Reflections on Cantor William Sharlin

by Cantor Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Cantor William Sharlin’s biography is in some ways the story of the American cantorate. He was a member of the first graduating class of the first cantorial school in America: the School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College (HUC), and a founding member of the American Conference of Cantors. He is recognized as the first professional Jewish camp song leader, and the first to play a guitar in the synagogue. He was one of only a handful of cantors with an advanced degree in composition (Manhattan School of Music). He developed the Department of Sacred Music at HUC in Los Angeles, and taught there for fifty years. He trained women to be cantors before they were allowed into the seminary. His nearly forty years at Leo Beack Temple were among the most musically inventive in the history of the cantorate.

I was an admirer of Cantor Sharlin’s music long before I became his student. Several of his pieces were mainstays of the High Holiday repertoire at Temple Israel in Long Beach, California, where I sang in the choir. As a cellist and budding composer, I was keenly interested in the harmonic coloration and melodic creativity in the music we sang. His pieces soared above the rest, superior in my perception to the celebrated works of nineteenth-century masters and the music of twentieth-century contemporaries.

My first voice teacher arranged for me to audition for Cantor Sharlin when I was twenty-two years old and vocally unpolished, but he heard some potential and took me on. Thus began ten years of arduous training. He was an old-school taskmaster who wouldn’t let a poorly executed note escape his scorn. Some lessons were spent singing two measures over and over for the better part of an hour.

Cantor Sharlin also had a philosophical side. Our meetings usually culminated in deep conversations, during which we discussed the history and current state of synagogue music. I collected and edited his seminal essays in my first book, Jewish Sacred Music and Jewish Identity (2008). His influence on me as a cantor, scholar, teacher and writer is immeasurable. My entire professional life is indebted to him.

Cantor William Sharlin passed away in 2012 at the age of 92. A central aim of my work is to ensure that his music and teachings live on. I am pleased to be able to dedicate to his memory an administrative office at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California.

Click on any of the songs below to stream the audio.

Shalom Aleichem
Shalom Aleichem

Yom Zeh L’Yisrael
Yom Zeh L’Yisrael

Marsch Lied
Marsch Lied

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