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Mira Sucharov

 
GREAT TEACHERS: MY RECENT CALL TO CANTOR GERRY DAIEN

By Mira Sucharov, January 26, 2011

A great thing about having a four year old is piggybacking on their preschool curriculum. This year they are studying distilled versions of the ethical teachings of Pirkei Avot. A recent lesson came from the verse “Make for yourself a teacher; acquire for yourself a friend.” A great teacher, of course, can’t guarantee a receptive learner. As a professor myself, I know that my students are usually open to joining me on the learning path I clear for them. But they are not always ready, able, or open.

Two recent experiences -- one in the gym, the other in the synagogue, have made this challenge come alive for me as a student. Last year, I took up basketball after three decades off the courts. Early in the session, my coach looked askew at how I held the ball. Seems I was sandwiching it awkwardly between my palms, one on top of the other. He showed me another way, one that would shield my shot from a thieving defense. I was puzzled. I distinctly remembered that my dad had taught me that precise palm hold -- thirty years ago at the YMHA in Winnipeg. My dad couldn’t be wrong, could he?

Fast forward to a few weeks ago, when my father came from Vancouver to visit. While in town, he accompanied me to my basketball class at the JCC. During halftime, he found an open net and took some free throws. I saw my coach glance over, smiling. Sure enough, my dad was sandwiching the ball between his palms, exactly as I had been doing. When class was over, the coach gave my dad a few new pointers. “No wonder I was always more accurate when playing solo,” my dad mused. Seems many a 1950s defender had also blocked his shots during game play.

That same week, I began preparing to chant a haftarah (portion from the prophets following the weekly Torah reading) at an upcoming Shabbat service at shul. I had learned the trop (musical notes) for my bat mitzvah, back in 1984. But my memory was spotty, so I went to my cantor for a study session. But when my cantor started singing the notes, I noticed that a few of the incantations differed slightly from what I recalled. 

The trop can get a little complex, and I was nervous about relearning notes that were half buried in my memory somewhat differently. But if I were to be really honest, I knew it was unadulterated nostalgia that led me to place a call to Winnipeg the next day.

I called Cantor Gerry Daien, the cantor who had trained me for my bat mitzvah all those years ago. He happily obliged, singing the trop into the phone. They weren’t wildly different from my own cantor’s, of course. A short scale instead of a triad here, a truncated series of notes there. But to my ears, they were like an old pair of shoes -- my white and green 1984 Stan Smiths, to be precise. All that was missing was my scratchy bat mitzvah training cassette.

I learned that Cantor Daien had studied with the celebrated Cantor Brownstone in mid-century Winnipeg, and had adapted some of the notes to suit his style. I figured that perhaps I would adopt a mixture of his trop and those of my own cantor, thus creating my own version. If my new cantor sings in a beautiful and highly honed classical style and my old cantor is a melodic and earthy Neil Diamond, I guess I could aspire to a Nora Jones feel from the bima. (Though how to passionately render a passage about the prophesied floor plan and construction measurements of the Temple will no doubt be a challenge.)

When it comes time for my kids to prepare for their b’nai mitzvah, they will, of course, learn the trop from their own cantor. There, they will develop their own sets of memories and their own nostalgia points. And the product will be perfectly their product.

Many teachers come in and out of our lives. Sometimes teachers come in unexpected forms. They may be old and wise, or young and innocent. They may be professionals or hobbyists. They may not even be aware that they are teaching. We are not always ready to absorb new perspectives, but our knowledge and experience is made richer by listening to all the voices that come our way.

As for my basketball shot, I shall cherish the memories of afternoons shooting hoops with my dad, but adapt my style according to coach’s orders. My passing is good, my dribbling not bad, but my scoring could use some improvement, after all.

 
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