I can only speculate when my father’s passion for singing began, because I know so little of his background. Born in Chęciny, Poland, to Orthodox parents, his early education was in the yeshivah there. Jewish tradition teaches that music unlocks the door to Divine connection, and I am certain that somehow the melodies about G‑d, His World, His miracles and His assistance registered their impacts on my father’s impressionable childhood brain.

At some point, trouble intensified between his parents, a get was secured, and his father departed for foreign shores, leaving behind his distraught wife and 1-year-one infant. Over time, my grandmother remarried and gave birth to a daughter. With the sudden death of his mother, however, my father was sent to Toronto where his biological father had also found a new wife and had three more children.

With all the upheaval, there was nothing to do but sing. He sang on the boat to Canada, a brown-skinned 7-year-old lad with impossibly curly dark hair and green eyes whose family descended from hundreds of years of Spanish Jewry. Faced with a new stepmother, half-siblings and an unfamiliar language, he sang. He turned to song as he learned to navigate a strange and secularized world where Jews lived among non-Jews, and many of those Jews disassociated from their religion.

His relationship with his father was strained. The family of six lived above the small grocery store which they owned and made a very meager living. After receiving the equivalent of a sixth-grade education in Toronto, he was told that as “another mouth to feed, you will have to work.” I can only imagine the emotional discord of such a harsh welcome. Still, he was drawn to music at a shul the family attended, and his stepmother kindly encouraged him to sing because he had “a beautiful voice.”

The Talmud teaches, “Where there is song, there is prayer” (Berachot 6a). If it is true that song and music are how we express happiness and celebration, my father had found a way to reinvent a life in a foreign land with his Torah lessons from the Old Country still exerting their influence. The old songs supplied a foundation from which to navigate the world.

I learned from my father’s closest friend—a Holocaust survivor from Warsaw—that “Nachum’s solution to everything was a song.” When my dad obtained a job on the Ford assembly line, the company foreman would often say during lunch break, “Nate, give us a tune.” My father, only too happy to comply, would belt one out.The other employees cheered, enjoying the velvety tenor that soared above the noise of the constant machinery.

Life was not always smooth; at some point, my father lost that job as well as a host of others. He attempted numerous undertakings, such as barber school, but footholds in the job market continued to be tenuous. His friend told me, “Your dad sang when things were good and when they were bad. He had charisma; he gave others momentum, the power to be inspired by music.”

Life changed at 25, when my father met his soulmate: a comely Jewish-German immigrant with dimples and flashing dark eyes who had barely escaped the Holocaust. My father always told me, “I fell in love with your Mom the first time I saw her,” and I knew that was true because I never heard my father tell a falsehood.

Suddenly, there was a marriage, although not one that her German-Jewish parents approved of. He had darker skin, no money to speak of, and a family background that had been interrupted by divorce. My mother defiantly pressed on, beamed unrelentingly at her wedding, and gave him her heart, two children, and a love that expanded to fill the huge void he had carried so long from the father who never really wanted him and the mother he lost so prematurely.

My mom remarked to me, “Your dad, he was always singing even when the roof caved in.” He sang each week at synagogue, on the bus to work, at every place of employment he had, and at home while he carried my brother and me in his arms, doing double duty in the kitchen preparing meals alongside his wife. He sang in Hebrew, Polish, Spanish and English. He sang when I was crying. He sang when he lost his job, when there wasn’t enough money to pay the rent and when my mother yelled, “There’s no money for food!” He would stop momentarily and say simply, “G‑d will provide,” and then resume, knowing full well that the Jewish community would help out as well. It was his defense against the world and the means by which he lived in it. His response to the intransigence and the vagaries of life was to lift up his and others’ spirits with song, which in an obviously edifying way, it did.

Music clearly impacted his soul and healed long-forgotten emotional wounds. It is the Jewish songs we teach our children that convey our love of G‑d. As Rabbi Jonathon Sacks writes in his articleTorah as G‑d’s Song, “Music is central to the Judaic experience. We do not pray; we daven, meaning we sing the words we direct toward heaven. Nor do we read the Torah; instead we chant the weekly portion, each word with its own cantillation. Even rabbinical texts are never merely studied; we chant them with the particular sing-song known to all students of Talmud. Each time and text has its specific melodies. … The Torah is G‑d’s song, and we collectively are its singers.”

Similarly, though we would expect the Torah to conclude with an integral law or philosophical idea, it ends with “Shirat Ha’azinu”—with song.

My father, always a deeply religious man, did not stop at the Jewish prayers. He sang whatever touched his soul and shared that gift with many people, who were not shy of expressing their appreciation.

I remember my mother screaming at my father in exasperation when our electricity had been cut off due to non-payment: “Please stop singing, I’m talking to you!” My father, with complete composure, turned to her, his eyes dancing in the faded light, and said evenly in the Polish accent he never lost: “My darling wife, I can’t.”

In my 30s when I had my son, I sang to him as well. I never expected, however, that he would also sing all his life—at moments of despair and moments of exuberance. He would sing at Chabad; at the synagogue in Berkeley, Calif., through university and two master’s degree programs; and in his current home of central North Carolina. Clearly, the legacy of music had been genetically passed down, immutably and determinedly, from the grandfather he had never known.

My father’s name was Nachum/Nathan Abshez, and this is his story. And ours as well.