By Stacey Dresner
SPRINGFIELD – Cantor Emeritus Morton Shames, 87, longtime cantor at Temple Beth El in Springfield, died on July 27 at Baystate Medical Center.
Just last year, more than 500 people were on hand as Temple Beth El dedicated its sanctuary in honor of Cantor Shames at a special event and musical tribute that celebrated his more than 60 years of service to the synagogue.
“I have been told that the naming of a sanctuary for a cantor has never before taken place, or if it has no one can name a sanctuary named for a cantor,” said Harvey Shrage, a past president of Temple Beth El. “No one is more deserving to have their name on a synagogue sanctuary. Cantor Shames was one of those special human beings who everyone agreed was special, a treasure and so deserving of the honor. He gave his heart to Temple Beth El. He touched the young, the old and all ages in between.”
Despite struggling with health issues, Cantor Shames attended last year’s dedication and “stood tall before his congregation and in a strong voice and with great passion and love for the congregation and community recalled more than 60 years of service to our community,” Shrage said.
“He was so proud and so thankful that the congregation had bestowed the honor of naming the sanctuary for him during his lifetime. We are all grateful he got to be part of the day and that he got to feel the love of his congregation. The day gave us one more chance for him to inspire us.”
Born in Malden, Cantor Shames’ family moved to Boston when he was six years old. Their house was filled with music – his father loved opera and both Morton and his sister played the piano.
He studied at Boston University, earning a B.A. in Voice and an M.A. in Musicology.
In 1955, he was ordained in the first class of the Cantors Institute of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and accepted the position as cantor of Temple Beth El that same year. He spent his entire career at the synagogue, where he embraced his role as pastor, teacher, friend, and musician.
“I first met Cantor Shames in 1983 when my wife and I joined Temple Beth El,” Shrage said. “I was president for three years and had regular interaction with Cantor Shames. He was a guiding light for me and to the leadership of the congregation. He accepted our flaws and respected us even when he disagreed!”
Marian and Martin Broder became good friends with the Shames, due to their love of opera. The couples would drive together to the West Springfield AMC Theater for its high definition live streaming of the Metropolitan Opera for years on Wednesday nights.
“You have never seen Morty as happy as when he was in the theater listening to opera,” Marian Broder said.
“Our enjoyment of the operas was always heightened by watching his excited responses to the singing and his critical analyses of the singers, especially the tenors,” Martin Broder said. “I also shared a love of Yiddish music with him. He and I both learned and sang Yiddish songs as youngsters and we would occasionally sing snippets to each other. The last concert he and his wife went to, shortly before he died — their last ‘date’ according to his daughter Miriam — was at the Yidstock Festival of New Jewish Music at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst. They both enjoyed the concert immensely.”
Cantor Shames was well known beyond the walls of Temple Beth El.
He served as both president of the Cantors Assembly and as its chairman of placement. He performed on National Public Television in “A Taste of Chanukah” with the Klezmer Conservatory Band, and returned year after year as soloist with the Springfield Symphony Orchestra at its annual Holiday Pops concert. He performed at solo recitals throughout the country, and traveled with opera impresario Sarah Caldwell to Russia. Cantor Shames and his wife, Frances, were among the founders of the Community Music School in Springfield.
After his retirement in 2002, Cantor Shames, his congregants said, never wanted to move away, and continued to work on behalf of the congregation.
For TBE’s Centennial Celebration in 2013, he brought “Soul to Soul,” a production of Folksbiene, the National Yiddish Theatre in New York City to TBE. With this concert, directed by Zalmen Mlotek, and featuring both African-American and Jewish performers, Cantor Shames said he wanted to feature a musical presentation that really celebrated TBE’s historic role in Springfield.
“When I discovered the program ‘Soul to Soul’ I thought what a wonderful presentation to bring to celebrate the centennial,” Cantor Shames told the Jewish Ledger in 2013. “Here are two minorities who have a similar history of persecution and both of their music reflects this and have the same qualities in so many instances. The music is representative of both their struggles, their joys, their sorrows. There was a common ground.”
“Cantor Shames was a wonderful man,” said Rabbi Amy Wallk Katz. “The congregation hired Cantor Shames because he had a gorgeous voice. But they fell in love with him, and named the sanctuary in his honor, because he touched people both on and off the bimah. He was caring and kind, and he dedicated his life to the people in this community. I miss him already!”
In addition to Frances, his wife of more than 60 years, Cantor Shames is survived by three children, Jonathan, Jennie, and Miriam – all three musicians — and grandchildren, Jake and Chloe.
His funeral was held Sunday July 31 at Temple Beth El with burial in Beth El Cemetery. Memorial contributions may be made to Temple Beth El or to the Community Music School of Springfield.