The Singer of the Single Song: In Honor and Memory of Chazzan Richard Kaplan

Chazzan Richard Kaplan sang with a tenderness that, once heard, remained unforgettable. Chazzan Richard Kaplan sang with an exuberance that, once heard, remained unforgettable. Chazzan Richard Kaplan sang with his soul so open to giving and receiving that he was, simply, unforgettable.

We were blessed with a chazzan who we could trust with our own souls because he was honest, gentle, and true to the bone.

I did not know Chazzan Richard well. And I knew him well enough to be grateful for the rest of my own life.

We met at my first Kallah; my son, Erik, was hired as teenage staff to work with children and was permitted to take one single course. He chose Chazzan Richard’s.

I experienced a healthy jealousy each day as Erik reported on each class. All the usual words — inspired, excited, motivated — none of these could describe what my boy radiated that week. He was experiencing, I think, a kind of mikveh in music. He could not go from that learning unchanged — no one could.

Erik was the only teenager in the group, a reason, I expect, for Richard to notice him. He kept the connection live well after the course was over, answering follow-up questions, sending Erik sheet music.

Or maybe it was that Richard noticed all his students, noted their longings and their hopes. He seemed, inevitably, to find a way to lift their every note to the heavens. When the class gave a public recital, one song was filled with humor and joy, another with yearning, a third performed with such wholehearted love for the Holy One. We smiled, laughed and cried our ways home.

At the next Kallah, I introduced Richard to my husband, Ralf. I mentioned that Ralf played the darbouka for our services. To my astonishment, Richard asked him to play with him that night at a public performance. He had never heard Ralf play, he could not have known anything about his training, his experience, his technique.

Still: Ralf was his only accompanist that night, playing darbouka and tar. The performance was extraordinary even for those who knew Richard’s work. No one there could ever forget the niggunim, that night’s delicate Hayoshevet Baganim. I watched Ralf touching the def as if to connect every tap directly to the heart of the man who sang next to him.

It was unearthly. They played as if every note was foretold, bound to one another.

After the performance, I had to ask. “Richard, how did you know?” He looked at Ralf, gave a little shrug and a shy smile and said: “I knew.”

Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg has said of his friend Chazzan Richard: “yours was a planetary Judaism…” Indeed Richard traveled the globe in his music, in his performance, in his own settings. There is no way to encompass or describe his knowledge, his clarity, or his understanding of the myriad rivulets of Jewish musical desire.

Elliot also wrote: “you showed us that the wild aggadic claim of our ancestors just might be true: that had the Torah not been given, the world could have been conducted according to Song of Songs. For you, like the Maggid, knew what Shir ha-Shirim meant:  A single Song that kindles many Songs — on high and down here below. You knew from that Song, and much more.”

Since I heard of Richard Kaplan’s death I have been unable to stop noticing the light around me. The light of the sun streaming through the five-fingered gumball tree leaves outside my office window. The light of the cerulean sky still glowing over the all the fragile dwellings of the world. The light of the moon in the morning sky, waning, but still brilliantly white and glowing.

Chazzan Richard Kaplan illuminated this world.

In honor and memory of Chazzan Richard Neil Kaplan, z”l. Every note sounds in gratitude.


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