This is Marvin Bonowitz. I’m the Chairman of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society’s Oral History Project and this morning I’m talking to Cantor Jack Chomsky of Congregation Tifereth Israel. It’s Wednesday, July 2, 2003.
Chomsky: Hello, this is Jack Chomsky as previously advertised, on July 2, 2003.
Interviewer: To start off with, give us your where you grew up and a little bit about your childhood please. Oh and may I ask first what’s your Hebrew name?
Chomsky: My Hebrew name is Yaakov Schlomo ben Eliyahu Zev und
Devorah Malka. My full name is Jack Steven Chomsky. I was born May 9, 1955, in New
York. I grew up on Long Island in Great Neck, although I was born in Flushing
Hospital if anyone ever wants to look up the records and Jewishly, my family
belonged to the Little Neck Jewish Center which was a small Conservative
synagogue just over the river into Little Neck. Little Neck is the last community in the City of New York in the borough of Queens and then when you cross over the line into Nassau County, you get to Great Neck. So although a lot of people think about the Jewish world of Great Neck, I was what I call a Little Neck Jew. And as I say I grew up at the Little Neck Jewish Center so…put together that way and I went to school at Great Neck South High School and graduated in 1973.
Interviewer: And how long did you live in that house?
Chomsky: I think we were in that house when I was born. It’s one of those
classic stories that I think my parents built the house probably around 1953,
for $16,000 sometime after I graduated from college, they sold it for probably something like it might have been four hundred something thousand dollars or maybe it was just two hundred something thousand dollars. It’s a very small house, at least by the standards of most of the houses that I experience here in Columbus. It was on Webb Hill Road in a little community that I wonder, when I was born, I’m not sure that it was called Lake Success Hills. I remember that later they put up this sign that’s kind of a nice sign that’s
kind of like the Bexley signs they have nowadays bestowing, I never knew prior
to that time that I lived in Lake Success Hills. I thought that I just lived in this modest little housing development just literally a stone’s throw from…dale Hospital and the Long Island Expressway.
Interviewer: Who else lived in the house Jack?
Chomsky: My parents William and Doris and my sister Carol and for many years
also, my grandmother, my mother’s mother, Bertha Bobker, lived with us.
Interviewer: That’s B-O-B-K-E-R?
Chomsky: That’s correct. And we also had various pets over the years.
Interviewer: Was your mother American born or…
Chomsky: My parents were both American born. My mother grew up in Queens and
she went to high school with Don Rickles. I think he was in the same class. That
was in Newtown High. And my father was probably born in Flushing or certainly he
grew up in Flushing and my father’s parents were born in Europe. My mother’s
father for whom I am named was born in Europe. My mother’s mother was born in
the United States.
Interviewer: Do you know what led them to come, where was it in Europe and
Chomsky: I don’t know too much about that story although I think that it’s
sort of a classic immigration story. I think that they came for opportunity. I
don’t think that it was an issue of persecution that drove them here although
there was always the threat of persecution and so my father’s parents came I
think in the first decade of the twentieth century to the United States. And I’m
guessing that my mother’s father may have come a little later. He was a
dressmaker in the fashion business. I believe he had that business or profession
prior to coming to the United States. And my father’s father was a wallpaper
hanger, painter, worked in various ways in people’s homes, skills which my
father learned marvelously and he was beloved in any neighborhood where he
lived. He would always go out and help people with projects in their home.
Interviewer: What was his own profession?
Chomsky: His own profession was he was a lithographic pressman. He worked for
Sterling Roman Press on Varick Street in downtown New York, down near what is
today the, or it was, the area around the World Trade Center. He ran the press,
not the company, but the physical printing press and again, he was very well
known among the people that he worked with as the guy who ran things really well
and knew how to fix anything that went wrong with anybody’s else’s press.
Interviewer: How about your sister? Is she older?
Chomsky: My sister is four years older. She was born October 2, 1951, and she
is currently a law professor at the University of Minnesota. And she also
preceded me at Brown University. I’ve always wondered whether I got into Brown
because of her record ’cause I didn’t really think I deserved to be there as
a result of my…
Interviewer: But Brown was your choice?
Interviewer: Did you consider other universities?
Chomsky: Yeah I recall, I believe I was accepted at Brandeis and Rochester. I
wasn’t accepted at Yale. State University of New York also provided a place
for me but Brown was where I wanted to go and I believe I applied there Early
Decision. They had Early Decision even back in those days. But I believe I was
deferred on Early Decision but accepted when April 15th rolled around.
Interviewer: What was the neighborhood like where you grew up?
Chomsky: As I said, it was the area that is now called Lake Success Hills. It
was a modest development, maybe about a hundred houses, and we were just a few
streets. There was sort of a connecting street that went and made a big U to
Horace Harding Boulevard which was the main street that ran nearby. Maybe it
wasn’t Horace Harding; what was that street out there? Oh maybe it is. It sort
of is a service road to the Long Island Expressway, you know, because it just
goes off in another direction. Anyway, about the neighborhood, the homes were,
our house had three bedrooms upstairs and they created a bedroom downstairs
where my grandmother lived and you can even say two bedrooms downstairs. My
bedroom was a walk-through so you got from the dining room into the back of the
house where my sister’s room and my parents’ room were, you pretty much had
to pass through my room. So I didn’t have a tremendous amount of privacy but
that may have also, I don’t remember my room ever being quite as messy as
sometimes my children’s rooms seem to be and I wonder whether, A. I didn’t
have as much stuff which is also a reflection that there is more stuff going
around in today’s world and, B. I just don’t think I was able to keep it
that messy because it was a passage-way.
Interviewer: What about the businesses in the neighborhood? Were there, the
population in general, was it would you say mixed religions and ethnic groups or
was it predominantly Jewish or what was the milieu?
Chomsky: When there’s a third Jews, it feels like everybody’s Jewish and
that was probably the character of the neighborhood. I do recall that I had some
friends who went to parochial school, Catholic school, and I wasn’t really
very conscious of the diversity or the idea of the neighborhood being completely
Jewish, which, as I say, it really wasn’t. There was a significant number of
Jewish families in the neighborhood. They didn’t all go to the same
synagogue. Then they were, most people were not actively religious. My family
was very involved in the life at Little Neck Jewish Center but not in a
religious context except as people who attended services. My father, again, this
is a theme that would probably continue to recur, he could fix anything; he was
very generous in his time and so he was the house chairman of the synagogue and
he took care of a lot of repairs, a lot of arrangements on repairs,
considering various purchases that the synagogue would need to make. I remember
lots of times that we would go and put up the wall or take down the wall which
meant the walls separating the sanctuary from the social hall and the way that
that wall worked, it was this big wooden wall that kind of went together, you
pumped air into it and that kind of put everything together so I remember
running the electric pump and kind of working on that.
Interviewer: Oh so you’re a handy guy as well?
Chomsky: No, the joke in our family, both Susan and me, her father was
somewhat handy as well, although I think my father takes the prize in that
regard. Our role with our fathers was to hold “this” and so whatever
they were working on, they would say, “Hold this.” They wouldn’t
say, “This is what I’m doing. This is how it works. Why don’t you try
this and as a result…I can fix almost anything that I know with
this.” And you can note for the transcript that I’m holding up my pen and
the way that I use the pen is that I pick up my check book and I write an amount
in it. Although I guess, again, since I started making the joke, probably I
should change it and take out a credit card and say, “I can fix it with
this.” In any case, his activity in the synagogue was through phyically
caring for the synagogue. My mother was involved in the synagogue through some
sisterhood activities and especially through theatrical things that they did at
the synagogue where they would put on one kind of show or another, once or twice
a year. And she loved to do those things and so she was very engaged in that.
Interviewer: Was she musical?
Chomsky: She could carry a song. She is not a singer per se but she’s
a very good performer and takes her perform…. she’s still doing that
although I’m not sure if she did it this year but in the condo show in Boynton
Beach, she’s enjoyed doing those for years as well.
Interviewer: Where’s Boynton Beach?
Chomsky: Boynton Beach is in Florida on the east coast near West Palm Beach
and that’s where she lives now. My dad died in 1993 and they had moved down
there some years before.
Interviewer: Jack, when did you recognize that you were seriously involved in
Jewish ritual or Jewish organizations and I’m also interested to know when was
your talent recognized?
Chomsky: Well, first, I wanted to play the piano from the time that I was a
small child and my parents were not prepared for the financial exposure of
purchasing a piano that I would then ignore. So they thought it would be a good
idea to start me on the accordion and they probably already started by sister on
the accordion. She was pretty good on the accordion. My problem was I started
the accordion at age 4 and by kindergarten I was ready, I moved progressively
from the 12-Bass and I’m not sure what’s next, there may be a 48-Bass, I was
ready for the 120-Bass which is a full sized accordion but I couldn’t possibly
hold it so it was at that point that they went out and purchased the piano which
is now in my home, some years later. And I studied with a teacher named, I think
his first name may have been Milton. His last name was Knapp, K-N-A-P-P I think.
Or maybe he was Mr. Rapp and I’m confusing him; see, there was a high school
chemistry teacher, it was Knapp or Rapp or whatever it was. And I’m not sure
that he was the accordion teacher but I know that he was my first piano teacher
and we thought he was a very good teacher because I continued to make rapid
progress on the piano and I used to play for school assemblies in third and
fourth grade. You know, before the assembly I would play “The Spinning
Song” or one of those classic things from the John Thompson Piano
literature or whatever. And although I do recall that he used to fall asleep at
my piano lessons and I switched to another teacher for a year or two, a Mr.
DePaul, and then I stopped studying in seventh grade, claiming that I needed the
time because of preparation for my Bar Mitzvah, something that I think is
really probably a lie but which ultimately served me.
I think it’s an important turning point in some ways because once I stopped taking lessons on the piano, I started to play. In particular, having always been a very strong
sight reader with both of those teachers, I think I was able to skip practicing
all week, sit down and sight read at my lesson and not be criticized. And now
again, looking at this from a different point of view, they may have known that
teachers often don’t wish to criticize but once I stopped taking lessons, I
started playing and one of the ways that that happened, we had a cousin who was,
actually it wasn’t from the cousin, this was from an acquaintance of my
father, somebody who was a professional musician, did like Bar Mitzvah
and wedding gigs, got us a fake book and I would sit at the piano and I would go
through page after page in the fake book and by sitting and going through that,
I learned major, minor, diminished, major 7th, all of the different chords and I
also began to get a feeling for music theory that I really didn’t connect with
a theoretical sense until I took a course in college.
So I knew music theory in my hands, in my heart and my mouth and my mind, but not with the right nomenclature. And so then, once I stopped taking lessons, I really started
playing a lot of piano. That’s one part of, I guess also there might be some
merit to the story that while I took lessons, I used to sit in a closet strumming a toy ukulele and singing away and my mother would inquire about or maybe ask me if I might stop and I would say, “No, I was practicing and I needed to do 20 more minutes,” or something and so there was also a desire to sing. That was part of my life there.
Interviewer: How old were you at that time?
Chomsky: I must have been like three or four. We’d have to ask her to get
the answer to that.
Interviewer: But you were singing and strumming a ukulele then?
Chomsky: Yeah, not really playing chords, I was just, that might have been
why she asked me to stop because it couldn’t have been very harmonic, what I
was doing with the ukulele.
Interviewer: When did your voice develop?
Chomsky: Well I recall that in 7th grade, I had the highest and lowest voice
in the choir in school, in the chorus, and so by then, I was probably starting
to sing whatever the director would give me to sing. Whatever note nobody was
getting, I could help out with that. So that’s one way in which my voice
showed some developing. At my Bar Mitzvah I know I was showing off
horribly and I remember enjoying the feeling of hearing my voice come from the
back of the sanctuary back to me and so I was not inclined to be quiet. I sang
out real loud.
Interviewer: Was that noted by the official of the synagogue?
Chomsky: Yeah. What happened with the synagogue to keep me around was that
when I started training for Bar Mitzvah, I’d look at the Haftorah and I
asked what the little marks were in it and the Rabbi’s wife, said that that
was a form of musical notation. Well that was right up my alley and I was very
interested in that and I insisted that, I don’t know if I insisted; it’s
interesting how we remember these things. The way I tell the story is I insisted
on learning how to do it instead of just learning it from the tape or record or
whatever other kids were doing.
It may have been that the real story is that she knew I was very musical and may have asked if I would be interested in learning it. But the way I tell the story is I insisted and so she taught me the basic tropes for Haftorah. Because I had that skill, I was able to come back several times between 7th grade and graduating high school and do a Haftorah. The Little Neck Jewish Center in those days did not have a stellar educational program, did
not have a world-beating youth group, and didn’t even seem terribly interested in its young people. And so, but being able to come back and to the Haftorah, gave me a place and something to do.
I also had always enjoyed going to synagogue and singing and the Cantor, Leo Roitman, who was the son of the famous Cantor David Roitman, took some interest in me. I remember him trying to teach me some things about singing when I was 15 and kind of embarrassed about the whole thing. Actually, I also sang in the synagogue choir which sang for Kol Nidre and I think we sort of were handed out a three-part musical arrangement of Kol Nidre and we sang only that prayer, I believe. In any case, the synagogue was a place that I could sing and I enjoyed the services because of the music and the services.
And I think around in 6th grade, I recall, again the way I think it happened is I started becoming aware of the Jewish holidays, the festivals, Passover, Succoth and Shavuoth. These were holy days and there were services happening at the synagogue and again, my
recollection was that I asked if I could stay home from school and go to synagogue and my mother said, well if I would go to synagogue, I could stay home from school. Again, maybe what really happened was my mother pitched me that option. And I always felt holy, especially walking to and from synagogue. We lived about a half mile from the synagogue and that was a walk I could do on my own on Shabbas or on Yontif, although we were, as a family, generally inclined to drive and maybe on the High Holydays we walked something,
and I just really liked the way it felt.
So there was something happening at the synagogue for me but I didn’t have the kind of opportunities that the kids have here at Tifereth Israel in terms of some of the…I think it’s a
higherquality religious school and there are certainly more youth activities around the congregation and then Camp Ramah is something I never heard of except to say that I think that when I ran into kids through USY who had been involved in some of these programs, they made me very uncomfortable. They were just so cool, so much more sophisticated in terms of Jewish practice and also socially they were a little ahead of me at that point so I remember I went to one, probably my junior year, maybe my sophomore year, I went to a Kenus, a regional Kenus at the Laurelton Jewish Center and I was terrifically impressed but didn’t go back.
I mean it would be, these kids were way ahead of me and I had the same reaction when I went to college and peeked into the Hillel service. Those were all those super Jewish kids that I had seen once in a while in high school. But what I did, where I did catch on in college was at the Conservative synagogue in Providence where I was hired to sing in the choir. And so that was a much better avenue for me as coming in through the music.
I was paid to rehearse. I think we rehearsed on, I don’t remember which night we rehearsed. With the church choir, I rehearsed on Thursday night. It was the same director at Temple Emanuel and at Central Congregational Church where I also sang in the choir. And these were both paid gigs and I think I started my junior year in college having previously worked in the dining hall. I found this to be a way to make as much money from doing this and it was a good deal more pleasant. And the church choir sang beautiful music very, very well. The synagogue sang music that was okay and not so well. The
quality of the singers in the church choir was higher than that of the synagogue
but I managed to kind of keep involved in both of those things and the cantor at
Temple Emanuel, Ivan Pearlman, took notice of me.
In those days, we ended up having quite a few young people from Brown singing in the choir at Temple Emanuel. But he considered the possibility of preparing me to lead services for the High Holidays. At Temple Emanuel, they had three simultaneous services and
they would import a cantor for the other two services beside the main service.
So the thought was to prepare me to lead one of the overflow services on the
High Holidays. And so he said he was going to try me out, give me a sample
service to work with and so I was scheduled to do a Friday night service and we
had, I don’t think it was the blizzard of ’78 that happened at that time. I
think it was before that, but it was a terrible, snowy weekend and the service
was cancelled. And actually I think that the original plan was that I was going
to do it when he was away.
So what happened was that we had to reschedule it for another time. I had to do it when he was there which was a little scary. But he prepared me to do this service with the choir and the organ and some chasanute that he put in front of me and it was a very nice experience. But before we were able to pursue the possibility of preparing me for a full service, he received a call from an area Reform congregation that was looking for a cantorial soloist on a regular basis and he was sort of the Jewish music kingmaker in the Providence area. He was the leading professional Hasan and he must have been called in for his advice and he said, “Well I know this young man that I think may be able to serve you well,” and so I ended up being the cantorial soloist at Temple Sinai in Cranston which was a suburb south of Providence and I’m not sure if it was Cranston or…It seems to me that it may have been called Cranston but it might as well have been…In any case, I sang there for a couple of years after I graduated from Brown, while I was working professionally for the Rhode Island Philharmonic and it was when singing at Temple Sinai,…got the right name.
Temple Sinai was also the name of the synagogue where I was a student cantor in Marblehead, Massachusetts during my student days at the Seminary. But I think that’s the right name. The Rabbi there was Jerome Gurland, G-U-R-L-A-N-D and people would come up to me after services and what I did in the service there is I would sing the music
that was in the notebook. I didn’t really choose my own music. I might have
met with the organist or choirmaster there and made some selections. Because I
could read Hebrew very well but I didn’t really understand much Hebrew. But I
understood music and so my performance of the music was apparently satisfactory
and people would come up to me after services and say, “Cantor, that was so
beautiful and I changed the way that I feel about God,” so I began to understand that there was some power in this activity and I began to kind of have my own spiritual growth, although it was a spiritual growth without very much Hebrew.
At the same time, my work with the Rhode Island Philharmonic Orchestra where I served as Assistant Manager following my graduation from Brown in 1977, was essentially coming to an end and I decided very quickly in the summer of, I guess it would have been 1979, I went in to see Cantor Perlman and asked him about the possibility of pursuing the Cantorate. He told me about the two schools, JTS and HUC, and he opened a few doors for me I think because when you think about it, I mean somebody who’s running a school where classes are starting in September, if they first hear from somebody in July, that’s not that impressive. But then I did bring a certain amount of energy, experience and je ne sais quoi to the process and the door was opened for me and I began at JTS in the fall of 1979.
And it’s interesting. I had a hard decision between the two schools in some ways and ironically, I may have ended up at JTS at least in part because of my familiarity with the person who was running the HUC Cantorial School. When I went to see him, and he’s a very highly regarded colleague, Larry Avery, who served for many years in New Rochelle. I’m not sure if he’s still serving or if he’s gone emeritus, but I had gone to school with his daughter at Brown and so he was a little bit more familiar with me than he might have been with some other stranger coming in and inquiring about the school.
And I remembered that when I went to interview with him, I don’t know if I asked the question or if he just said, “Well how do you make a cantor? Well we take five years. We do a little bit of this and do a little bit of that. Don’t ask me how we do it but at the end, they’re a cantor.” And really that just suggested to me that he didn’t take something very
seriously. Now in truth, I think that the HUC program may have been more structured than the JTS program. So it’s ironic that I would have chosen JTS because I didn’t like the cavalier way in which the Dean at HUC expressed himself. I think it’s possibly one overwhelming reason that I would have, well two reasons that I would have chosen the school at JTS over HUC. One is that I grew up in the Conservative movement and I felt a certain loyalty to it. The other was that in that way I probably imagined that I might very well end up serving in a Reform congregation. But I had the feeling that in any congregation in which I served, there would be people who had grown up in a deeper religious
context and I wanted to be able to understand the full breadth of religious practice. And that was something that seems quite clear to me, I was more likely to come into close contact with at JTS than at HUC.
Interviewer: This was after you had graduated from Brown?
Chomsky: Yeah, yeah.
Interviewer: When you were in high school or junior high, what were your peer
groups like? Were you buddies with baseball fans or sports or what was your
interest at that time?
Chomsky: I think it was always important to me to be in different groups. I
was never in the “cool kid” group and I don’t know if I wanted to be
but I saw that that was not, I think that to a certain extent those were the
kids that came from the families that had more money and they had bigger houses
and lived toward the center of Great Neck and could hang out in Great Neck. I
never hung out in Great Neck. It was too far away from my house. But I loved
sports and so I had my sports friends. When I got, not so much in junior high,
but in senior high I got involved in theater and music and so I had friends from
that and I think I had friends that, what I call my academic friends, kids that
I was in special classes with and we’d do things together.
And then there were synagogue acquaintances and friends. One of my dearest friends was a…fan from…And I knew all the kids at the Hebrew School although I hated Hebrew School. Let’s see, there was something I wanted to kind of double back on. Well one thing that I think is of some value is how I sort of ended up clearly involved in vocal music. As I mentioned, I had fairly good keyboard skills and so in junior high, I played piano in the orchestra and we did a little bit of light classical stuff, some pop stuff. It was a lot of fun. And I played in a jazz band. We did things like “Tuxedo Junction” and, that’s the one that really comes to mind, you know the big band kind of stuff. That was a blast. I loved doing that. But when I got to high school and I signed up for orchestra, I went into orchestra and the orchestra was set to play classical music. And so the…I guess maybe the director suggested I might want to consider… oh maybe a Mozart piano concerto or something to play with the orchestra. But having stopped my lessons in seventh grade and having not really had such good teachers as we realized in retrospect, my piano skills did not develop.
I recall some other kids who passed me by both in piano and also violin which I had
played beginning of junior high. And from the beginning, I kind of vaulted to
the advanced violin section but by later junior high and high school, people who
studied seriously passed me by and so I ended up playing tympani in the
orchestra and I didn’t really know how to play the drums. So although I was
very good at playing the right pitch at the right time on the right drum, when
it came to things like a drum roll, I didn’t even know how to do a drum roll.
Nobody criticized me for it that much and I enjoyed that as well but I happened
to walk across the hall into the choral room and the woman who directed, and I
guess I had probably left, in seventh grade I had sung in the choir because
everybody had to. And it wasn’t really cool to do it although I kind of
enjoyed doing it. The woman who directed the choral stuff at Great Neck South
High School was a remarkable woman named Diane Martindale. That was the name
that she…by the time I graduated, she was Diane Martindale. Before that, she
was Diane Woodruff. She married another music teacher. I don’t guess that it
was the first marriage for either of them but I could be wrong.
And this woman was…she was crazy, and talented and energetic and my high school put on an opera each year. In fact, one of the thing we put on was “Turandot” and in a few weeks, two weeks, I’ll be singing a little role of “Turandot” and we actually somehow managed to put it on. I mean, it can’t have been that good. I do have a recording of it and I was listening to it. It wasn’t that bad either. And she was involved in all of the shows that they put on and the choir was quite sophisticated. There was a number of different groups just like they have here at Bexley. My junior year we went on a concert tour to Paris. Now
we didn’t go because we were that great. We went because she had enough chutzpah
to book the trip and to find some places for us to sing and to get people to pay
for their kids to go to Paris.
So I had this wild trip to Paris with my high school choir. But it was an amazing experience and in fact, aside from the fact that it being Paris, we seemed to get into quite a bit of wine that we weren’t supposed to. So I had my first experience like that. But we also went to a
performance of the Bolshoi Ballet at the Paris Opera. By this point already, I
was the assistant conductor of the chorus so when she wasn’t available to do
something, I would conduct some things and so…
Interviewer: This was in high school?
Chomsky: This was in high school. And so we were early at the opera and
waiting to go in and so being enthusiastic American high school kids, what would
we do but annoy passers-by by singing. And so we started singing some of her
madrigals and I conducted and so for many years I would tell people that I had
conducted at the Paris Opera because it’s the truth. But inside, where we went
to see the Bolshoi, they were doing the ballet “Spartacus” and it was
my first experience in real ballet and it was overwhelming. And I’ve been a
lover of the ballet ever since.
And I used to…ballet was probably my number one date. Although in the summers when I was working, I used to work in Manhattan in the summers between years in high school and college, and then I would meet girls in the city, girls would come and meet me, girls that I knew, it wasn’t like strangers. And I would take them to dinner and ballet which was probably out of the curve for other people in that age group.
In any case all of this activity with the singing became very central to my life and I think that
ultimately, I’m not sure how they make these choices, it feels to me like
their choice of “Kismet” as the school musical in my senior year was
chosen in order for me to have the opportunity to play the lead role. It was
sort of payback for I worked so hard at everything in the music group and in
the theater group and it was a good role for me because I wasn’t much of an
actor. I think I’m a better actor now. But I had not had, there were many
aspects of life experience that I did not yet have…
Interviewer: Other shows?
Chomsky: Well let me just say about “Kismet” what was great about that was I had like 10 or 11 songs and not so many lines so my songs carried my performance. And whether I was convincing as this swashbuckling poet didn’t matter because I sang the song very convincingly. Other shows that we did, well we did some shows with faculty which was also fun. So we did “The Pajama Game” with faculty and I played piano in the pit orchestra for that. We did “Three Penny Opera” and in that I played piano, organ and accordion in
the pit orchestra. What else did we do? In the opera world we also did “Carmina
Burana” and Act II of “La Boheme”. I remember the year before when I was in junior high, I saw the high school do a dialogue that was called “Lights Poulac”, kind of heavy stuff. And what other shows; my first big theatrical adventure was “J.B.”
It’s kind of interesting when you look back at it. Again when you talk about the kids that I hung out with, I was friendly with the stage crew, with the people who did all the work to make the plays happen. But because I was so theatrical myself, I went ahead and tried
out and I always had one part or another in the play. I guess the first play that I was in was “Teahouse of the August Moon”. I played Mr. Sumatra…and my lines were all in Japanese. But my first real role was, I think it might have been called Eliphaz in “J.B”. And in that, I got to wear a beard and smoke a pipe and pontificate on subjects. But when you consider that
“J.B.” is a contemporary look at the Book of Job, it’s kind of interesting that there was this Biblical thing there for me. Although I didn’t understand it at the time.
Interviewer: Excuse me Jack. I’m just going to turn this tape over.
Chomsky: Yeah. So it was always very important to me to try and bridge
different groups. Maybe to bring them together. Definitely to bring them
together. It was more important to me that people should be nice to each other
than that I needed to be accepted in all these groups. And so in theater, my
friends were the stage crew kids, probably a largely Jewish group, the less
pretentious, probably from the families that weren’t quite as wealthy.
And then the actors, they were beyond me in terms of some of their behaviors. I
could stand those groups. I was politically engaged. I don’t entirely remember
with what but always with something. In those years in Great Neck there was an
issue about bussing and they were going to be bussing kids from poor New York
City schools into Great Neck. And some people were against it and some people
were in favor of it and I felt it was something important for us to do. I don’t
know if I did anything about but I remember the importance of that issue in our
Interviewer: When you say “us”, is that your school or your family or…
Chomsky: The school system was going to be bussing some kids in from New York
City schools to benefit from the great education in Great Neck, I guess was the
idea. And some people would say, I think they would say: “Look we’re
paying our tax dollars for that. Why should we do that? Let them take care of
their own.” I don’t know what the arguments were but some things don’t
change in that regard.
Interviewer: But that was one of your experiences in a political…
Chomsky: Well yeah. That was a first awareness. Of course it was a time of
intense political life in the United States with the Viet Nam War. I also
remember my first exposure to Dr. Martin Luther King was, I think I was in
third grade. Let’s see, I would have been 9, no maybe it was, I’m trying to
figure out exactly how this happened in terms of timing because I think I read
about Dr. King in an SRA pamphlet. SRA, I’m not sure what it stood for but it
was a reading program that they had in the school where you would read things
and you would work on comprehension and I guess it probably provided different
kids opportunity to enter at different levels. Or maybe it wasn’t SRA. I just
remembered though, I read the “I Have a Dream” speech. I didn’t hear
it but I read it. And it was where…it was what I believed.
It was something that I also remember from being smaller as when I rode the bus to school, there were two, what I called them was “black boys” on our bus and the other
kids weren’t nice to them. And it bothered me and it was wrong and I went and
I sat with them. And I never even knew their names and it would be really kind
of interesting to find out who those people were and to hook up with them at
some point. I called them “Skinny” and “Fatty”. I told my mother about this and my response was to go sit near them, to go sit with them. I didn’t have…I wasn’t at the stage of my life that I was going to talk about social justice with them or even find out who they were but my instinct was this is where I belong on the right side of this and that’s always been very important.
And I don’t…I mean I’ve always felt particularly a certain gravitation toward black people and I don’t know if it comes from that experience or maybe just seeing about the civil rights movement but there’s something that’s always in my mind. Now I have to say that ultimately I don’t have black friends in my social circle so some of it is political and philosophical and then the other “shoe doesn’t fall”, no that’s a bad metaphor. But if the other thing doesn’t happen, but it still is part of my consciousness.
Interviewer: Did you carry your activism into college?
Chomsky: Yeah. Brown was a very politically active place and there were, some
of the issues were racial issues in terms of proper attention to funding of
respect for the black studies program. Some of them had to do with de-investing
in South Africa. I was always somewhat involved in that. I was not really a
leader but I do, or I try to remember a sit-in , some kind of action that I
think I was a part of…used to it. It still goes on at Brown although nobody was arrested or anything. But we took it very seriously. Sometimes I look back and I have to chuckle because I think that we took ourselves so seriously and we were pretty naive. And the people that we were battling with really were probably more engaged in the same thing that we were than we realized.
Chomsky: We the students. We the self-righteous.
Interviewer: What were your interests at that time? What was your vocational
aspiration in high school? What did you think you wanted to become?
Chomsky: In high school I thought I was going to be a physicist. Now I was in
accelerated math and science programs so I had been chosen as someone who had
great potential in the math and science area and I thought that that’s what I
was supposed to do. I mean smart people did math and science I thought. And so
the science that really interested me most was physics. I really loved the first
part of physics. It was thrilling. It was elegant. It was mathematically
pleasing. It explained stuff and that, so the first two subjects in physics were
Kinomatics and Dynamics. And I was really great at those. But then we got to
Electricity and Magnetism and this involved forces that I could not see and
forces that I could not understand. And I still think that Electricity and
Magnetism are sort of forms of magic. Never been able to get my mind around
But when I thought about what am I going to do in college, the thing I
liked most academically in the areas that I would pursue was physics. I’ll
major in physics and that’s what it said when I entered Brown. And I was
roomed therefore with a physics major who majored in physics and worked at the
Particle Accelerator at Stanford. I mean he’s really a scientist and I’m
not. So in college, Kinomatics was going great, Dynamics was going pretty good
and then I hit Electricity and Magnetism and the same thing happened. So I
realized that that wasn’t quite for me. At the same time I was in a course,
what we called a “Modes of Thought” course. As freshmen, we’re
required to take these interdisciplinary courses and it was called “Western
Images of China” and in that course I looked at how the west looked at
China and how the west had completely misguaged China until probably within a
few years or months of the teaching of the course and I found it really
fascinating in there and the culture, really it was the most interesting thing
that I was studying so I decided that I would major in Chinese history with an
eye toward a career in the foreign service.
