Richard Perlman didn’t always want to be a rabbi. His father, Ivan Perlman, was a cantor, and Perlman wanted to pave his own way. But Perlman couldn’t deny the rich heritage in his blood, and eventually followed a spiritual path.
At the end of the month, Perlman’s father will install him as rabbi at Temple Am David. Perlman has been the spiritual leader at the temple since December of 2000 but was not ordained as a rabbi until this January.
Essentially, the shift is what Perlman describes as a “title change.” Perlman was hired as the spiritual leader and cantor at the temple, “but when I walked out the door I couldn’t do everything a rabbi could,” he said.
In the Jewish faith, the cantor, or the person that leads the congregation in prayer, does not have to be ordained. However, only a rabbi can teach the Torah and make decisions based on Jewish law.
So two years ago Perlman decided to get his ordination, and went to school online for the title. After a year, his training and experience culminated in his ordination.
“Everyone seems happy about it,” he said.
In 2008, Perlman became the Religious Leader for Life at Temple Am David, and Ivan installed his son then. Ivan, now 86, served as the cantor at Temple Emmanuel in Providence for more than 20 years.
“He’s a very well respected man,” said Perlman of his father. “I’m very proud of him.”
Now that he has earned the title of rabbi, Perlman will be installed yet again.
In addition to his father, Perlman’s brothers, Eli, Emmanuel and Josh, will join him. Eli is a rabbi for a congregation in New Jersey, and Emmanuel and Josh are cantors for synagogues in Maryland.
Perlman said his father is going to give a sermon about what a rabbi is, and possibly accompany his sons as they sing. Together, the Perlman men make a troupe they call “The Cantors Perlman,” and have been featured on PBS and at various synagogues. The Cantors Perlman will give a public performance at Temple Am David on April 1 at 4 p.m. to culminate the weekend of the celebration. Their performances are known to be off the cuff, spontaneous and often humorous.
“We kibitz with each other,” said Perlman. “We all really like each other, although sometimes we pretend to argue.”
Perlman said growing up in such a musical home was a unique experience.
“We had a father we all loved and respected,” said Perlman. “One thing I can recall is Friday dinner. After meals there would be a period of singing, and without rehearsing we would fall into a four-part harmony. We just did it by rote.”
Perlman recalls having other cantors over to join in the songs, but they would eventually stop singing to listen.
“They would sit there and cry,” he recalled.
Despite his natural ability, Perlman said he wanted to be anything but a cantor.
“I wanted to be my own person,” he said. “I didn’t want to be what my father was, I wanted to be me.”
One by one, his brothers became cantors, but Perlman just dabbled in the art on the side.
Then one day he got a call to sing at a High Holiday in Maine. Initially, he didn’t want to do it, but his brother talked him into the gig.
“I was a little nervous,” he said.
When he arrived, a member of the congregation told him to ignore a certain older man in the front row.
“‘He’s going to sit and yell at you the entire service that you’re doing it wrong,’” said Perlman. “I was petrified.”
But when Perlman started to sing, the congregation was silent, and remained that way.
“My father had taught me the correct melody for the High Holidays,” said Perlman. So he stuck to what he knew.
At the end of the service, the older man approached Perlman with tears in his eyes. He told the young cantor that he hadn’t heard a High Holiday service sung correctly since his own bar mitzvah.
“It meant so much to other people that [the cantor] do it right,” said Perlman.
That experience in Maine changed his outlook on being a cantor, and he began to do it professionally. When the position opened up at Temple Am David, Perlman saw it as a perfect fit.
Perlman has lived in Rhode Island since his family moved here in 1964.
“The same year The Beatles came to the United States,” he pointed out.
The celebration of Perlman’s installation as rabbi will take place throughout the weekend of the 30th.
In addition to the performance of The Cantors Perlman, Sam Chester, who is 99 and a member of the congregation, will perform a song he composed for his late wife, Esther. Chester will play the song on his violin, and Perlman will vocally accompany him.
The weekend will include several services and a catered Kosher Deli luncheon.
“It will be a wonderful, huge weekend,” said Perlman. “A great celebration.”
Tickets to the public concert on April 1 at 4 p.m. at Temple Am David, 40 Gardiner Street, Warwick, are $18 for adults and free for children under the age of 12.