Some called him Reverend Abrahamson. Others called him Cantor. My father called him Chazzan and bristled at the other names: evidently those other names were too cold and distant to identify our Chazzan. However you would call him, Chazzan Abrahamson was the oldest person I knew, at least he seemed that way, with a small, pure-white moustache and a head of snow-white hair to match.

He was small and walked with slow, deliberate steps. His wife would always walk with him to synagogue, even Friday nights when no other women came for services. She was prim but more quick-footed and I sensed even then that she was somehow protecting him.

He was from Europe, with genteel, old-world manners. Delicate and compact in speech and deed and presumably in thought also, he was unfailingly polite. A yekke, such people were called in the old country.

He wore an old-style cantor's hat, black, silken, rising six inches above the head and crowned with a somber pom-pom which bemused me even then. He draped his tallit gently over his shoulders.

None of us children had much to do with him. Nor do I remember many adults having much conversation with him beyond respectful salutation.

He would stand on the platform in front of the Ark when the Torah was being taken out. He led the congregation in the Shema, reciting each word forcefully, precisely, dramatically and finishing off the sacred phrase with a flourish: Echad! Looking back, I can now identify what I noticed then: there was also a controlled emotion.

A number of years ago, I heard that he had been a diamond cutter when he first came to Nashville from the old country, arriving in the Twenties, I believe. He was looking for work and even with a sharp eye for stones and the steady hand of youth he had a hard time landing a job. Finally someone made him an offer. He would work eleven hours a day, six days a week, Sunday off.

But I don't work on Shabbat, the then-young man protested. If you don't work Shabbat, replied the only person who had offered him a job, then you don't work Monday. The genteel personality, so reminiscent of Western European finery, so appreciated in the South, looked at his would-be employer:

"I will die in the streets of hunger before I work on Shabbat."

It wasn't until decades later that he became Chazzan, cantor, of my father's synagogue. Personality, I guess, is only so deep, beneath that is primordial essence. When you're not hostage to your personality, the mores around you or anything else, then you can be true to your essence.

The Chazzan passed on nearly twenty-five years ago. Many a Shabbat it is I who now stand before the congregation and the Ark, holding the Torah and leading the Shema.

I hope that somehow, with something beyond me, I am conveying something more than the tune. Something the Chazzan conveyed without ever articulating it. That nicety should be a proper setting for the stone but never overpower it. That polish should enhance the metal, but never make you doubt the metal. That underneath it all must burn a fire in the belly and a passion of the spirit that niceties can never smother. That enveloped in a silken personality must be an iron will that in the face of multiplicity, division, even duplicity, the cry will ring clear, precise and dramatic: Hashem Echad! G‑d is One.