For well more than half a century Cantor William Sharlin was a leading personality and an influential figure in the Jewish musical life of the Greater Los Angeles area—a prolific contributor to the repertoire of numerous Reform (and some Conservative movement) synagogues throughout North America and a mentor to many aspiring cantors within the Reform movement.
Born in New York City to an orthodox family, he was the beneficiary of a traditional yeshiva education in his youth. At the same time, he showed signs early on of innate musical gifts, improvising at the piano and teaching himself the rudiments of music. At the regular Sabbath morning and mussaf services at which the occasion of his having become a bar mitzvah was celebrated, he went beyond the usual recitation of the b’rakhot surrounding a Torah reading—even beyond what had become the expected cantillation of that Sabbath’s haftara portion—to lead the congregation in prayer and intone the entire liturgy as a ba’al t’filla. This marked his de facto debut as a cantor and demonstrated the young Sharlin’s ease with Hebrew liturgy as well as his vocal potential. Shortly afterward, his family emigrated to what was then Palestine, where he became knowledgeable in and emotionally attached to modern Hebrew and its wider culture. In Jerusalem he also began formal piano studies.
Upon his return to the United States in 1939, Sharlin continued his music studies at the Manhattan School of Music, where he focused on composition as well as piano and, now a confirmed baritone, pursued voice studies. Having decided that his calling lay in the Reform cantorate, he entered the new School of Sacred Music at the Cincinnati branch of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, where he earned cantorial investiture along with a bachelor of sacred music degree.
In 1954 Sharlin was appointed to the cantorial post at Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles, and he served that pulpit with distinction until his retirement, in 1994. There he organized children’s, youth, and adult choirs whose members were consistently inspired by his erudition and his devotion to faithful musical expression of the liturgy. “In his remarkable vision for balancing music to be heard with music to be sung,” recalled Rabbi Kenneth Chasen in the eulogy he delivered at Cantor Sharlin’s funeral, “he always taught that listening was another way of participating. . . . There’s a whole generation of [Reform] rabbis for whom William Sharlin was their first understanding of what a cantor is.”
Cantor Sharlin was deeply committed to cantorial training and education, and he served as the principal teacher to at least two generations of future Reform cantors who resided at the time in Southern California. For many years he was chairman of the sacred music department at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College, where he was also an adjunct professor; and upon his retirement from Leo Baeck Temple, Hebrew Union College awarded him an honorary doctorate of humane letters. Especially interested in promoting, particularly through music, interfaith understanding between Jewish and Christian congregations, he established a number of interfaith programs, such as the choir exchange with the A.M.E. Church in Los Angeles, and he produced many interreligious concerts with other local church choirs.
Composing was a lifelong passion for Cantor Sharlin, and he brought to his music a distinctive brand of originality, an audible sense of taste and refinement, and an openness to experimentation. In addition to his many prayer settings, his varied catalogue contains a substantial number of concert works that reflect his intense interest in modern as well as liturgical Hebrew poetry.
By: Neil W. Levin
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