search

Dinner for Litvaks

William Singer (Wolf Zinger) and Yetta Oppenheim

Grant Gochin informed me by way of his article in Times of Israel that I was 107 years late for dinner. That’s not just unfashionably late. It’s unforgivably late. I am writing to inform Grant that we were actually perfectly on time. Strangely and mystically so. There are too many clear signs that our fateful birthday dinner had long been planned for us – at least as long as we both sought to uncover our ancestral roots.

Answering The Call

In July of 2018 I received an unexpected call from someone who I had not spoken to since I was a teenager. It was Dr. Paul Gaboriault, the retired director of the public library in Superior, Wisconsin. My dad’s ex-boss. Why on earth was Paul calling me? Paul was the genealogist who helped my dad in the old Carnegie Library to begin his search for our elusive Singer family. He assembled some unfinished Singer family research that my dad, Barry Singer, had begun. He also digitized a very rare video of my dad speaking at the occasion when the last synagogue of Superior closed and their leadership donated their remaining funds to the library.

Carnegie Library on Hammond Avenue in Superior, Wisconsin

Dad taught the importance of books and learning as a core Jewish value. He deeply revered the Kaner family, the founders of Superior’s Jewish community. “You are not obligated to complete the task, nor are you permitted to desist from it,” dad said, quoting Rabbi Tarfon. These immortal words and the unfinished genealogy shared with me decades after my father’s passing was a clear call to action. I had to attempt to finish the work I promised I would continue at my dad’s deathbed many years ago. I still cannot believe what I have unearthed since then in this search for the Singers.

A “Superior” Jewish Childhood

The name “Cantor Singer” gets a good laugh. It’s an aptonym – an apt profession for my name. Music, visual art, and creative talent runs very strong on both mom and dad’s side of our family. But the cantorate was never my childhood dream. How could it have been? Though I met a few different rabbis in Duluth over the years, I had never met a cantor in my hometown. The old condemned Litvak Shul, Agudas Achim, that I attended with my dad as a child had dwindled pretty quickly in the 70s after the last of the Arnovich/Hyatt rabbis passed.

The sanctuary of The Litvak Shul, Agudas Achim on Hammond Avenue in Superior, Wisconsin

We prayed in Agudas Achim regularly until it was demolished and replaced by a car wash. Superior hadn’t had a rabbi since the 70s, but the small community held on as long as they could. Dad was a sentimental historian who remained fiercely dedicated to Superior’s Jewish community. We were also involved in Duluth, but there was something special about the few last embers of Judaism left in Superior that dad had felt. He couldn’t explain it, but there was a reason the Singers ended up there.

Dave Engel, local author, with his daughter. Barry and Sarah Singer in 1997 meeting at the Androy Hotel

Bob Zimmerman’s Blues

The last research project dad worked on just before he passed was for a book published in 1997 about Bob Dylan’s Jewish upbringing in Minnesota. He helped local author, Dave Engel, to research “Just Like Bob Zimmerman’s Blues.” It is still considered by many to be the authoritative book on Bobby Zimmerman’s Jewish upbringing before he left the North Country to become Bob Dylan. Dad had hoped to write another book with Dave Engel in the months just before he passed. Engel wrote a tribute to dad in the local paper. “Barry had a head full of ideas that wouldn’t quit.”  Unfortunately he never had enough time.

Dave Engel’s tribute to Barry Singer in Duluth’s Jewish Fellowship News in the fall of 1998.

Dad’s father, William, was an enigma. He died very young in the late 1930s when our dad was a toddler. Dad’s mother was unwell, so he was raised by cousins in Detroit. There were no family stories or heirlooms passed down to us from the Singers. Before the internet, genealogical research was painfully slow, conducted by in-person visits to libraries and city and state government buildings that only had hard copies of records. The most advanced technology dad could rely upon was a telephone, a fax machine, or in the last few years of his life, some primitive emails.

Detroit Revisited

I found small leads here and there while living in Michigan attending grad school. Dad was thrilled I chose to attend the University of Michigan, not only for their amazing music program, but so I could reconnect with his cousins and their vibrant Jewish community. He also encouraged me to study Jewish music.

I used some of my time there as a young artist with Toledo Opera of Ohio to conduct interviews with his cousin Muriel who lived there. Muriel was the only other living Singer cousin, the daughter of William’s brother Morris. She had little knowledge of her father or my grandfather, aside from that they had come to America by way of South Africa and had worked in the diamond mines in their youth. Morris and William’s dad was named Berel, and my father was named after him.

The family was once very large and close as new Litvak immigrants to Michigan around the 1930s.

I attended some seminars with the Jewish Genealogical Society of Michigan and started using JewishGen to research. I got some helpful advice from our cousin and our Oppenheim/Weinberg family researcher, Dr. Carol Dunitz, but I didn’t really have a handle as to how to conduct my research with such limited access to documents, no living relatives to interview, or time with professionals to guide me. I did what I could when I had the time. 

While working at the Flint Institute of Music as a voice and guitar teacher before cantorial school, I once talked with a family with the last name Singer. They passed by my studio and left me a copy of just one old typewritten page from their family history that named an ancestor, Berel Chazan, of Paneveys, Lithuania. Their family name had changed at some point from Chazan to Singer. I made no connection to this family at the time. But I saved the page. In retrospect, it was an important piece of the puzzle that established my relationship to this family who had once been generations of rabbis and cantors, confirmed by DNA, family records, a Singer family journal and other documents.

The Books of Mormons

Armed with my dad’s papers, I went to the Center for Jewish History to view genealogical records on microfiche, this time with a new lead. He suspected his father may have been from Kovno, Lithuania, according to something indecipherably scribbled on an immigration record. As I looked aimlessly at the many microfiche listings for any Singers of Kovno, I noticed that each microfiche had credited the Church of Latter-day Saints for their records. I learned that these records at the Center for Jewish History were simply on long-term loan from the church. 

So I decided to get over the stereotypes that had been fed to me by fearful researchers and well-meaning friends. From their descriptions, I might once have imagined it unfolding as a comedic scene from The Book of Mormon, only with Mormons seeking to Baptize Me and our Jewish ancestors against our wishes. So I finally walked into the Mormons’ New York Temple and asked them for help, conveniently just around the block from my synagogue. They proved to be my greatest allies in this effort. They even showed up in droves to my Shabbat services immediately after the Tree of Life shooting later that same year in Pittsburgh.

William and Yetta Singer (Oppenheim) with the Oppenheim and Weinberg families of Detroit

I was surprised to learn that the church had an expert Jewish genealogist volunteering every week specifically to help lost Jewish New Yorkers like me to discover our ancestry. Caitlin Hollander, a very energetic and brilliant young Jewish genealogist, methodically and scientifically collected my dad’s information, worked her magic on a variety of databases and found our Singer family in Birzai, Lithuania in a few minutes flat. She had prolific knowledge of how to interpret gravestones and how names Westernized in this region, so my grandfather William was listed in Lithuania as Wolf Zinger. Wolf is the German translation of his Yiddish name, Velvel, which is his name on his gravestone. She showed me how to cross reference various databases and sites available to find out what happened to dad’s many aunts, uncles, and cousins.

Caitlin warned me that I would find a lot of dead people. She was right. Dozens of Singer cousins and their children were all murdered en masse by Lithuanians in 1941. I traced these ancestors from Birzai to being murdered in nearby Paneveys. One was a mother murdered in a death pit together with her many children who were not even named in Yad Vashem. Others had relocated to Jelgava and Riga after the 1915 expulsion from Kovno. Over 95% of Lithuanian Jews were murdered – the highest murderrate in all of Europe with the highest participation of local Lithuanians. I felt resolved to find any surviving relatives.

A South African Connection

I found a marriage record for Avrum Wolf Novosedz and my great aunt Shora Singer in Birzai who had a Lithuanian birth record for a son named Eliyash. I found a record for Shora, but nothing in the holocaust records for either of the men. Perhaps like my grandfather and great uncle, these men left for South Africa? I found an immigration record for Eliyash Novosedz in a South African database, but I didn’t know if he had left any descendants. So I asked Anne Lapedus Brest, a genealogist near Johannesburg who I had also consulted with on the Singer family journal, if she had ever encountered a Novosedz in her research. She said “I have researched countless Litvak families for decades, but I never forget a name. Speak with Grant Gochin. He’s a Novosedz.”

