation at services — to turn the page. It turns out it's a very different book from when Tilman started out. The role of cantor has changed dramatically, he says, looking back even as he looks forward to post-retirement work, teaching and conducting.

Tilman laments what he sees as the diminished role of cantors nationwide, in which the music men and women are being expected by lay leaders, he says, to assume additional roles.

"These are tenuous times for cantors," he says, referring to declining memberships in some synagogues, where to be a cantor means to add more leadership responsibilities.

He says that congregations are seeking younger men and women who have "their finger on the pulse of more contemporary music."

But, he warns, there is a danger in "blurring of lines between song session and prayer. Not everything can be up-tempo."

Tilman bemoans the attitude among some that music at services must be "happy-clappy."

He has had more than his share of applause over the years. His career has seen him volley worldwide from conducting to teaching to writing. He was a music columnist for the Jewish Exponent for nearly a decade, where his work included a bemused yet insightful appraisal of the Britney Spears phenomenon.

It all started back home in Albany, N.Y., where, he says, he was motivated by the cantor of his youth, Avraham Herbert Feder. "When he opened his mouth," recalls Tilman, "he brought God into the room."

Feder brought his congregant the present of passion, forging what would become a lifelong goal for Tilman: "Using Jewish music to make Jews."

Rabbi Aaron Landes, Beth Sholom's rabbi emeritus, who brought Tilman to his post there as cantor from New York in 1975, says that his close friend and colleague "transformed the pulpit with cantorial music choices."

The rabbi said that the two "pioneered adult Bat Mitzvahs, which led to many women taking part in the ceremony."

One such congregant is Phyllis Pulley, 77. It was Tilman who guided Pulley, over six months of lessons, to her rite of passage last year. She extols her mitzvah mentor as "very patient — and a genius."

In a way, Tilman was ahead of his time. Yes, Tilman confesses, he was an early "Gleek," a member of his alma mater Columbia University's glee club.

What brings glee now is mention of his family: children Avrum, 29, a computer analyst for a hedge fund; Howard, 27, a rabbinic student in Los Angeles; and Alana, a master's degree candidate at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

A special smile appears with the mention of his wife of 30 years, Ellen, currently librarian for Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, just up the road in Elkins Park.

Now that he's leaving active status at Beth Sholom, is it time to head back to the ballpark?

Tilman chuckles and takes a swing. "Sorry," he says impishly, "I'll be much too busy."


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