Remembering Cantor William Sharlin
This week we lost another luminary of Reform Judaism, Cantor William Sharlin. Some of my earliest Jewish memories are of Cantor Sharlin. He was cantor at Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles for his whole career.
My parents belonged to Leo Baeck when I was born. Cantor Sharlin officiated at my twin sister’s and my baby naming. (I admit I don’t remember that). We were consecrated there. I have memories of that joyous evening, marking the beginning of my Jewish education and receiving my own mini Torah – which I still have. While soon after that, my parents made the decision to shift their membership to another congregation, they maintained their relationships with the clergy at Leo Baeck through their ongoing and very active involvement in the Los Angeles Jewish community.
Many years later, as a second year student at HUC-JIR I had the honor of studying with Cantor Sharlin. He offered an elective class in Torah chanting. While I am not a very confident singer, I wanted to both learn how to chant more proficiently and to experience learning with him. While I still haven’t become a proficient Torah chanter – I need lots of practice before doing it (unlike Rick who can cite chant from the tikkun) – the memories I have of the stories Cantor Sharlin told, the conversations we had about Jewish music, and the impression he made on me as model member of the Jewish clergy remain with me today.
I am compelled to share one of those memories with you.
It was the first day of our Torah chanting class. Cantor Sharlin was trying to get to know each of the students in the class. He went around the room, asking us to share a bit about ourselves and especially our Hebrew names. Given that it was a class in Torah chanting, he wanted to know and use our Hebrew names when it was our turn to chant.
When it was my turn to share a bit about myself, I didn’t really need to say so much. Cantor Sharlin knew exactly who I was. He remembered me as Mark and Marsha’s daughter. So, I shared a bit about where I had gone to university, what I was hoping to get out of the class. I was about to say, “and my Hebrew name is…” when Cantor Sharlin stopped me.
“I know your Hebrew name. It’s הדסה בתיה, Hadasah Batya. And your sister’s name is דבורה שושנה, Devorah Shoshanah.”
My classmates and I were astounded!
Over 20 years had passed since our baby naming! How many other babies had he named in the two plus decades? How many b’nai mitzvah had he trained? Weddings officiated? How was it possible that he could remember our names?
As a rabbi who has officiated at not nearly as many baby namings as Cantor Sharlin had at that point in his 40+year career, and one who cannot remember the names of all those babies, I am even more inspired by Cantor Sharlin. The attention and focus he must have given to each of these rituals, to make them meaningful and special for each family surely must have contributed to his ability to remember names. In that moment he taught us all what it means to be a member of the clergy.
On a final note, it wouldn’t be right to leave this blog post without some music from Cantor Sharlin. My favorite piece is one that he arranged with Debbie Friedman and can be heard in NFTY albums of days past, Lo Yarei’u combined with Lo Yisa Goy. You can read about it and hear just a piece of it here in this URJ Ten Minutes of Torah by Cantor Kay Greenwald.
May Cantor Sharlin’s memory be a blessing and may his music bring joy and inspiration to us all for many more years to come.