Cantor David Frommer
Tell us more about your childhood. You grew up in Manhattan but graduated from high school in Kentucky?
My dad grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home in the Bronx with immigrant parents who spoke with Yiddish accents and my mom grew up in a Reform Jewish home in Kentucky with assimilated parents who spoke with Southern accents. I moved there from Manhattan as a freshman in high school, with my mom and sister, after my parents separated, and it was culture shock to say the least. I couldn’t even understand half the kids, and that was just when they introduced themselves. The first boy I met was named Field, which I misheard as Phil, and the first girl I met was named Kerr, which I mistook for, um, a kind of dog. The boys spent their time four-wheeling and paintballing on their family farms and the girls spent their time adjusting their makeup and patronizing the tanning beds. I was fourteen years old and my school felt like a cross between Huckleberry Finn and the Playboy Mansion. I basically spent my first year observing my classmates like Jane Goodall. By my senior year, though, my mom and sister had returned to New York, so I was living there on my own, and I finally started to feel more comfortable and make some friends, including my first girlfriend—a grad student at UK who was the only Jewish person I knew within six years of my age that wasn’t a relative. I would never want to move back to Kentucky but in a lot of ways I became the highly social person that everyone knows me as during my years there.
How did you end up volunteering as a combat soldier in the Nachal Infantry Division of the Israel Defense Forces? And what did you learn from these experiences?
My four years in college, from 2001-2004, were nearly paradisiacal, but they were mirrored almost exactly by some of the worst years of violence in Israel during the Second Intifada. It was impossible not to notice that, as my 19 and 20-year-old Jewish friends and I were attending class and singing in a cappella concerts, our Israeli counterparts were patrolling in Jenin and dying on Ben Yehuda Street. Then, during my senior year of college, Ariel Sharon announced that Israel would withdraw from its settlements in Gaza. The Union for Reform Judaism officially supported the decision, as did I, but it felt insufficient at best and hypocritical at worst for me to endorse such a difficult decision without assuming any of the risk. A friend who was helping me look for volunteer opportunities chanced upon the website for Machal, a program that enabled Diaspora Jews to serve in the Israel Defense Forces. It was the unlikeliest path I could have imagined—growing up I didn’t even want to go to summer camp—but I felt almost incomprehensively that it was where I was meant to be. I felt that way right up until my first day of basic training, when I realized that Army Hebrew was completely different from the language I’d studied for two years in college (mostly by analyzing Yehuda Amichai poems). It was mostly inconsequential except that I had no way to communicate to any of my superiors that the fellow American volunteer from Texas who was next to me on the firing range had just confided that he had faked the Jewish identity necessary for enlistment because he was super excited to shoot M16s!
Serving in the IDF was like attending a lecture on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in high-definition and surround sound from a brilliant and slightly deranged teacher—similar to studying Defense Against the Dark Arts with Mad-Eye Moody. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, but it taught me how complex the Israeli-Palestinian situation is and it humanized all of the sides in the conflict that I disagreed with.
What led you to become a cantor?
Being a cantor seemed like a natural fit for me ever since my early childhood, when I forced my parents to exclusively listen to cassette tapes of B’nai Jeshurun’s Shabbat services during long car rides on vacation. Growing up in a family that loved Jewish music, and at a synagogue like BJ that nurtured that love, certainly helped, but the calling was always there from that same inexplicable place that would eventually draw me to serve in the IDF. In college, I sang in Magevet, Yale’s Jewish a cappella group, and even among this dedicated group of Jewish singers, I stood out with my often annoying exuberance for our musical enterprise. I knew I wanted to be a cantor when I arrived at college and when I graduated, but in between I considered a whole host of other, ill-suited fantasy careers, like investment banking (I’m bad at math) or international journalism (I’m bad at deadlines). My girlfriend at the time kept suggesting how poorly considered these were until finally—this is a true story—she bought me a copy of Forbes Magazine and a CD of Jewish music and offered them to me in each hand, to see which I would reach for first—just like the midrash about how Moses got his stutter. When I reached for the latter, she pointed out that was probably a useful sign for my future. It didn’t exactly save my life, but it definitely saved me the time it would have taken to figure that out on my own.
Tell us more about your chaplaincy in the US Army and your deployment overseas?
People always ask what it’s like to serve in the US Army, and how it differs from serving in the IDF, and the best answer I can give them is that the latter is like time travel while the former is like space travel. Serving in the IDF was like time travel in the sense that my story—the American Zionist who leaves a comfortable home to volunteer for lonely hardship in the IDF—was an extremely common one… but in 1948, not in 2004. Every Israeli school child learns how their modern state was built by immigrants, but that’s a story from the increasingly distant past—kind of like how the west was settled in the US. To see someone doing that in the 21st century was both familiar and perplexing, in the same way an American might react if a French citizen arrived on US soil and volunteered for our Army dressed as the Marquis de Lafayette. Serving in the US Army, by contrast, is like space travel in the sense that my story—the Liberal, Jewish, Ivy-League graduate who joins the military—is completely foreign to almost everyone in our Armed Forces. It often feels like I’ve been transported to another planet and, while Yale is world-renowned as an educational institution, partying on the farms of Kentucky and patrolling through the refugee camps of the West Bank prepared me better for my time in the US Army than all the history seminars I loved in college. Leading Passover Seders for American military and civilian personnel stationed in Afghanistan has been a definite highlight of my experience, but also just as confusing as the IDF. Not just intellectually, but also literally, since the Army has its own vocabulary of acronyms and idioms, and its own halachot of customs and courtesies, that bear little resemblance to the everyday language and manners that most of us are familiar with! I’ve been honored to serve as the first cantor in the history of US military chaplaincy, but now I’m more concerned with the lack of Reform clergy among my chaplain colleagues, who are increasingly coming from the ranks of Chabad. I’d be truly excited to see more of our ACC members join me in this work.
How have all of these unique experiences shaped who you are as a person, a cantor and a husband/parent?
When I was going through basic training in the IDF, I was completely sleep-deprived, stressed out from an endless barrage of new and unexpected challenges, and constantly harried by grouchy and intimidating superiors, yelling at me in Hebrew. I remember thinking that no one could possibly appreciate how hard it was if they hadn’t experienced it themselves. After our first child was born, I realized that everyone who’s ever been a parent knows exactly what basic training felt like. Your life with a newborn is totally controlled by an intemperate authority who couldn’t care less about what you want and constantly screams at you in a language you don’t understand!
What are your musical influences?
My musical influences, like most people’s I think, were strongly shaped by my childhood—although mine exposed me to a more limited range of musical genres than most. The radio at home was always playing classical music, the VCR was always showing Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, and the tape deck in the car was always playing tunes from either Broadway or B’nai Jeshurun. The one element that tied those four genres together was melody—whether by Lully, Lloyd Webber or Lewandowski. I didn’t learn who the Beatles were until I got to college but I was exposed to so many beautiful melodies, both Jewish and secular, and my family loved to sing them all. Melody has always been my gateway into singing, and singing has always been my gateway into prayer. Jewish music is unfathomably rich with melodies from across centuries of history and continents of geography and I feel very lucky to spend my life discovering and sharing them, in the most sacred moments of people’s lives.
Cantor David Frommer is the Cantor of Sherith Israel in San Francisco, CA