A man and a sanctuary


THE JUNE 19 memorial service for Fred Weisgal at Beth Am synagogue, chronicled in these pages, makes a wonderful case for seeing people off in places they could comfortably call home.

Beth Am's sanctuary was a perfect setting. Not because Fred was a high official, big giver or clergyman, but because from 1920 (as Chizuk Amuno) until now (as Beth Am), the building has been a place of Weisgals: On the bimah -- the father, Hazzan Abba Weisgal, the congregation's inspired prayer-messenger; high above in the choir loft -- older son Hugo, scholarly, demanding choir director, and younger son, Fred, free-wheeling choir singer of many parts.

Until emigrating to Israel in 1969, Fred sang and clowned here, spraying the air with the outrageous puns and irreverent wisecracks that were so generously sampled at the service.

Fred's irrepressible ear for improvisation tried the Hazzan and Hugo sorely. The lawyer who defended civil rights so fiercely showed scant respect for the rights of composers, cantors and conductors. The singers beside him were often beside themselves as they tried to sing written parts Fred deigned not to look at or learn. (Saul Lilienstein, long-time director of the Chizuk Amuno choir, coming to sing at the memorial service, asked what part he should take. "What part do you want?" the cantor asked. "I've got it. I'll do Freddie's!" As if anybody could duplicate what Fred sang.)

Fred returned to Baltimore and this building in 1987, assuming the music and the ambience would be mostly gone. He was stunned to hear his father's music still being sung and promptly took up his former place. Except now the choir was down on the bimah directly facing the hazzan. This put some limits on Fred's hijinks, but none on his free-lancing. During High Holidays the past four years Fred roamed vocally as he pleased, bringing sweet memories to the congregation and great pleasure to himself.

He was looking forward to the coming Days of Awe, the season when the Weisgal music and the Beth Am building are in full flower. Now his voice and wit are still.

But the Weisgal music and spirit, having become one with the building, will always be in the air.

And so will Fred.

Harry London


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