Now I suppose that Electricity and Magnetism in phyics, we were close by Chinese language in this endeavor and although I studied Chinese language for two years, it was a real struggle and there’s no way that I think I would have gotten to a point that I could
function in the kind of work that I was talking about doing. At the same time, I
was losing some appetite for it as we began to understand that foreign service
did not mean bringing disparate groups together if you think about the theme
that I was talking about before, you know how I wanted to bring the different
groups together in high school, and so I imagined the foreign service as
bringing the wonderful things that are in the American culture in to share with
Well it turned out that by and large, it meant spying for the CIA which was a little bit less attractive to a life-long liberal like me. But it didn’t matter anyway because I wasn’t going to get there anyway based on my skills. However my Chinese professor probably thought I was majoring in music all along. I took a little bit of music academically but I made a lot of music and I sang in the chorus from the beginning at Brown and in both high school and
college, I served as various officers leading to the president. Both in high school and college I was the assistant conductor and in college we also traveled. The first two years, we traveled around Brown Clubs or churches that Brown Club started. But our concerts were on the east coast of the United States.
But my junior year, we went to India under the aegis of friendship ambassadors which was a group that was formed in part under the, from the energy of the fellow who founded the Reader’s Digest, who made a tremendous amount of money from the Reader’s Digest and this was his project and we were chosen to be the group to open India to this kind of experience. There had been programs like this in Poland and in eastern Europe
for some years but he wanted to reach out farther into the world and so we were
selected to make this trip to India. And then the year after I graduated, they were selected to make the first trip to China, a trip that I probably could have wrangled my way back into but I kind of let it go because I was just fresh out of school. I had stayed in Providence. But the experience of going to India was tremendous.
Again you see how music was giving me amazing opportunities. We met
Indira Ghandi, sang at the Presidential Palace for her. We met Mother Teresa.
Our meeting with her, I’m not sure if it was totally by chance or if it was
arranged while each of us was going in a different direction in the airport. We
did sing at two of her institutions and that’s the only thing on my resume. I
was in my late stages of mono on this trip but again, being the assistant
conductor, I was available when the conductor was indisposed and this particular
day the conductor wasn’t feeling well. I wasn’t feeling too hot either but I
went and so I can also say on my resume that I conducted at Mother Teresa’s
Home for the Destitute and Dying. I’m not sure that too many people can put
the Paris Opera and Mother Teresa’s Home on the same resume. But that was a
great experience that the singing afforded me.
Interviewer: Well Jack, what is your major, what is your degree in then?
Chomsky: Well the degree’s in Chinese Civilization which is sort of Chinese
history without the language. So it’s a Liberal Arts Degree. So the trip to
India was very different from those Brown Club visits the previous year. They
would maybe find 75 people to listen to us sing a concert some place and we’d
stay in people’s homes and try and make conversation. To go off to India, and
we performed in some of the major concert halls. We had real audiences. We were
treated like visiting dignitaries as indicated by some of the people that we met. It was just a phenomenal experience.
Interviewer: The Brown Clubs were alumni groups?
Interviewer: Not necessarily performing groups?
Chomsky: Right, no.
Interviewer: They sponsored you?
Chomsky: Right, the alumni association in the area would be approached by the
organizers for the choir tour. And this was a very different kind of tour.
Interviewer: That was pre-graduation?
Chomsky: This was my junior year. It was in January of 1976.
Interviewer: And then after you graduated from Brown?
Chomsky: After I graduated, I worked for two years as the Assistant Manager
of the Rhode Island Philharmonic. That grew out of, my Chinese Civilization
Degree was not going to take me anywhere in particular and from, there was a
kind of job splur or something that was held at the Career Counseling Office and
one of the people who came and presented was Muriel Post Stevens who was the
Manager of the Rhode Island Philharmonic and she talked about opportunities in
the arts…Rhode Island Philharmonic and they were looking all that time
for an Assistant Manager because the Assistant Manager was leaving to become the
Manager of the Des Moines Symphony and so when time went by and they hadn’t
hired anybody, as it got a little closer to graduation, I walked into her office
and I said, “I’d like you to consider me for that job,” and so I got that job and I worked at that job for two years and it’s amazing to me to think, I believe I started at $9500 or $10,500. This was in 1977. And that was a lot of money. “We’re not paying you a lot of money for this job.” But I never seemed to have a problem with money either. I had an apartment, I
didn’t have children and I didn’t have so many, fortunately I didn’t have college indebtedness or anything like that. My life was pretty great when I think about what I derived for the two years that I worked for the orchestra. It’s pretty amazing.
Interviewer: When you were in high school, did your parents take you to the
theater or expose you to the classics or is this something that you…on
Chomsky: I think I would have found my own way to this. We went to the
movies. I don’t think I went to a half dozen Broadway shows before I graduated
high school. As I say, by the time I was in the 9th grade, I was working in
Manhattan in the summers so I would get myself, either I would go with my father
to Shay Stadium or we’d take the subway and where I would, I don’t know, one
way or another, I got into Manhattan on my own on public transportation and so
at some point I would start meeting other people in Manhattan and attending
things on my own. I did most likely attend the theater by half-price tickets
whenever that came into existence with the T-K-T-S program that they have. But
my interest in the theater really was from doing theater, not so much from
seeing theaters. Not like I saw Broadway and, “That’s what I want to
What I really wanted to do was be a lounge singer. I loved playing
these fake books and singing all these songs from the Gay 90s, the Roaring 20s,
the 40s, the 50s. The closer we got to the current time, the less I enjoyed
singing the songs because it required electrificiation and other kinds of
instruments and rhythms and sort of sophistication that I didn’t have in terms
of piano styles but my idea of heaven was probably sitting in a bar and playing
the piano and singing although I never worked in that way. And I did, certainly
I would have loved to have been a professional performer but I recognized, I
think I recognized how unlikely it was that I would succeed in that regard so I
don’t know if I talked about it or if my parents talked me out of it or if I
was just reasonably practical in that regard.
