Father’s Day Premier: “My Grandfather’s Prayers”

| By Lisa Aimee Sturz |

Have you ever wished you could talk to a deceased ancestor? Have you wondered how their seed may have grown in your body? My Grandfather’s Prayers is a theatrical production based on the life of my maternal grandfather, Cantor Izso Glickstein (1890-1947).

I never met him, but the family lore bespeaks his extraordinary tenor voice, his early opera career, his numerous humanitarian efforts, and his lasting influence on the young Leonard Bernstein. I grew up with stories about his synagogue overflowing with people onto the street to hear him sing for Yom Kippur.

Izso was a fourth-generation cantor. His great grandfather Haskel Glückstein was the lead cantor in Annopol, Russia, a leading city of the Hasidic movement in the early 1800’s. Perhaps Izso’s ability to transport people through sacred song was somehow passed on to him through his great grandfather’s exposure to the ecstatic and mystical teachings of Hasidism? I am not a religious Jew, but when I listen to his old recordings I find myself weeping. His singing connects me with my ancestors and a world greater than myself.

I began looking through articles and photos kept in the archives at Mishkin Tefilah in Boston where Izso served as Chief Cantor for twenty-four years. The more I learned, the more I yearned to know. My quest took me from Boston to New York, Connecticut, London, and Budapest. I studied Eastern European shtetel communities, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, restricted life within the Pale of Settlement, pogroms, tension between Orthodox and Neolog ideology, and the tragedy of the two World Wars. I have been composing my tribute to this mysterious man for nearly two years. This Father’s Day, I will premiere the production at the Jewish Community Center of Asheville.

The story is told from my point of view as a professional puppeteer and religious skeptic exploring my Jewish identity, spirituality, and moral responsibility. I resonate with his conflict between secular ambition and religious devotion, the role of tradition in a changing world, family expectations, and the difficulties of refugees. As an artist, I am captivated by Izso’s ability to channel the power of music to connect, uplift, and transcend.

The performance combines music, shadow puppetry, marionettes, scrolling backgrounds, film, animation and poetry. I enter carrying a scroll resembling a Torah. As the narrative unfolds, the scroll is undressed and placed in an ark, opening to reveal the moving background for jointed shadow figures that enact Izso’s remarkable story. (Shadow puppets are rooted in religious ritual and are believed to possess the seeds of our ancestors.)

At an early age, Izso’s father and grandfather recognize and hone the boy’s unusual talents. The young wunderkind is kidnapped by a competing synagogue to sing for the High Holidays. He is returned a local celebrity with two hundred rubles and candy to share. Life is good until their snug village is ravaged by a Russian pogrom. The family flees on foot for six months to the outskirts of Budapest. His father secures a Cantorial post and Izso is featured in the chorus. Impressed with his skill, a generous patron offers Izso formal piano and vocal training, after which Izso earns a four-year scholarship to the prestigious Academy of Music in Budapest. He sings with the Hungarian Opera Company, performing in Berlin, Vienna, Prague where he is exposed to a high level of art and culture, unimagined by a young man from the Pale.

With the outbreak of World War One, Izso serves as chaplain for the Hungarian army using his musical gifts to comfort dying soldiers, whispering between life and death. While recovering from a battlefield injury, he marries Gisela and becomes Cantor in Celldolmolk near the Austrian border. Defeated, restless Hungarian soldiers desecrate the Temple, rape several women, kidnap the rabbi, and beat five congregants to death. The young couple escapes back to Budapest traumatized.

Their return coincides with the departure of the famous Cantor Kwartin from the Dohany Synagogue, the largest in Europe. Dozens of Cantors audition; Izso is selected to replace him. Soon after, an American rabbi arrives seeking an elite chazzan to serve a growing Jewish immigrant congregation in Boston. Izso’s singing moves him to tears. Amid growing anti-Semitism, financial instability, and the devastating break-up of his first marriage, Izso emigrates to Boston as the Chief Cantor at Mishkin Tefilah.

There he records for Victor and Columbia, broadcasts a weekly radio show, and performs frequent concerts. He sponsors family members to join him in America and accepts an arranged marriage to his first cousin Ida. Their three children – my Mom, Aunt Judy, and Uncle Mitch – adore him. While beloved by the greater Boston community, his home life is strained. Ida is sickly and shows little interest in cooking or cleaning. Izso moves downstairs with his sister Esther while maintaining an office/library/music room upstairs where he arranges music, performs weddings, and mentors young students, including the eight-year-old Leonard Bernstein. He helps convince Lenny’s father, Sam, to let Lenny pursue a musical career instead of taking over the family business selling hair products.

In 1933, Izso realizes a lifelong dream to visit the Holy Land. When departing from the pier, he is surprised by a flash mob of noted cantors and the Mishkin Tefilah choir singing Hatikvah, the Jewish anthem of hope and freedom.

While Izso is off on his voyage, I meet him personally through a multi-media film sequence. I’ve reproduced old photographs and turned them into two-dimensional moving figures. Using green screen and after effects, I appear in a “conversation” with Izso and receive his blessing.

My grandfather’s prayers soothed those who were displaced
Humiliated, tortured, and disgraced
Because of souls like him, souls like me survived
Despite centuries of genocide
And so, I offer prayers to my grandfather long deceased
Olav ha-shalom, may he rest in peace.

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker