As the world focuses its attention on Israel with prayers for peace, I am grieving the death of a Jewish friend who died in Tel Aviv a month and a day before the Hamas invasion.
Abraham Kaplan was an immigrant from Israel who left our world a better place. This amazing musical genius was born in 1931 seventeen years before his homeland became an independent nation. Like his gifted father before him, Abe was a celebrated choral conductor.
I first met the maestro about fifteen years ago. Abe was sitting outside the drive-thru Starbucks on Mercer Island with a conductor’s score spread out on a table in front of him. I introduced myself and inquired what he was doing. Continuing to grasp his number 2 pencil, he looked up at me with a smile and described his process of scoring an original composition.
As one who has sung in choral groups since high school, I sought out more information. My interest was of obvious interest to this older gentleman with flowing white hair. We chatted for more than a few minutes. He told me of his career at Julliard and how he worked alongside Leonard Bernstein. He described his love of teaching at the University of Washington before entering retirement. But Abe hastened to add how he continued to make time to create music even after Social Security had kicked in.
He shared how he felt at home at this Starbucks doing his work.
I felt like I had found a kindred spirit. In addition to sharing Abe’s love of coffee, I, too, claimed this sacred space as my remote office. I often met parishioners or conducted church business at “St. Arbucks,” As a result I repeatedly ran into Abe composing or arranging. Our friendship developed. We never lacked for topics to talk about.
When my musician friend Mark Thallander, the former organist at the Crystal Cathedral, was in Seattle for a series of performances, I gave him a tour of our community. Stopping at Starbucks for a caffeine boost, I saw Abe in his favorite chair by the fireplace. I proceeded to introduce Mark to him. As the two talked, I discovered that had mutual friends and shared a common memory. Mark was the organist at the dedication services at Robert Schuller’s glass church three decades earlier when the Cathedral Choir sang music Abe had written for the occasion.
What? My Jewish friend had composed music for a Christian congregation? It wasn’t long before I asked Abe if he would conduct the sanctuary choir at the local Covenant church where I served as pastor. He declined. He was used to a much larger venue than our little church. Our amateur group of singers lacked the skill compared with those with whom he was used to working. I refused to give up. When I saw him next, I once again pleaded my case. He hesitated. He wasn’t sure we could afford what he customarily received as an honorarium.
I decided not to push it. He was right. His professionalism and experience were deserving of more than we could afford. I would just be content with a growing friendship cemented by grande lattes.
I invited Abe to have dinner with Wendy and me in our home. He willingly accepted the invitation and brought along an autographed copy of his memoirs. Over my wife’s amazing manicotti, Abe regaled us with stories of famous people he had met and worked with. It was a memorable evening. And the payoff was a sudden (and unexpected) change of heart. He told me he would be willing to be guest conductor of our little church choir some Sunday.
That turned out to be a Sunday I will never forget. The choir, along with Jim Jansen our pianist and my daughter Lauren on flute, brought to life Abe’s original composition “The Lord is My Shepherd.” There, at the front of our sanctuary, a Reformed Jew led a group of Evangelical Christians. Abe beamed with joy as the musicians followed his lead.
I, too, was beaming. An investment in friendship between individuals of different faith traditions had resulted in a very special moment. It was a picture I will forever cherish of the harmony that is possible when we allow our lives to be instruments of God’s peace.
Guest columnist Greg Asimakoupoulos is a former chaplain at Covenant Living at the Shores in Mercer Island.