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How one vintage watch has been making cantors’ lives easier for more than 50 years

Produced between 1960 and 1972, the Bulova Accutron emits an F sharp note, perfect for cantors on Shabbat when tuning forks aren’t allowed.

In the fall of 1999, when Gideon Zelermyer was 23, he walked through the doors of the Jerusalem Great Synagogue to begin a new chapter in his life. He had left rabbinical school in North America, moved away from family and friends back home and into a Jerusalem apartment sight unseen, all to apprentice under Cantor Naftali Herstik, the synagogue’s chief cantor.

“I entered the sanctuary and took my place among the choir,” Zelermyer recalled. “There’s this massive, three-to-four story stained-glass window over the ark. I’m in awe that I’m about to sing this music, in the place that it was written, with the man who wrote it. I’m filled with this sense of wonder when all of a sudden I look around and I’m like, ‘Who’s supplying the note here?’”

As the choir began to sing, Zelermyer was both awed and confused at how everyone knew exactly which note to start on, even though there wasn’t a tuning fork or pitch pipe in sight. “Afterwards, I asked my teacher, Raymond Goldstein, ‘What’s going on here? Does everyone have perfect pitch?’ He just laughed and pointed me towards Cantor Herstik.”

When Zelermyer approached Herstik with his question, the cantor just winked and nodded towards his watch. Confused, Zelermyer asked if he wanted the time. Herstik said no, took the watch off his wrist and handed it to his young student. “’What am I supposed to do with it?’ I asked him, and he just looked at me and said, ‘Listen.’ So, I took it, put it to my ear, and I’ll be damned, the watch was humming.”

Gideon Zelermyer holds a Bulova Accutron to his ear to find the F Sharp he's looking for.

Listening for F Sharp: Gideon Zelermyer first learned of the Bulova Accutron at the Jerusalem Great Synagogue when he was apprenticing under Cantor Naftali Herstik. Photo by Jacob Koffler

That watch was a Bulova Accutron, one of a limited number of watches produced between 1960 and 1972. What made the watch unique was that instead of running on a balance wheel and hairspring, like other watches manufactured at the time, it employed a miniature tuning fork as the timekeeping element. It was so unique that, until very recently, the tuning fork was the logo for the entire Bulova brand, even though they stopped producing the Accutron 50 years ago.

The tuning fork, driven by a small battery, keeps a vibrating motion which is converted into rotary motion by way of a tiny mechanism that moves the hands on the watch. Set to 360 hertz, which regulates the sweep of the second hand, the watch doesn’t tick; it hums.

“At 360 hertz, it’s a slightly flat F sharp,” Cantor Zelermyer states. “If you know your theory, once you have one note on the scale, you can find any other. Since you’re not doing something active to make this sound, as you would with a tuning fork, or a pitch pipe, it means that you can use it on Shabbat.”

In the information packet, “Facts About Accutron Timekeeping Devices,” published in the 1960s, Bulova states that the watch was created solely for consumer use but admits that “new applications are constantly being found where its unusual combination of characteristics…are advantageous.” One of those applications was in the U.S. Space Race, as its lack of a mainspring made it a great candidate for aerospace applications.

Another application was within orthodox synagogues. The use of tuning forks on Shabbat and other holidays is contested. While not prohibited across the board, it is certainly not considered kosher by many. Considering you must perform an action to activate the sound, it’s essentially violating two of the laws of Shabbat (performing an action to create something and playing music). For many years, cantors would try to find alternative solutions.

Cantor Brian Shanblatt of New Jersey remembers his first job where he was unable to use a tuning fork. “That’s when I started ‘pitching the appliances,’” he said. “I figured there had to be some external source that I could get my pitch from.”

So Shanblatt went to the synagogue during the week leading up to services and used a tuning fork to figure out which pitch the electric fan, the refrigerator, and the air conditioner were humming on. “It was never exact, so I would hear up or down a bit, but it worked pretty well,” he said. “On Shabbat, I would concentrate on whichever appliance was on, depending on the season.”

