Cantor David Propis, a native Philadelphian, became the first singer to perform the national anthem live in Philadelphia Union history.
Cantor David Propis, a native Philadelphian, became the first singer to perform the national anthem live in Philadelphia Union history prior to the squad’s Sept. 30 7-6 penalty kick loss to Sporting Kansas City in the U.S. Open Cup Final.
For those who don’t follow the region’s Major League Soccer team’s exploits, here are a few more salient facts about Propis:
His family name goes back to the time of the Medicis in 17th-century Italy, where they became one of the leading publishers of Jewish books; his Lithuanian-born mother was a Holocaust survivor who eventually wound up in Johannesburg, South Africa after being liberated, where she met his Lithuanian-born father; he regularly sang the Star-Spangled Banner for the Houston Astros for 25 years, becoming a personal favorite of loyal fans George and Barbara Bush; and he now works at Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Mich., where Detroit Tigers Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg once received a standing ovation when he walked into the synagogue on Yom Kippur, rather than play that day.
“Sometimes I find it kind of hard to believe,” admitted the 56-year-old Propis, who was flown in for the Union match thanks to his nephew, Carl Mandell, who works in the team’s video department. “And I always find more chapters that are fascinating.
“I’ve had an incredible career — I’ve been a professional cantor 32 years. I come from a family of cantors — seven generations — going all the way back to Lithuania. My father and grandfather’s cantorial hats are on display in Judaic museums. I’m thinking of donating them to the Jewish Museum here.”
Despite his father’s expert tutelage, he really didn’t want to stick with the family business. Following his Bar Mitzvah at Temple Emmanuel in East Oak Lane, he attended Northeast High and also went to the yeshiva at Oxford Circle Jewish Community Center, then enrolled at LaSalle for pre-med.
But he quickly switched to the burgeoning field of computer science, getting his degree before going for his master’s at Drexel. Before he could complete that, he received a job offer he couldn’t refuse in Houston, where technology was taking off.
Not for long, though. “It was great at first,” said Propis, who worked for a company which had him writing computer programs related to an oil refinery in Saudi Arabia, which would ultimately lead to the American airbase built in Riyadh.
“Then the bottom dropped out with the oil crisis, and my dad suggested, ‘Why don’t you see if the synagogue there needs some help.’ ”
Just like that, the Propis family had yet another cantor. David would remain in Houston at Conservative congregations Brith Sholom and Beth Yeshurun over the next 25 years, becoming an integral part of the Jewish community in the process. “I was a founding board member of the Houston Holocaust Museum,” said Propis, referring to a building distinctively designed to resemble a concentration camp smokestack. “My mother was a survivor from the forced labor camp, Natzweiler-Struthof” in Eastern France. “She was from the Lithuanian town of Ponyevezj.
“Her family was all wiped out there, mostly by local Lithuanians, so after she was liberated, she was working in Munich as an interpreter. Through HIAS, she found a distant relative in Johannesburg.”
That’s where she met Dov Propis — incredibly, also a Lithuanian Jew from the Northern town of Biertje. Being the protégé of renowned cantor Israel Alter, who discovered him in Naharia, Palestine, he followed Alter to South Africa “They met at synagogue,” Propis recounted. “She heard the voice and fell in love.”
Prior to all that, in a scenario straight out of Leon Uris’ Exodus, Dov was in the Haganah, the Israeli secret defense force. His sister, Sonia, was a member of the Irgun, where she would be a mentor for the famed martyr Hannah Senesh, before being imprisoned for three years by the British at Akko. That may explain why Dov was finally willing to leave the country in 1949.
Eventually, Dov and Sonia made it from Johannesburg to Vancouver, Canada, where David was born. He already had two sisters, Yonina and Yosifa. A year later, Dov took a position at the Atlantic City JCC, soon after moving to Philadelphia.
When he goes back to trace his roots, David Propis beams with pride. “There were two families that published Jewish books in Italy back in the 1600s who had some kind of relationship with the Medicis,” said Propis, who would later meet his wife, Karen, in Houston. “Propis and Soncino. Mostly prayer books and Talmuds.
“From Italy, the family moved to Amsterdam and one of the oldest books they published — I’ve seen it with my own eyes — has the name of the publisher on the bottom: Schlomo Propis, the same name as my son. That was published in 1751. I own a prayer book published by his grandson, Yakov, in 1811.”
While there’s much to treasure about the family name, David Propis is certainly more than living up to it in a number of ways. “I was basically Barbara and George Bush’s favorite anthem singer for years,” said David, whose 28-year-old daughter, Dena, now works for the team in media relations when she’s not singing with him, while 26-year-old Sam works for LinkedIn in Chicago. “They would stand behind home plate and I’d always greet them.”
David also had some friends in NASA, where he performed a haunting memorial prayer following the 2003 death of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon. Even before that, he wound up becoming the first cantorial voice in space when astronaut Jeff Hoffman requested some Jewish music for his shuttle mission.
But it was a different memorial service that David still speaks about with reverence. In 2009, as president of the Cantor’s Assembly, he organized a trip to Poland. “We were in Auschwitz,” he explained. “I’d already been there.
“What they often do with teens is take them there to do the ‘death march’ and then bring them to Israel. It’s an amazing experience that makes them appreciate where they came from.
“So our mission was to do this march at Auschwitz and have a memorial service at the barracks where Mengele performed his experiments.
“It was on a Monday morning, so we had a Torah service and had a special Torah that had survived the camps. We had 100 cantors there and asked all the survivors who were with us to come up to the bimah. Then we unwrapped the entire Torah and placed it around them.”
In another wrenching moment, he was sent by the State Department to perform at a concert in Vilna, Lithuania, where, for the first time, the Lithuanian government officially recognized the Holocaust.
So in truth, singing the national anthem at a soccer game really is no big deal for a man who’s also done it for the Yankees, Mets and Toronto Blue Jays, as well as the Houston Rockets and the long-departed Oilers — but never his Phillies.
“You have to trust your inner ear, because the reverb can make you play catch-up if you’re not careful,” he said is the trick to singing the anthem. “And I’ve never forgotten the words.”
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