It was this time last year that I received the shocking news that Benjy Katz had suddenly passed away. On the occasion of his first yahrzeit (anniversary of a person’s death), which was recently observed, I take this opportunity to pay tribute to him.
Benjy was my friend for over 40 years, and he was always a presence. Our families knew each other for many decades. His father was the legendary Cantor Sholom Katz, who assumed the pulpit of our family’s shul (Beth Sholom, in DC) in 1947. My uncle Marty sang in his choir, and for my mother of blessed memory, who loved chazzanus (cantorial performance), Sholom Katz was the “gold standard” by which all other cantors were measured. He sang at my parents’ wedding, and their friendship continued long after the cantor left Beth Sholom.
The family remained in the area, and that was how I first met Benjy. I was singing in the choir at Beth Sholom and he would come listen. Cantor Katz passed away in 1982, and that was when Benjy found his life’s mission: He was the preserver and guardian of the legacy not only of his father, but of all cantorial art. His efforts and talents were all directed toward keeping it alive. He embraced this mission with great passion all his life.
Benjy was, without a doubt, the humblest person I have ever met. This is all the more extraordinary given all he accomplished in his own right. He graduated from American University in Washington, D.C., as a CPA, and he earned many post-graduate certifications. For many years, he was also a professor of accounting at the University of Maryland.
He was very learned in yiddishkeit as well. He studied at the Talmudical Academy and Ner Israel yeshiva in Baltimore, at Torah V’Daas in New York, and later earned his semicha (rabbinical ordination) in Israel. He didn’t sing himself, but became a rabbi.
But with all he accomplished, he never talked about himself. His greeting was always, “How are you doing?”
The other greeting that I will always remember came from a comedy routine by the great Yiddish comedian Michel Rosenberg. He had a skit called “Chazzan Shepsel Kanarik fin Poughkeepsie.” The title itself was part of the joke, for in English it means, “Cantor Sheep Canary” and it is the adventures of a cantor who absolutely cannot sing.
In the skit, he has gone to audition for a cantorial job, and his nephew asks him if he acquired the position. Unfamiliar with the English word, he answers, “Ah choir? Certainly, a choir! Without a choir, I wouldn’t daven!” Benjy thought that was the funniest thing he had ever heard, and every time we spoke, he would ask me if I “acquired the position.”
Anything that furthered the legacy of chazzanus was of great interest to him. He attended every concert and service where a chazzan (cantor) would sing. He was also a big supporter of my radio program, which was another way to keep the flame alive.
Benjy’s beloved wife Debbie was a great partner in keeping the legacy alive as well. She taught both my sons at Berman Hebrew Academy in Rockville, Maryland, and no matter what class she taught, part of the curriculum was the life and career of Cantor Sholom Katz.
Their children, Adina and Shuli, follow in the footsteps of their father, learning and achieving and carrying forward the torch that their father left them.
Benjy’s devotion to his mother was also legendary and worth mentioning. After he moved from the Shepherd Park neighborhood of DC to the Kemp Mill neighborhood in Silver Spring, Maryland, Benjy would walk the distance on Shabbos – over seven miles – to check on his mother.
The last time I saw Benjy was at Ohev Sholom in 2017. Cantor Shulem Lemmer, a great star of the current Jewish music world, had come to daven Selichos (penitential prayers leading up to Yom Kippur) with a choir. Sure enough, Benjy was there. When the service was over, I went to greet Chazzan Lemmer and Benjy came over too. In those last minutes, I saw and heard what really was the most important thing to Benjy, which drove him his entire life. He asked Chazzan Lemmer, “Do you know who Cantor Sholom Katz was?” “Of course. One of the greatest of all time,” Cantor Lemmer replied. Benjy beamed and said, with great pride and love, “He was my father.”
Benjy Katz was a humble and loving man who, most definitely, acquired the position. May his memory always be for a blessing.
NEXT TIME: To My Father, Nathan Shor, On His 14th Yahrzeit
By Larry Shor