Only in 1991 when he went to audition at the Belz School of Jewish Music in New York City did he discover the Accutron. Cantor Bernard Beer, then director of the school, told him of the watch and that many of their members used one.

“A few months later, I got a job during the High Holy Days in New Jersey. I was living in Massachusetts and started calling jewelers in the area. Sure enough, one of them had two in his safe from the 1960s. There’s where I got my first one,” Shanblatt said.

A gold Bulova Accutron against a dark background

One of a Kind: Though a couple of other companies, such as Omega and Universal, produced watches built around a tuning fork, the Bulova Accutron remains the favorite for cantors. By Jacob Koffler

Cantor Herstik came by his first Accutron significantly earlier. At the beginning of the 1970s, one of his congregants presented it to him as a gift. “I asked him what was special about the watch, and he said it has a certain sound all the time,” Herstik said. “I had heard of Bulova and I appreciated it, but then I realized it had a steady, continuous sound. That’s when I started using it in synagogue.”

Herstik was on the bimah while the choir was up in the loft. Forced to rely on guesswork for a starting key, he decided to employ the watch’s hum as a reference. “From that moment on, I would use the watch on Shabbat and yontif,” he said. “I’d put my left arm close to my ear for a second, and I knew where I wanted to go. It was wonderful. Until one day, my children decided the watch needed a cleaning. It was an expensive watch, and it couldn’t be fixed after that.”

Herstik went without an Accutron until one day in 1975, one of his congregants asked him why he didn’t use his watch anymore. Herstik told the story of his children, and the congregant got a grin on his face, took off his watch, and said, “It’s about time I change my watch.”

Herstik passed the Accutron tradition down to many of his students, including Zelermyer, who is now Cantor at the Congregation Shaar Hashomayim synagogue in Montreal, Cantor Chaim Dovid Berson, of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun and Cantor Azi Schwartz, senior Cantor of the Park Avenue Synagogue, both in Manhattan.

Berson acquired his first Accutron in 2007, right before leaving Israel for his first job leading parallel services at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim over the High Holy Days. Another one of Herstik’s students, Cantor Yechezkel Klang, had started a side business buying the watches off eBay, having them repaired, and selling them to local cantors.

“I’ll never forget walking into his house to buy my watch,” Berson recalled. “It’s one thing to hear one watch humming, but he brought out a shoebox full and the thing was vibrating.”

“He never made a profit off those watches, I don’t think,” Herstik said, laughing at the memory.” But he certainly got them into the hands of a lot of cantors.”

Like Shanblatt, Cantor Schwartz also had a few tricks up his sleeve for finding his pitch before he received his first Accutron, namely his kippah clip. The clip is not a musical instrument, and is regularly used on Shabbat to secure one’s kippah in place. It also happens to emit a note. “The number of times it hit my ear over and over — and it wasn’t accurate,” said Schwartz. “ I’d have to test each clip before Shabbat — one would give a D sharp, one a G sharp — and then I’d have to remember that. And people think you’re really, really weird.”

Schwartz came from a small community in the south of Jerusalem, and the idea of obtaining his own Accutron didn’t really occur to him at the time. But for his 20th birthday, Zelermyer, who had become a good friend, gave him one. “It took me quite some time to learn how to listen to it because it has a very subtle sound, unlike the kippah clip,” he said, laughing. “And the battery would die often. But then I got another one, which Gideon found for me on eBay.”

When Schwartz arrived in New York from Israel at the age of 25 with Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot to work at the Park East Synagogue, the congregants were enchanted with his watch. “People would ask to touch it, play with it, understand what it is,” said Schwartz. “When I went into very religious communities, the rabbis would start debating whether it was even kosher or not!”

Cantor Gideon Zelermyer shows three Bulova Accutrons up close.

