Marinite returns as cantor to congregation of his youth

Raised in a kosher home in the Sunset District, Hassid, 34, attended Ner Tamid as a child and celebrated his bar mitzvah there. When he met a pretty girl named Michele in his religion classes, he didn't yet know she would one day be his wife.

They began dating at age 15, and were married at Ner Tamid at 21. Now San Rafael residents and the parents of three children, they still attend the synagogue of their childhood.

But Hassid didn't follow a direct path to the bimah. These days, when he tells people he became a cantor in August, they ask, "`You're a cantor? Aren't you a contractor?'" he says. "It was a shock to me as well."

Twelve years ago, armed with a San Francisco State University degree in accounting with a minor in fine woodworking, Hassid became owner of a hardwood flooring company, Innovative Hardwood, in San Rafael.

But while the business, which he still runs full time, has provided well for his family, Hassid felt something was missing from his life.

When his father died 5-1/2 years ago, he began to re-evaluate what was really important. While some customers fussed over minor details about their floors, he started looking at the bigger picture.

"It's just a floor," he found himself thinking. "You're going to walk on it, your dog's going to scratch it. It's not a work of art — it's a floor. I didn't want to do just that for 30 years."

Then, while visiting his friend Jeff Haber, a rabbi in Calgary, Alberta, Hassid asked him what it was like being a rabbi. His friend's response was: "I've heard you sing. You're better than most. Have you thought about being a cantor? Give it some thought."

When Hassid got back to the Bay Area, he talked with Ner Tamid's former cantor, Cory Winter, who nudged him to meet with a career counselor.

After several meetings and tests, the counselor suggested three careers: heavy equipment operator, clergyman or contractor. "I was already a contractor, so I became a clergyman."

Actually, Hassid's love of music began many years earlier. Born in San Francisco, the son of an Egyptian father and a French mother, he began playing trumpet in school bands at the age of 9 and sang solo at his graduation from San Francisco's Lowell High School. At SFSU, he went on to sing lead tenor in the choir and performed in opera productions. But he was never inspired to sing professionally until he put his voice to Jewish prayer.

After studying Hebrew prayers and texts, he recognized, "I know now what I'm singing, what I'm praying for."

Since the day more than three years ago when Winter became his mentor, the preparation for Hassid's new role has been intense. "When I started [studying] with Cory, it was hard-core," says Hassid, because the process required scholarship as well as musical practice.

It wasn't just a matter of picking up sheet music. Jewish scriptural readings include cantellations, or musical notations within the Hebrew text designating what notes to sing. But for other cantorial pieces, Hebrew is transliterated into the Roman alphabet, so it can be set to conventional musical scoring. That is necessary because musical scores are written from left to right, the opposite direction of Hebrew.

At the same time that he began the colossal task of learning Jewish sacred music, Hassid also started voice lessons with SFSU music Professor Dewey Camp. Of his low tenor, he says, "Before, it was a pleasant voice. Now it's a trained voice."

In Conservative synagogues like Ner Tamid, says Hassid, the cantor is more likely to sing unaccompanied by choir or instrumentation. "You want a participatory congregation — which is what I have," he said.

It is also an older congregation. Many of the members still remember Hassid when he was growing up and studying for his bar mitzvah.

"People there for 20 years know me as a child," he says. "It's very difficult to shake that…On one side of the coin it's hard. On the other side, they're absolutely thrilled…as they see me grow in the cantorate."

"Most people are thrilled that the board decided to hire one of their own" after Winter accepted a position in Chicago last summer, he said.

At first Hassid's children reacted with "shock" to his new career. But now Joshua, 9, Talia, 7, and Jacob, 5, have gotten used to the idea, and they "love it. My 5-year-old is singing in the car the whole time" and watches intently at services, sometimes even sitting on the bimah with Hassid.

The congregation, which includes many Holocaust survivors, is also overjoyed to have younger clergy and congregants again, Hassid added. Like Hassid, Rabbi Steven J. Rubenstein is also in his 30s.

Hassid looks forward to expanded programs for children. "Being a cantor is something I enjoy and also a legacy I'd like to leave to my children."