Ex-Lutheran finds his faith, language and singing voice in Judaism

Fred Zemke loves Judaism. He loves the sensuous sound of the Hebrew language. And he loves the music of the synagogue, the centuries-old tropes chanted by a chazzan before the unscrolled Torah.

What better way to unite those intertwining passions than to stand on the bimah and chant Shir HaShirim or The Song of Songs, one of the most beautiful and intimate books in the Bible?

That's exactly what Zemke will do Saturday, April 19 — chanting the first two chapters note for note, trope for trope — during Passover Shabbat services at Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City.

But Zemke is no chazzan. He is, rather, a congregant, a computer software engineer, a Jew-by-choice and one of those people always in search of a new challenge.

Though a lifelong music lover, Zemke only started singing five months ago.

But he promises his chanting won't be a Judaic version of Alfalfa singing "I'm in the Mood for Love."

"Judaism is about lifetime learning," says Zemke. "For many years, I was engaged in studying Bible and Midrash. But ever since I took a Torah trope class a few years ago, I switched my focus. I have become motivated to beautify the Bible through chanting."

Through his studies, Zemke learned how special trope melodies had been developed for regular weekly Torah portions and aliyot, for the High Holy Days and for individual scroll readings, such as The Book of Esther on Purim and The Song of Songs for Passover.

Zemke has a pretty good idea why the sages chose the sensuous Song of Songs to be read at this time of year.

"Passover takes place in springtime," he says, "and Shir HaShirim talks about spring as well. Passover is our celebration of leaving Egypt, which the prophet Jeremiah compared to a honeymoon between God and Israel."

It took many years of intense Torah study to reach Zemke's level of scholarship, but he got an early start as a Sunday school student growing up Lutheran in Spokane, Wash.

"I remember as a child being fascinated by what we called the Old Testament," says Zemke. Though religion was important to him and his family, by the time he enrolled at Reed College in Portland, Ore., the young math major had begun to question his faith.

"In my senior year, I took Hebrew," he recalls. "I was very interested in languages, and I figured Hebrew would be quite different from the European languages I had studied."

Zemke fell in love with the language, and while in graduate school at Claremont College, he audited a class in Midrash, his first real contact with Judaism.

From there, he joined Hillel, and within a year or so Zemke was davening, studying Jewish texts in the original Hebrew, celebrating Shabbat and other holidays, and tithing.

All this and he was still technically a Christian.

"Davening every day, I became very conversant with the traditional prayerbook," says Zemke. "In synagogues, people frequently thought I must have been raised in an Orthodox home. However, I did not actually convert until 1989."

Today, Zemke sees himself falling somewhere between Reform and Conservative on the observance line.

"I like to daven in Hebrew and keep the holidays, though philosophically I accept the Reform principle that the individual decides what is meaningful for himself."

On a parallel track with his developing faith, Zemke proudly became one of America's first computer nerds. After a time teaching college-level math, he became a software engineer and today works for Oracle Corp., codifying a software standard called SQL.

"Software standards work can be almost talmudic in its intricacies, linguistic nuances and sensitivity to tradition," says the grandfather of five.

"My job appeals to me. It's full of puzzles, but music is in a different part of the brain. Reasoning won't make you sing better."

In his spare time, Zemke shares his understanding and appreciation of Jewish tradition and Scripture by teaching Hebrew free of charge.

"Understanding the prayers and texts in the original language has been a gateway to Judaism," he says, "and I hope my students will enrich their appreciation of Judaism the same way."

Working hard these past few months with his vocal coach and with Peninsula Sinai chazzan Doron Shapira, Zemke is excited about his upcoming synagogue stint, and he hopes it leads to future "gigs."

"For Shavuot I expect to prepare a chapter or two of Ruth," he notes, "then I'll prepare a chapter of Lamentations for Tisha B'Av, and then I'll work on the High Holy Day trope.

More than simply for his own pleasure, Zemke hopes his involvement will spur his fellow Jews to delve deeper into their tradition.

"I'm really enthusiastic about lay people participating in the service, and about spreading knowledge and appreciation for our tradition among ordinary Jews."

Fred Zemke will chant at 10:30 a.m. Saturday, April 19 at Peninsula Sinai Congregation, 499 Boothbay Ave., Foster City. Those interested in studying Hebrew with him should call the synagogue: (650) 349-2816.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a J. staff writer. He retired as news editor in 2020. Dan can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.