Joseph Portnoy, longtime Emanu-El cantor, dies at 86

Ever since he wandered across his Pittsburgh street at age 7, knocked on the local cantor’s door and warbled his way into a spot at the Shabbat services, Joseph Portnoy wanted to be a singer.

How bad? This bad: As a young ex-soldier with a family to support, Portnoy studied five days a week at the Julliard School in Manhattan. On Friday, he sang the early service at Manhattan’s Temple Emanu-El and then rushed off for 8 p.m. services at another New York synagogue. He sang at a third synagogue on Saturdays and in St. Mary the Virgin on Sundays. Some evenings, he sang with Arturo Toscanini’s NBC Symphony.

He also worked five days a week in a meat market, starting at 4 a.m.

Portnoy, who served as cantor at San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El from 1959-86, died Jan. 17 of complications following brain surgery. He was 86.

Friends and family described the longtime Marin resident as kind, intellectual and often selfless. Even when he was working more jobs, recalled eldest son Bob Portnoy, Joseph knew life was good “so long as at the end of the week he could afford a New York Times and a pint of ice cream.”

When Portnoy arrived at Emanu-El in 1959, Reuben Rinder — who served as the synagogue’s cantor for half a century — was still an imposing presence. Portnoy had great difficulty establishing his own style, and — perhaps to better approximate what those in the Reform movement felt was a “proper” cantorial sound — he altered his voice from its natural tenor to something more like a baritone.

“When I first came here to the synagogue [in 1986], I said ‘Cantor Portnoy, I hope to see a lot of you.’ And he said to me, ‘You won’t have an emeritus around, kid,'” recalled Cantor Roslyn Barak, Portnoy’s successor at Emanu-El. “That was a very sensitive thing for him to do.”

Martin Feldman, the cantor emeritus at Congregation Sherith Israel, called Portnoy “my mentor, my friend, my brother.”

“You could discuss anything with him and he’d come up with a brilliant analysis. His choice of words — the way he spoke, it was like music coming out of his throat,” continued Feldman.

“As a personal friend, you couldn’t find anybody warmer or more understanding.”

Portnoy also served as the principal of Emanu-El’s religious school for many years, taking over in 1965 when the 30 teachers were largely volunteers drawn from the congregation. In his memoirs, Portnoy recalled running the religious school as being a massive undertaking (even for him).

He preferred to meet with his students one-on-one. “I think a lot of Sunday school kids really came away with a love of Judaism through their experiences with my dad,” said Bob Portnoy.

In his retirement, Portnoy engaged in the intellectual and artistic pursuits he didn’t have time to do when days started at 4 a.m. in the meat market. He hand-chiseled roughly 25 marble statues until he was 84, when operating the tools became precarious. He read constantly. And he was always thinking.

“There was always a meaning on two, three or four levels. He never saw life as a simple concept,” recalled son Jeffrey Portnoy.

“He was absolutely incredible in his quest for the deeper meanings of anything and everything — except for business. He had zero interest in anything financial or commercial.

“Even as he got older and fatigued, his reading was incredible. The depth of things he would get into … intellectual pursuits never left him.”

Portnoy’s sons added that while he worked tirelessly through their childhoods, he became “a consummate grandparent” for his nine grandchildren.

Portnoy’s wife, Ruth, died in 2001. But Portnoy didn’t want any of his friends or loved ones to grieve for him. At his burial, his family discovered a bottle of fine Calvados he had brought back from Normandy sitting in the family crypt, along with a note dated from 2002 that said:

“Hey Portnoy Family! Have a drink on us. I’ve joined Mama, and I’m in the place I want to be together with her. Hope life is good. Cheers, Mom and Dad Portnoy.”

“I think,” says Bob Portnoy, “that sums up who he was.”

Cantor Joseph Portnoy is survived by his sons Bob Portnoy of San Anselmo, Jeffrey Portnoy of San Rafael and Edmund Portnoy of Scottsdale, Ariz., nine grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Donations in his memory can be sent to the Cantor Joseph Portnoy Fund for Religious Education, Congregation Emanu-El, 2 Lake St., San Francisco CA 94118 or the Josh Portnoy Fund, c/o U.C. Berkeley’s Optometry School, Dean’s Office, Berkeley CA 92720-2020.

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Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a columnist at Mission Local. He is also former editor-at-large at San Francisco Magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.