An Embarrassment to Jews the World Over

by Kay Lorraine

Image of a music sheet on piano keys

I am an embarrassment to Jews the world over. I know this to be true, because a cantor in Chicago made this statement in my presence, loudly, to a large group of Jewish women.

Let me explain:

It was Spring of 1978, and the sisterhood at my shul on the near north side of Chicago had an emergency meeting. Our joint Sisterhood/Hadassah Luncheon was the very next day and the entertainment that we had booked had been in an accident and was in the hospital. What were we going to do? It was Chicago, after all, so it wasn’t like there were no alternatives. The problem was money. We had booked a freebie and there wasn’t a line of professionals chomping at the bit to drop everything and entertain for free.

As it worked out, I had an old friend visiting me from California. He used to be my accompanist years ago and we were big favorites at the Heritage House Jewish old folks home back in Columbus, Ohio. With no effort, we could roll out our regular routine: “Sunrise, Sunset;” “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen;” “Exodus;” and our finale “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav.” Depending on the time, my friend could also throw in a couple of rousing piano solos. Problem solved. The sisterhood breathed a huge sigh of relief. The next day the luncheon went fine. Afterward, the cantor of the shul was standing around talking to a large group of ladies. And he was talking about me! He criticized my Yiddish. He criticized my accompanist (“Some kid banging around on the piano.”) And he pronounced my Hebrew as “an embarrassment to Jews the world over.”  It hurt my feelings terribly and I immediately sought out the Sisterhood President to apologize.

She explained that the cantor had been the singer at several past luncheons, and when the entertainment was hospitalized, he just assumed that he would be asked to step in to save the day. When they went with me instead, he was furious. Who knew? She said the entertainment was fine and I should just forget about the cantor, but I was humiliated and eventually switched to a different shul.

My singing was good enough for Mel Tormé. And the “kid banging around on the piano” was my friend Michael Feinstein (before he was famous), who played “I Love a Piano” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band,” two numbers for which he later became internationally known. Oy!

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