I wrote to Grant. We shared our trees and compared the Gochin and Singer DNA. It was a match! We were both in disbelief, since the odds of finding a surviving descendant from the same shtetl of Birzai is so infinitesimal. I learned that Grant’s family history led him to become a diplomat, author and activist who has committed his life to uncovering Lithuanian holocaust fraud. Lithuania today celebrates our murderers as national heroes and rewrites the Holocaust to conform to their narrative. Grant’s passion for this is infectious and now I find myself involved in several projects related to this and our family history.

Dinner for Litvaks

I’ve sung on and off with Six13, the Jewish pop acapella group and viral sensation, for over a decade now. Since Covid, any time they ask me to sub in for someone I’ve made it an opportunity to further my genealogical research. Their Birmingham, Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles gigs this year gave me opportunities to connect with cousins.

Cantor Dan Friedman, Cantor Dan Singer, and Grant Gochin

I was originally scheduled to tour Europe this summer with the American Conference of Cantors, making concerts and ancestral connections. I anticipated visiting Lithuania during my birthday. But the trip was canceled due to Covid and the war in Ukraine. In a twist of fate, the same day my trip was finally cancelled, Six13 contacted me to perform for a private event in LA. On my birthday, July 10.

I informed Grant of this opportunity for us to meet. He was shocked. July 10 is the birthday for Bracha Lea Novosedz, his grandmother. It is also my grandfather William’s birthday. I strangely share my birthday with the two people who connect us. So we enjoyed a festive birthday dinner together with cousins.

Nancy Dunitz and Peter Schulman at dinner

Seated across from me was Nancy Dunitz, an artist and the sister of Carol who organized our first family reunion in 1983. Nancy designs beautiful womens’ kippot and sells them in Judaica stores across the country. My sister-in-law, Cantor Inbal Sharett-Singer, had her first service this month at Temple Israel in Minneapolis. The congregation presented a gift of welcome to her from their Judaica store. They chose our cousin Nancy’s kippah. Nancy knew they were giving the kippah to their new cantor as a gift, but until she read an article about her this month in The Forward, she didn’t know her kippah had been gifted to her own cousin.

Kippah made by Nancy Dunitz, unwittingly gifted to her cantor cousin.

Other families from the 1983 family tree now living in Los Angeles, Oppenheims, Gaylords, and others unfortunately could not make it that evening, but we met separately.

The Gaylords originally immigrated to Detroit as Goldsteins from Lithuania with the Oppenheims and Weinbergs.

Our birthday dinner reminded me of a leavened Passover seder. Grant presented heirlooms from his Novosedz family of Birzai in fours like the four symbols of the seder. Four soup spoons, four coffee spoons, and four napkin holders designated to the four cousins seated at the table. We must have drunk at least four glasses of wine – or perhaps it was four martinis – we eventually lost count. Grant told the story of our families and the Lithuanian mass deportation of the Jews of Kovno in 1915 that separated our ancestors from their homes and families in Birzai. We asked at least four questions. 

Cantor Dan Friedman and Cantor Dan Singer singing happy birthday

We had two cantors seated at the table and a guitar, so we led some z’miros and we engaged with Grant in the age-old debate over whether this was divine fate or random coincidence. It was like the Hagaddah of our family history, which felt more relevant to us than the ancient story of our exile in Egypt. The family dinner our ancestors had planned in Birzai, the Shabbat before the Shavuot festival, was canceled in their exile, but we revived it as a beautiful birthday celebration with a delicious birthday cake and even a happy birthday song. We empathize with our Litvak ancestors, imagining what it might have felt like to be sent into exile from their homes during Shavuot. The telling of their story brought tears to our eyes.

Birzai Boys

Grant is a remarkable activist from South Africa, cut from the cloth of his anti-apartheid grandmother, Bertha Smollan (Bracha Lea Novosedz) and his aunt, Esther Barsel, who shared a prison cell across from their dear friend, Nelson Mandela. Grant has several films coming out that elaborate on the same stories we shared at his dinner table, only in vivid detail. 