Pitch Perfect: The Bulova Accutron was produced between 1960 and 1972. Photo by Gideon Zelermyer

Since the Accutron is a vintage watch, parts can break down at inconvenient times. Berson recalled one year when he was getting ready to head up to the bimah for Kol Nidre services on the evening of Yom Kippur and he realized his watch had died.

“This isn’t like every other night,” he said. “The entire congregation is there, in white, waiting for a three-hour service filled with sophisticated music that spans entire vocal ranges. You have to be in key.”

Berson glanced towards the shul president, sitting on his right, and noticed a familiar-looking watch on his wrist. He asked to borrow it, earning a confused look from the president, but he handed it over. “I put it to my ear, and sure enough, there was my F sharp. I explained the entire thing to him after services, and it remained a bonding point for us after that.”

According to Montreal jeweler Eric Goldberg, a couple of other companies, such as Omega and Universal, produced watches built around a tuning fork. “You hardly ever see those watches at all, and I’ve never seen a cantor come in with one,” said Goldberg. “Evidently, they don’t hum at the right frequency.”

Goldberg is one of the few jewelers who repairs Accutrons on-site. He has all the equipment, which is essential because the inside components are not compatible with any other kind of watch. Given that it went out of production 50 years ago, those components can be hard to find. Enter Bob Piker, from Normal, Illinois.

As a broke 21-year-old college student, Piker developed a love of watches. He read about the Accutron and fell hard, buying his first one even though he couldn’t afford it. From then on, he bought watch after watch, bringing them to a local jeweler for repairs. After writing out a check for $800 one day, he realized he’d be better off learning to repair them himself.

Once he’d destroyed over a dozen watches in the process, Piker learned how to take them apart and put them back together. Turning his money-saving hobby into a career, he has been in the full-time business of repairing Accutrons since 2001.

“There’s a gentleman out there who makes a handful of parts, and someone else making the leather bands. But all the interior components stopped being produced 50 years ago,” he said. “ Let’s just say thank goodness for the internet. I can usually find most everything I need.”

According to Piker, the watches were popular from the moment they came out and to this day, watch collectors around the world covet them. “Once you learn the history of the thing, and that everyone from Buzz Aldrin to Elvis wore one…there are people like me who live and breathe Accutrons,” he said.

Piker was unaware of the cantor connection, but he wasn’t surprised. “Some watches have cult followings,” he said. “Rolex is a good example — it’s very expensive but the Rolex guys? It’s all they wear. But the Accutron, for lack of a better term, is a poor man’s collectible watch because you can pick one up on the cheap on eBay for a few hundred dollars or a nice solid gold one for a few thousand. That’s affordable compared to a Rolex.

“Back in the 1960s, to have paid a couple of hundred dollars for a watch is the equivalent of spending about $15,000 today,” said Piker. “ A lot of people couldn’t afford that then. But they can now, so they go back and buy up those childhood memories.”

The number of choirs in Orthodox synagogues has dwindled over the years. Zelermyer recounted that when he arrived in Montreal 21 years ago, there were a handful of congregations with a weekly choir; now, Congregations Shaar Hashomayim is the only one. “It’s not just here,” he said. “In London, every major synagogue used to have a choir, now there are only one or two.” As a result, the need for the Accutron has significantly diminished. But that doesn’t stop the watch from holding a place of honor in the cantors’ hearts.

“Today, those watches sit in a drawer in my office,” Schwartz said. “I work in a Conservative synagogue now and don’t wear them. But they’re from a period in my life that I cherish, a reminder of so many people and memories and moments, and it’s nice to look at them from time to time.”

Cantor Shanblatt agreed. Retired now, he kept his watches, even though they’re no longer functional.

“I’m hanging on to them,” he said. “And if I put my finger to my ear, I can still sort of hear the tone.”

*Julie Matlin is a freelance writer based in Montreal. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail and The Washington Post, among others.

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