My understanding was that there were many people who had the talent but few people who got the breaks and that’s…finding the cantor was an interesting mix. One of the things that I didn’t include in the story to this point is that there was something missing in what I
did for the Rhode Island Philharmonic. I was facilitating their educational programming and I was in charge of the major concerts, not in charge of it but in charge of aspects of it, and the program. I really enjoyed preparing the program and editing the program notes, maybe writing some things myself. I think that I’ve done a lot of writing, people who have read things that I’ve written, I love to express myself and the greatest frustration in that position
was preparing the orchestra and the musical ensembles like the String Quartet
and the Woodwinds Quartet, to do educational programs and then to sit while they
missed the mark.
They had this great music but they didn’t know how to present it to the kids and so I was also missing my opportunity to perform and to reach people directly. And that was where I began to see, or continued to see, what the cantor had provided as an opportunity for me to be a performer, whether it’s a performer of art songs or a performer of the liturgy, someone who has the physical satisfaction of performing the work.
I talk about how conductors live longer than composers. Composers sit and they work at a piece of music that nobody’s ever going to play and if they do, they’re going to play it all
wrong and what an aggravated life. The conductor takes a piece of music, stands
up, has 100 people in front of him, gets excellent cardiovascular excercise and
then applause. While he’s waving or she’s waving her arms, there’s this beautiful music sounding. Which one do you think is going to live longer? So it’s a very healthy thing to be a performer and crossing back into the cantoring gave me that aspect of my world which is that I’m performing. I may be performing for God’s sake, but I still have the physical and emotional satisfaction of expressing myself. So it’s a very good avenue for me.
Interviewer: So this is, after all these experiences, you felt that this was
a niche that you fell into and would satisfy some of your spiritual needs and
your performing talents?
Chomsky: Yeah. I guess we haven’t talked too much about the spiritual
ascent. I think that the spiritual desire was always there but how to make a
spiritual connection was another matter. And so did I enter cantorial school in
order to find a profession where I could make a living while singing, or did I
enter it in order to enter a profession association with religious acts that
were important to me? And I think there’s a mix of that and this spiritual has
come on layer by layer by layer over the years. But I couldn’t have entered
the field and I certainly would not have flourished if it was not a very real
connection. When I think about how we make new cantors, I can’t just find a
Jewish person who sings and say, “You know, it’s a good living.”
There has to be this other desire, but the desire’s not enough either, but it’s
better to have the desire and the sharing and a little bit of music, than a
tremendous amount of music and not really much by the way of desire. I’ve seen
people who were not very good singers be very successful cantors in certain
context but it’s rarely the case that a cantor can be a great singer and a
lousy person. It just doesn’t work.
Interviewer: After you graduated from HUC…
Interviewer: JTS. Oh, sure. What was your next step?
Chomsky: I graduated in the Spring of 1982 and I came to Columbus, Ohio. Now
while I was at JTS in my last two years, I was student cantor in Marblehead,
Massachusetts and every Thursday, I would get on the Greyhound Bus to Boston
and spend time with Susan over the weekend. She was working for Women’s
American ORT in New England at that point. She had already finished her MSW
program at Columbia and so I would go up, I would arrive Thursday night and I
would do services Friday and Saturday at Temple Sinai in Marblehead and then
Sunday I’d get back on the bus and go back to New York. This was considered a
very dramatic sacrifice for the sake of my devotion to this woman and sometimes
there are things that we can do to make it clear that we’re serious and it
certainly was in that regard. But I also have to say that I enjoyed the bus
rides. One of the nice things about that sort of venture is that you are
guaranteed four hours twice a week where you have solitude and where you can
read, reflect, think, relax, not have phone calls although that privilege has
been taken away from us ’cause now you’d spend four hours on the phone
probably. I didn’t have a laptop either in those days and I think it’s very
good this sort of, it’s almost like a form of meditation.
Interviewer: So how did you meet Susan, at what point?
Chomsky: I met Susan at two points. The point at which I failed to meet her
but tried and the point at which I actually did meet her. The first point was on
Succoth when she came for the erev-Succoth dinner at JTS. This would have been
in September or October of 1979 and there had been a pouring-down rain and so
there was this really cute girl soaking wet and I was going to go over and talk
to her. And one of my cantorial school colleagues grabbed me by the arm and
said, “Don’t talk to seminary women; they’re nothing but trouble,”
and so that conversation did not take place that evening. I met her at a party
some weeks later. It would definitely have been in October I think. Or maybe
not. Maybe it was November 8th. It was either November 8th or November 9th. She
was brought to this place, maybe by the same person who brought her to the
dinner at Goldsmith which is a nearby residence hall down on 120th Street.
The seminary’s at 122nd Street and it was a party sponsored by the rabbinical
student association for, open to everybody. The people who entered the cantorial
school with me were not always the most stimulating conversationalists and so
in some ways I looked forward to trying to get to know some of the rabbinical
students a little bit because I was interested in a little bit of a more
interesting conversational flow with people. And they had free beer which in
college I learned not to drink vast quantities of but to appreciate a glass of
beer or two. And so I went to the party and her friend insisted on driving her
to this party and she didn’t want to go but she placated her friend and I met
her at this party which she claims is the worst party she ever attended. The
lights were too high, the music was too low and the conversation was just brutal
and she did prevail on someone to turn up the music so that it was sort of
danceable and so another friend from the cantorial school and I were going to
dance with these two people.
And so I danced with her and he danced with this other person and that’s how we met and I almost didn’t walk her home that night. She lived up at 125th and Riverside. It was not far away but sometimes I’m a little slow on certain social cues. I walked her home that night and then actually she called me I don’t know if it was the next week or a couple of
weeks later. She had been robbed and she was upset and I don’t know if she had
called someone else first and he had been completely non-responsive or whether
she just thought that I would be responsive. But she called me and I ran over
and that was really where it first began.
Our first date was at the Metropolitan Opera. She met me and we went to Standing Room of “Carmen”. And then we managed to find seats after the first act but she was exhausted. She was working and she was getting an MSW at Columbia School of Social Work, Columbia University. And she was working for the Federation during the day. That was one
of her social work placements. And so it was, when I think back to the dates
that I took girls out on before that. . . . nicer dates. Just to meet me at the
Opera and stand for the first act. But things have worked out, thank goodness.
Interviewer: A little more.
Chomsky: Well let’s see.
