This week we remember Hazzan Abraham Lopes Cardozo. Rev. Cardozo was Hazzan of Shearith Israel From 1946 until his retirement in 1984. He was the embodiment of the Western Sephardic liturgical tradition that was brought to North America from Amsterdam via Recife, Montreal, and the Caribbean, among other places. He was the spiritual and musical teacher of the present Rabbi of Mikveh Israel, R. Albert Gabbai, bringing some of his rich influence to Philadelphia. Rabbi Gabbai would often invite Rev. Cardozo to come to Philadelphia for High Holidays and other occasions after his retirement.
Rev. Cardozo was born on September 27, 1914. His father, Joseph Lopes Cardozo, was the leader of the boys choir at the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam. He was also a violinist, and along with Cardozo and his two brothers, the foursome formed a band that played at various gatherings and communal holiday celebrations. They all could play keyboards and also string, reed, and brass instruments. Of course, Bram, as Abraham Cardozo was known, grew up completely immersed in music of all kinds and had a natural talent. He even played piano as a toddler. As he grew, he could play any piece he heard by ear.
At 18, Bram Cardozo earned his degree as a Hebrew teacher from the Ets Haim Seminary in Amsterdam. A few years later in 1938, he answered an advertisement for a Hazzan who was needed for a congregation in Surinam, Zedek Ve-Shalom. The ad was placed by his future father-in-law, Judah Robles, who was Parnas of the synagogue at the time. After much deliberation over different candidates, Bram Cardozo was chosen because of his credentials and also because the salary, paid for by the Dutch government, and living conditions were appropriate for a single young man. He arrived in Paramaribo, Suriname on September 9, 1939. As it turned out, this appointment saved his life. All of the rest of his family in Holland perished in the Holocaust. Throughout his life, he observed Tisha B’Ab as the Nahalah (anniversary) for all of his relatives that were murdered, as this is the national Jewish day of mourning.
In 1945, Rev. Cardozo took a six-month leave of absence from his job as Hazzan in Suriname, and headed to New York. The Suriname community was declining in the wake of the war, and he wanted to expand his horizons and look for other opportunities. New York City provided the perfect vibrant Jewish community for him to spread his wings. Of course, Rev. Cardozo found his way to the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue, Shearith Israel. There, as a visiting Hazzan of a sister synagogue, he was invited to lead services. This led to an offer to join the congregational staff as an Assistant Hazzan, which he accepted. After returning to Suriname to give notice to a very disappointed Mr. Robles, be began his long tenure at Shearith Israel on January 1, 1946.
Immediately on starting as Hazzan, Rev. Cardozo reunited with the daughter of his former Parnas in Suriname, Irma Miriam Robles, who was working in New York and attending Shearith Israel regularly. They shared many of the same friends and grew close over the next few years. In December of 1950 they became engaged, and had a beautiful wedding on March 11, 1951, officiated by Rev. Dr. David de Sola Pool of Shearith Israel, assistant minister Rev. Dr. Louis Gerstein, and Rev. David Jessurun Cardozo, the Rabbi of sister congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia. Of course, the first piece of furniture they acquired for their new home was a piano – a Baldwin Acrosonic upright. The Cardozos had two daughters, Debby and Judy born in 1952 and 1955.
Rev. Cardozo was devoted to and strictly upheld the Spanish and Portuguese minhag, though in his private life he also appreciated other traditions. In many ways he was a living bridge between the Old World represented by the Amsterdam Sephardi community which was made up of descendants of refugees from the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, and the New World in the first congregation in America. As the Amsterdam community was being decimated by the Nazis, Cardozo escaped just in time and continued the traditions in the New World. Rabbi Marc Angel, long time Rabbi of Shearith Israel speaking at his funeral in 2006, said that Rev. Cardozo was an ember that survived the ashes of the Holocaust.
Rev. Cardozo’s passion in life was Hazzanut, and there was nothing he enjoyed more than leading the congregation in prayer using the tunes he knew and loved so well. Sadly though, as he was required to strictly maintain the Shearith Israel minhag, he was prevented from introducing some of the other Spanish and Portuguese melodies from the mother synagogue in his native Amsterdam that he so eagerly wanted to keep alive. Though he was not given the title of Minister of the congregation until late in life, he performed weddings, funerals, and gave eloquent eulogies.
After he retired, he wrote two books, each with an accompanying CD of music. The first was Sephardic Songs of Praise, followed a couple of years later by Selected Sephardic Chants. Many of his friends collaborated to present a petition to Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, nominating Rev. Cardozo for the title of “Knight in the Order of Orange Nassau” for his service during World War II, his preserving the traditions and minhag as practiced for hundreds of years in Amsterdam, and his loyal and proud representation of the Dutch Jewish Heritage. He was officially knighted in the year 2000.
In March 2005, Rev. Cardozo fell and broke his hip. Unfortunately, he never fully recovered and passed away on February 21, 2006 (23 Shebat 5766) at the age of 92. Hundreds of people came to the synagogue to attend his funeral and pay their respects to this great and humble man and leader of the community for 60 years. Eulogies were given by dozens of leaders, rabbis, colleagues, close friends and family. Rabbi Angel led the hakafot (circuits) around the coffin in a very moving ceremony, after which the coffin was draped with his Talet (prayer shawl).
I just want to share one very small personal anecdote. I used to lead the Friday night Shabbat service at Mikveh Israel. One time when Rev. Cardozo was visiting for Shabbat at the invitation of Rabbi Gabbai, he led the Friday night service faster than I have ever heard it done. It was so fast, I could hardly follow along. After the service, as I was wishing him a Shabbat Shalom, I remarked on the speed with which he read the service. He replied, with a twinkle in his eye, “they don’t call me the Flying Dutchman for nothing!”.
- Irma Miriam Lopes Cardozo, As I Lived It, 2010
- Shelomo Alfassa, Reverend Abraham Lopes Cardozo z”l, The Jewish Voice – March 3, 2006
- The New York Times, Ari L. Goldman, Published February 23, 2006
- Yedeabraham.com, People Identified on this Site