Azkarah for Cantor David Unterman
When asked what he would like to be remembered for, Cantor David Unterman answered without hesitation: “I hope people would say that I touched them and opened them up to deeper emotions and a deeper understanding of what Judaism is all about. I hope they will say, ‘He’s the guy who got me to think, to challenge, to ask questions and ask myself questions.’ That's what I want to be remembered for.”
Dave’s loving wife, Carol Carter, recently described her husband as a person who “accepted people where they were, and encouraged them to question anything and everything on their way to discovering their own beliefs and meaning.”
Born in Brooklyn, NY to Max and Sarah Unterman on October 23, 1929, the week of the stock market crash, Dave had been "conceived in prosperity and born in depression." Stricken with polio at 20 months old, he spent much of his young life in the hospital where his earliest memory was singing in his crib, surrounded by nurses. Eventually, he learned to walk again, even if tentatively, and could manage stairs one at a time.
Dave’s father, who had emigrated from Warsaw, loved to sing and passed his love of music on to his three children. Dave and his siblings became the trio of voices that kicked off the Children’s Hour on WEVD, a Yiddish radio station in NY. Dave’s promising musical career really took off when he was cast in his shul’s Gilbert and Sullivan Purim spiel as the hamentasch - at the tender age of six. By the time Dave was a young man, he was proud to make a living entirely from singing. His career took him to Berkley, then San Francisco where, he became one of the founding members of the Lamplighters and sang in the San Francisco Opera Chorus. Eventually, he returned to New York City, where he sang with the Metropolitan Opera Chorus. Though he did his best to keep up with all of the movement the roles required, the season of ’61 proved too demanding, causing his polio-weakened left ankle to disintegrate into chips. After two surgeries and more a year in the hospital, it became clear that Dave’s theatrical career was over – at which point the hospital psychologist and social worker suggested he consider the cantorate.
Dave tells how, at his HUC audition, he confessed to the panel that he was an atheist, but that didn’t bother them. They told him, “Most Reform Jews are.” As to whether he remained an atheist, Carol wasn’t sure. “He felt there was some force in creation,” she said. “When someone said he didn’t believe in God, Dave would say, ‘What God do you not believe in?’” He attended HUC from ‘62-’67, serving his student pulpit, the Free Synagogue of Flushing, where Fred Piket was the choir director and organist. Eventually, the cantorate brought Dave back to the Bay Area where he served Temple Sinai in Oakland for 11 years and Congregation Beth Am from 1981- 1997, at which point he was named Cantor Emeritus. Dave continued to teach his beloved weekly Jewish Spirituality class at Beth Am until the month preceding his death on March 26, 2016 at 86 years old.
Carol speaks of “Dave’s realization over time that becoming a Cantor was among the best things that ever happened to him. Despite the fact that it had been born out of physical injury and loss of a successful stage career, singing for and connecting with a congregation was fulfilling in ways that performing for an anonymous audience could never be.” Dave once told me that Carol said he was the missing link between chazzanut and modern guitar music. He brought both to his congregations, along with everything in between. His goal was to create an eclectic service so that each person had at least one point where they felt, “That’s my music.”
No account of Dave’s life would be complete without the retelling of a story that has become an HUC legend. I have heard it told over the years by Jackie Mendelson and Kay Greenwald, who describes her Beth Am predecessor as one of the great cantorial voices of all time. While at HUC, Dave prepared a practicum of Israel Alter’s setting of Geshem. The SSM faculty were tough on students and did not pull any punches in the post-practicum discussions. Cantor Alter was known as a particularly fierce critic. If the practicum topic had been Dave choice, his classmates must have thought him out of his mind to be so bold. Following Dave’s Geshem presentation, the entire SSM joined together for the critique. As legend has it, the first person to rise to speak was Israel Alter himself. Cantor Alter rose up and the room prepared itself for fire and brimstone. In his deep, baritone, Alter said, “I did not know that I had written such a beautiful Geshem.” The room went silent - the critique was over.
When I first met Dave a decade ago as I began my work at Beth Am, he had mostly stopped singing publicly, but the power and presence of his speaking voice was more than enough to hint at the master he had been at the height of his stage and cantorial career. He was a force to be reckoned with, and most definitely one-of-a-kind.
I will remember him for his kindness, and will treasure our discussions about life, theology, music and spirituality. He was a wise teacher - always a teacher. Once he gave me a gentle critique on how I could refine my interpretation of a particular line of the Chatzi Kaddish. Dave knew how to elevate even the simplest chant. He didn't hesitate to let me know how I could improve, while always generous in his approval of what he thought I was doing well - the consummate educator and mentor. I feel fortunate to have been one of his students, and am honored to have known my teacher, my colleague, my friend - the feisty, funny, genuine, thoughtful, pushing-the-envelope, twinkle-in-his-eye, seemingly immortal, Cantor David Unterman.