Sidney R. Block, MD practiced rheumatology in Maine from 1975 until his retirement in 2021. He is also a lay cantor for Congregation Beth El, the Reform congregation in Bangor, which he helped found in 1981.
Although he never learned how to read music and never had a formal voice or music lesson, Dr. Block remembered how to chant some of the prayers he was taught in Hebrew school in Baltimore as a young boy. When Congregation Beth El opened, he became their cantor. He connected with an ordained cantor in Boston who would sing the prayers, record them on cassette tapes and then mail them to Dr. Block. While driving between his home in Bucksport and private practice in Bangor, Dr. Block would spend the half-hour each way playing the prayers over and over again, trying to mimic the cantor. He jokingly refers to himself as a Suzuki-trained cantor as the Suzuki teaching method involves repetition and saturation in a musical environment.
Over the years, his repertoire has grown to where he can chant every important prayer necessary for Shabbat, the High Holidays, funerals and other religious events. “I guess I did reasonably well,” says Dr. Block. “At least nobody else wanted my job.” When he came to the parts of recorded prayers that were beyond his vocal capabilities, he customized them by patching together small interludes of his own creation for the parts he was unable to mimic. As a result, some of his prayers took on a unique melody, referred to in Hebrew as Nusach, or the tune used when a cantor recites a prayer.
Looking back, Dr. Block believes that establishing the reform synagogue was a worthwhile endeavor, not only for himself and his family, but for the other members of the community who joined, and even for his patients. “My participation in the spiritual life of Congregation Beth El, as reflected in its music, led to a deeper understanding that my practice of medicine had to involve much more than attending to just the physical well-being of my patients.”