Nelson Mandela and Esther Barsel at the Memorial Service for Anthony Sampson
8-2-2005. Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela Foundation – Houghton

While in Chicago singing with Six13 at the Greater Chicago Jewish Festival, I met with Silvia Foti, the granddaughter of our family’s Lithuanian murderer, General Jonas Noreika. Sylvia has become Grant’s ally in revealing to the world the truth of her grandfather’s war crimes and the lengths to which Lithuania continues to suppress the holocaust perpetrated not by Nazis, but mostly native Lithuanians who they celebrate today as their national heroes. Her book, The Nazi’s Granddaughter, now retitled Storm in the Land of Rain, is sold as a paperback in multiple languages in stores across the globe.

Meeting Sylvia Foti, the granddaughter of Jonas Noreika at the Greater Chicago Jewish Festival.

Their story will be featured in several upcoming documentary films. I am doing what I can to help them. Baltic Truth, narrated by Dudu Fisher, is soon to be released by Menemsha Films, and we are hoping to make my synagogue, Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, the place for the NYC premiere. I am also helping out with the soundtrack for J’accuse Lithuania, a film by another Birzai boy – the acclaimed documentary filmmaker, Michael Kretzmer. There were other meetings I planned during my visit to Grant, and this led to more strange coincidences. 

“Pitching” Hardball

After writing a story for The Forward on Morrie Arnovich, an Orthodox Jewish baseball player, and realizing that my father was related to him through the Kaner family, several Kaner relatives reached out to me. One was Dean Kaner, whose family founded the Jewish community of Superior, whose great uncle my father praised on the video Paul sent me. 

Dean wrote an incredible play with Robert Ozasky and the prolific playwright, Michael Bettencourt, called Hardball about his grandfather, Hank Kaner, who unlike his cousin Morrie, was a star pitcher who turned down an MLB contract to observe the Sabbath and take care of his ailing parents. Hank’s father, Raphael, was diagnosed with Alzheimers and coincidentally, he was the first and only cantor of Superior, originally from Kovno.

Cantor Raphael Kaner, from Vilkomir, Lithuania, the first and only cantor of Superior, Wisconsin.

Dean heard some of my liturgical compositions online and asked me to write some original music for the play. He also had me write opening and closing monologues from a librarian who I named Sarah Barry after my mother and father. She gives more historical context to our unique hometown and the Litvak immigration that saved a generation of Jews from Lithuania. 

A composition from Raphael Kaner’s hundreds of pages from his cantorial manuscript on file with YIVO

I found and digitized Raphael Kaner’s salvaged Litvak cantorial music at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. It was damaged in a fire, but is still intact and with YIVO’s permission will soon be preserved online and hopefully sung again by cantors through the Cantors Assembly’s new online archive. Kaner’s cantorial music is my inspiration for new music that I am writing. We will add my original music if we can find success in getting the play produced in New York City. I learned from my sister’s partner Peter Schulman, whose father Arnold is a renowned screenwriter, that it is the custom of any visit to Los Angeles to come equipped with a screenplay, so I “pitched” Hardball while I was there.

We are seeking a theater or theater company for production. If interested, please contact Dean Kaner at deonnadistributing@gmail.com

Lunch with Louie

I tried chatting up Kaner’s play and our hope to help restore Superior’s Carnegie library with Louis Kemp over lunch, a local legend from Duluth-Superior who is lifelong best-friends with Bob Dylan. Bobby Zimmerman and Louie Kemp met as kids at the same summer camp my brother and sister attended, Herzl Camp. Bob also descends from our Kaner family of Lithuania and Superior. 

My mom took me to a lot of folk music concerts in Duluth as a kid, while she was pushing me to become a musician. She had me studying with a local songwriter, Lew Orsoni, who performed a lot in Duluth and wanted to expose me to all the local talent. Kemp attended some of these performances and he was always very warm and friendly. Mom also took me to help her paint homes in Duluth for refugees from the Soviet Union in the early 1980s and she recalled Kemp opened his mansion up for these big sorts of events. We also celebrated Sukkot at his mansion with the local synagogue that his family had once belonged to. The house had a small library built into a cliff that overlooked Lake Superior that was a particularly special memory to me.

Lunch with Louie Kemp, Bob Dylan’s longtime friend and producer of the Rolling Thunder Revue, 1975-76.

