Cantor Ilan Mamber wasn’t my cantor — but oh, how I wanted him to be. He rode a motorcycle — a Honda Pacific Coast — and was an avid tennis player. He chanted prayers to the tunes of “The Who” and “Hamilton.” And he loved, loved Bob Dylan. But more importantly, he made me realize that Jewish worship could be joyous.
For three decades, Cantor Mamber shared the bimah at my parents’ synagogue, Temple Beth Rishon in Wyckoff, New Jersey. He was planning on retiring in the next few years. I first met him in May of 1989 — my cousin’s family belonged to the temple, and I met him at my cousin’s bat-mitzvah. At the time, we were still congregants of a synagogue about 25 minutes away.
Several years later, my parents relocated to Bergen County and we joined Temple Beth Rishon as well. It’s a modern, airy building, where streaks of sunshine filter in through stained glass windows — a stark contrast to what I was used to. In elementary school, we attended Hebrew school three days a week. There was so much memorization of Hebrew letters and prayer. I felt disconnected. And disenchanted.
It felt different to worship in this sanctuary, in Mamber’s sanctuary. Instead of feeling like I had to be there, I wanted to be there.
But by the time we were members at Beth Rishon, I was closer to college age than high school and I never got embedded in synagogue life. My mother Diane Bedrin was more fortunate. In 1998, she signed up for an adult bat-mitzvah class. Cantor Mamber taught her (and her classmates) to read and chant from the Torah.
“I had never seen the inside of a Torah and he was just amazed when he opened it up and we just stood there in awe. He was so excited that he was the one who showed us how to read and how to chant,” my mom told me.
She told me Cantor Mamber also loved the temple book club and that he always had something to say, especially when it pertained to the birth of Israel.
Cantor Mamber passed away on July 31 after suffering a heart attack. He was 70. More than 500 people attended his funeral. Another 150 watched the live stream of the service.
Even though I never studied directly with him, Cantor Mamber influenced me and contributed to my current synagogue selection.
I joined an uplifting temple in Bloomfield — with a cantor who is also musical and lyrical and wonderful. I’m now a board member and sent both of my kids to the preschool. Our services are warm and intimate — with lots of strong voices and drumming — a real treat for the soul. And we just hired a new Rabbi, who likes to rap to Naughty by Nature.