Religious leaders: just like the rest of us?

Chazzonos, by Lyle Rockler. iUniverse. 276 pages. $17.95.

Lyle Rockler, himself a trained cantor (or chazzan) has drawn a remarkable, engaging portrait of middle-aged cantor Hal Perlmutter as he reaches several crossroads in his professional and personal life. The novel’s time line involves six months in Cantor Hal’s life as he prepares for retirement, decides to remarry, struggles to improve his relationships with his adult son and daughter, loses old friends to death, and strives to tame the simmering rage within him that too often boils over into conflict and pain.

Extended flashbacks illuminate Hal’s upbringing in Minneapolis, his family and community life as a child, his tempestuous experience as a husband and father, and pieces of his twenty years in the job from which he wishes to retire. We hear about his parents’ constant arguing, Hal’s early fondness for Jewish liturgical singing (“chazzonos”), and the maturation of that youthful infatuation into a calling and a career. 

Both in the foreground and background of the novel is abundant information about the majestic cantors who reigned during the golden age of Chazzonos: their innovations, their individual styles, their importance to Jewish culture, and their ability to lift worshippers (as well as just plain music lovers) into a spiritual realm. Hal Perlmutter is, perhaps, among the last disciples of these giants. They represent a fading world that deserves a permanent place of honor in the collective memory.

Perhaps because of his uncomfortable home life as a child, Hal made very close friendships with two women of his parents’ generation. One such friendship developed with Molly, a neighbor in Minneapolis. Another, many years later, developed with Anna, a Holocaust survivor in his New Jersey community of Mirthgate. In the course of the novel, Hal loses both of these surrogate mothers. From Molly, Hal inherits enough money to plan a comfortable retirement. From Anna, who dies just before Hal remarries, his inheritance is less tangible. It includes such values as enhanced self-awareness, courage, and flexibility. 

It’s as if Hal is finally ready to be an adult instead of an aging child.

Connected with his delayed maturation is the influence of Mimi, the true love of his life, who has the right mix of patience and sternness, of life’s joys and life’s responsibilities. Equally important, and aided by Mimi’s influence, is his acceptance of his children’s decisions and lifestyles, which at first make him cringe.

When his gay son reluctantly shares news of his intimate relationship with a much older man, Cantor Hal is horrified and hostile. He is only relatively calmer when he meets his daughter’s boyfriend, an ultra-Orthodox young man. Slowly, he comes to see these people as individuals rather than types and realizes that their choices are not about him. . . .

To read this review in its entirely, as it appears in the Naples edition of Florida Weekly for December 1, 2011 (as well as the Fort Myers and Bonita Springs editions and the December 8 Punta Gorda/Port Charlotte edition), click here: Florida Weekly – Lyle Rockler pdf

This review is reprinted with permission in the May 2012 issues of the Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).

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Filed under Authors and Books, Florida Authors, Jewish Themes

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