Kemp recently published a book about his lifelong friendship with Bob Dylan called Dylan & Me: 50 Years of Adventures. We were making plans for him to present his book talk and signing at my synagogue this fall when from Peter we learned that The Last Waltz happened to be playing at the Hammer Theater while I was in town. Peter didn’t know that The Last Waltz happens to be a chapter in Kemp’s book. This was when Kemp had a fight with the organizer, Bill Graham, backstage during Scorcese’s filming of Bob Dylan at the concert. Kemp, under Dylan’s directives, had nearly put the filming to a halt, but luckily Bill Graham persisted and everything worked out just fine in the end.

Louis Kemp fighting backstage with Bill Graham during the filming of Bob Dylan in the 1978 film, The Last Waltz

We felt the universe was telling us to go see the film, so we attended it together. This was about as meta as it could get – watching what Rolling Stone Magazine named the greatest concert film of all time with the guy who had been fighting backstage with the producer and camera crew to stop filming. We noticed a very bright light coming from Kemp’s chest as they panned out on the whole stage. It was Louie’s necklace. The same Star of David that he still wears today was glowing just as bright as the stage lights.

Completing the Task

The Six13 concert on my birthday was a very unusual one – a fancy private surprise birthday party for a man coincidentally named Barry. It wasn’t really his birthday that day, but it was mine. At the end of every concert I do with the group, they announce I am Cantor Dan Singer from Superior, Wisconsin. Even though we are all NYC based, we announce our hometowns. 

A man came up to me afterwards unable to believe I am from Superior. His grandfather immigrated to Superior from Russia. He asked me where I am a cantor. Then he asked me if I know Rabbi Cantor Alison Wissot. Well, of course I know her. She is my friend and we sang together on my bima just a few months ago. Alison is his daughter. We took a photo together and I sent it to Alison. Alison was in the midst of her own concert with my cantorial classmate, Cantor Natalie Young, who happened to be in town with her just this weekend as a composer in residence.

At a Six13 concert, meeting Dr. Michael Wienir, whose grandfather immigrated to Superior, Wisconsin.

Natalie called me back and none of us could believe the coincidence. Natalie then asked me if I was available to visit her in a recording studio in Chatsworth on Tuesday morning. Easy. I was staying in Chatsworth, only 15 minutes away. I showed up on Tuesday not expecting to participate, but she asked if I could add some vocals to a couple of tracks. Of all the texts that she could have chosen for me to sing, she asked me to sing her incredible new setting of “Lo Alecha Hamlacha Ligmor.” This is coincidentally the same text that I sang on the bima before going to LA. It was an unusual request from my colleague, Rabbi Cantor Samantha Natov, who happened to have chosen to focus on this particular text in her sermon that week. The text means, “You are not obligated to complete the task, nor are you permitted to desist from it,” the same words my father chose on the video Paul shared four years ago that revitalized my search.

In the studio with Cantor Natalie Young and her producer, Troy Dexter, in Chatsworth, California.

There are many more little strange coincidences that we noticed in Los Angeles that day, like the several Wisconsin license plates we saw, or the man who casually passed by me and Louie at lunch sporting his Wisconsin Dad t-shirt, or the price of gas outrageously being $6.13 in front of a massive poster of the Rabbi Manis Friedman, Louie’s friend, down the street from our kosher lunch on Pico… 

But this surprised me the most: Just as I was writing this article, I looked up the first email from Dr. Gaboriault with the attached genealogy that he sent after our call in 2018 on the twentieth anniversary of dad’s passing. Paul’s email to me was dated July 10, 2018.

Grant, you may not believe in fate, but I do. I think the signs are clear that this time was appointed for us. We weren’t late for dinner – this dinner was planned for us. Regardless of our beliefs, we can agree that we are obligated to do what we can in the time we have to try to complete the tasks left to us by our ancestors. So let’s get to work!

About the Author
Daniel Singer is the cantor of Stephen Wise Free Synagogue on New York City’s Upper West Side. Drawing on a wide-ranging knowledge of Jewish music, Cantor Singer is as comfortable singing an 18th-century classical liturgical repertoire or leading the congregation in traditional Hasidic or Sephardic melodies as he is performing Jewish pop acapella with SIX13 or singing roles with the Yiddish Theater or opera.
Related Topics
Related Posts

We have a new, improved comments system. To comment, simply register or sign in.