Interviewer: This relationship grew, developed and how long was it before you
Chomsky: Well I always sort of knew but she was in a very popular stage of
her life and she was dating quite a few guys at once. So I kind of hung around,
did the mix until I was the only one and then when we were pretty deeply
involved by the spring of that year, that summer I went to Israel for 7 weeks
and we wrote to each other a lot and managed to get through the summer. There
were some people who felt that there was no way that I would survive the summer
because as I said, it was a very popular time in her life. But I fortunately
did. However, that was one reason that I requested of the seminary that I not do
a full year in Israel. They were a little bit unclear as to whether; that
program sort of comes and goes depending on the numbers of people, depending on
what’s happening in Israel and I felt that if I was off in Israel for a full
year, that that relationship would disappear and I didn’t want that to happen
so I managed to kind of lop off a year of my training that way. And then as we
got toward the end of my time at the seminary, well actually not toward the end
of time because I was, I graduated in May, we were married July 4 and then we
moved here in 1982 so I guess we were engaged in the fall of 1981. As we were
getting toward that year of the seminary, it was clear that either we should get
married or we should get on with something else.
I don’t know that I would have considered the possibility of getting on with something else but getting over that threshold of figuring out how to get married and somebody has to ask
someone and that was something that we did on a weekend in New Hampshire. And I
remember, what Susan says is that she knew, she realized going into it that that’s
what the weekend was about but that she was still completely shocked when I
asked her and then we called her, I’m trying to remember whether we called her
mother first or her grandmother, whether I was supposed to ask her grandmother’s
permission. She was very close with her grandmother, the legendary nana, and
when we called them it was fairly late but not so late and then we had, a month
or so later, our parents convened in New York and met for the first time and
really became very, very close.
My father and my father-in-law who are now both gone, they were, they may have been best friends for life. They were just so well suited to each other through their interest in how things worked. And my father-in-law was a very successful developer. He built apartments and homes and so they were from different places professionally but they had really completely shared interests and they really adored each other and it was very hard for my father-in-law when my father became sick and died. Then, my dad died in
1993. I think probably by 1995 or 1996, we knew that my father-in-law had
Alzheimer’s and he passed away Martin Luther King Day or maybe the funeral was
on Martin Luther King Day so I guess it would have been a few days before that,
in January of 2003, after a long decline with Alzheimer’s. But they discovered
it early enough and were able to really live a quality life. They traveled a lot
after the initial diagnosis until they no longer could. And then when he couldn’t
really even get out very much, that’s what precipated the opportunity for my
mother-in-law to attend law school and so that’s how that came to pass.
Interviewer: Jack, you’ve been with this synagogue for 21 years. Did you
come here directly from the seminary or have you had an interim position that…
Chomsky: I came here directly from the seminary, looking over my shoulder,
assuming that in a few years I would go back to Boston. We felt that Boston was
where we were going to live. I had that student position in Marblehead and there
were even probably some positions in the Boston area when I was graduating. But
my feeling was that I was looked on as the kid cantor in Boston and if I wanted
to have the respect of my colleagues, that I needed to go someplace and become a
grown-up cantor first and so Columbus was going to afford me that opportunity
and so I figured after two or three or maybe five years, then we would go back
to Boston. But things worked out differently, not to say that there were not
opportunities in Boston, but the life here has been so positive and nurturing
and there are just so many great things about my life in Columbus that we found
in that medium run that we were staying and then in the long run as well.
Interviewer: Okay. I’m kind of interested in how your interview went with
the Board, having a novice cantor graduate with a degree in physics and
Chomsky: Chinese lit.
Interviewer: Chinese lit. Okay.
Chomsky: Well that aspect, I think that the Brown degree along with the area
of concentration gave me a certain cachet going into the interview. But
that’s good for about 10 seconds. And then after that, the question is,
“Do you want to live with this person? Can you stand the way the person
sings?” And I don’t know that there were that many candidates. People don’t
necessarily push each other out of the way to come to Columbus because,
especially easterners who think that life begins and ends in the east. For me it
was quite a feeling to come to the midwest because I had never been away from
the northeastern megalopolis and then I have been everywhere in the world
between New York and Providence. That’s not very big coverage. So I was going
to see what life was like someplace else.
This was a good opportunity. When I was graduating, the two positions that I seriously considered were Columbus and there was one in Chicago. And it’s a reflection on how special the reception was in Columbus and how confident I felt about Rabbi Berman that we chose to come to Columbus rather than Chicago. I mean my wife is from Milwaukee and Chicago is very close to home. Chicago is a big city and Susan’s really more
of a big city person than I am although I grew up in the bigger city than she
did. But this congregation seemed healthier. The rabbi seemed trustworthy and I
had some concerns in Chicago and so we came to Columbus.
Interviewer: How did the city of Columbus impress you? What did you observe
when you came here about the city? Let’s see, how do I put this? What were
your early impressions of Columbus?
Chomsky: We moved to Wyandotte East which was called the “Ellis Island
of Columbus”. It’s where the immigrant Jews came to Columbus in those
days. It seemed like everybody who came in the Jewish community would either
move into Wyandotte or Washington Square…it was called down on College
Avenue. But more likely Wyandotte East. And one of the things is that the
apartment, I don’t remember what they’re called now, maybe…what they
were called then, but I remember when I came in I think for the interview and I
drove down Stelzer Road past what was the projects, those were not too
dissimilar to the kinds of building that we had in Boston…that’s a
place that we might look to live at. And that’s, in Columbus that’s sort of…the low end of the scale. And so certainly one thing that we noticed right away is that the quality of living here was very excellent. Susan talks about how she figured that Columbus was going to be a lot like Madison and she was surprised when it turned out not to be. And she really did like Madison because it’s where the University is and I think Madison may also be the state
But Columbus is very different and it’s a different kind of university. It’s just a different kind of town. I don’t think so much physically about Columbus but I think about the people and the welcome that…it’s just a nice place to live. Then I start thinking about when I started
building opportunities in the cultural arts, things that I did there. Basically
that I had the opportunity to say, “This is what I want to do,” and they would say, “Okay, and here’s the money to do it.” Although that was really on an individual basis. Every program that I’ve done is really not run formally on the synagogue budget but rather sort of a pay-as-you-go where we collect money for cultural arts programming and we spend money on cultural arts programming rather than having money dedicated in the budget. So that started with the first program that I did when we brought in the American Boy Choir and we did “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” and I also had Lainie Katzew in
to sing some things on the same program. She was a very active cantor at Temple
Israel and that time I think she was a cantorial student and her husband was in
rabbinical school at HUC.