A cantor’s cantor, Israel Reich dies at 80

At age 10, Cantor Israel Reich had a full concert career. He debuted as a cantor at age 11. By 12, he had his first High Holy Day pulpit.

The wunderkind, who got his start in New York and went on to serve as a cantor in the Bay Area for 25 years, died Monday of last week in Encino after a long illness. He was 80.

Known nationally among colleagues as a “cantor’s cantor,” Reich helped train countless students, including his own three children, to become cantors.

His two sons have local pulpits — Brian Reich at Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El and Barry Reich at Peninsula Temple Sholom in Burlingame. His daughter Linda Reich Freed lives and sings in Los Angeles.

The senior Reich, the son of an Orthodox butcher and descendant of a long line of cantors, served as cantor of San Francisco’s Congregation Beth Sholom for two stints totaling 25 years. Though considered an immense talent, Reich eschewed the spotlight to turn Beth Sholom into a “singing congregation,” according to the Conservative synagogue’s Rabbi Alan Lew.

“He had grown up in a tradition of participatory davening,” Lew pointed out. “He knew what that was like and he knew what was going on in American synagogues was not that.

“People were sort of sitting back on their heels and not getting engaged spiritually. He knew people needed to daven from the inside out. That was a matter of principle with him.”

Reich reached far beyond the Bay Area. He also had pulpits at the Breed Street Shul and Congregation Mogen David, both in Los Angeles. From 1956 to 1965, he served Temple Emanuel in Miami Beach, where more than 2,000 people attended Friday night services and tickets were required to get in.

Once, Jan Peerce, an esteemed cantor and opera singer, attended services at the synagogue. When Reich hit a particularly high note, Peerce climbed onto the bimah and peered down Reich’s throat to see how he had managed to produce such a note.

“He was a prodigiously talented musician, a consummate pro,” Lew said. “He had perfect pitch, a magical voice, a brilliant talent for improvisation. He never sang the same piece the same way twice.”

Reich also composed choral pieces and symphonies. He wrote a complete High Holy Day service for each of his children.

Brian Reich recalled growing up in a home surrounded by the sounds of his father practicing and cantorial music on the record player. Music books and works on the great cantors filled the house.

“We didn’t have rock and roll or classical music,” Brian Reich said. “I was brought up totally immersed in cantorial music. It became like a second nature, something that becomes part of one of your senses.”

Standing next to his father in the choir on the High Holy Days was nothing less than earth shaking.

“Seeing the focus he had and the power he projected — he brought prayer to another level. It was such a powerful moment. I decided then that there had never been anything that touched me deeper, and that I wanted to be a cantor.”

In the 1980s, the senior Reich and his children toured as the Reich Family Cantors Four and made an album by that name.

Barry Reich, who produced the album and hopes to re-issue it soon as a CD, is sometimes surprised to find his father’s work treasured in places he never knew.

“Quite a few of my father’s arrangements are used now all over the country. Everywhere I go, I meet cantors conversant with my father’s material.”

But despite his successes, Reich preferred simple pleasures like family and friends, sitting in cafes and fishing.

“When you were around him, he made you feel great. He saw the best in you,” Lew said. “He was a really kind man, a sweetheart. His soul was at least as beautiful as his voice.”

In addition to his children, Reich is survived by his wife, Jean Reich, and grandchildren Shira, Rona, Talia and Bonnie Reich, Gabriel Ross-Reich and Rachel Freed. He was the brother of Hilda Lieberman, Goldie Miller, Mendel Reich, Dottie Rothman and the late Meyer Reich and Harry Reich.

Contributions can be made to Congregation Beth Sholom, P.O. Box 590418, San Francisco, CA 94159-0418, or the American Diabetes Association, 631 Howard St., Suite 520, San Francisco, CA 94105.

Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is a former J. staff writer.