What is it about the desert that encourages many people who come here to retire to instead rediscover their passion?
Joseph Gole (www.JosephGole.com), 72, is the cantor at Har-El Congregation, a Reform Jewish synagogue in Palm Desert. His career, in a way, began at age 9, when the teacher at his Hebrew school began to give him solos, and then at age 11 included Gole in Friday night services.
“I was actually the catalyst for my family becoming more religious,” he says.
“My mother wanted me to take math and science, but I knew I wanted to pursue music, because I knew that was where my strengths were. I did my first High Holidays service at 14, and while at Hebrew High school, when I was 15, my teacher brought me into another temple to do services. In high school, there was an arts direction you could take. At 16, I was singing with The Young Americans. I remember that while in high school, the choir teacher got another job and left; we had a madrigal group that I ended up conducting.”
Gole and his brother, an attorney, were born and raised in Los Angeles. Their mother, now 96, had emigrated from Poland at age 14. “She dabbled in real estate and could be very giving and charitable,” he says, “but … she had lost most of her family, and the trauma of those experiences never fully left her.”
Gole’s father, who died in 1999, was the youngest of nine children, born in America to Russian parents. “His mother was born blind,” Gole recalls, “and he was raised by his siblings. He worked as a contract administrator for the government. He was a very constant man, somewhat rigid, but he was also a frustrated musician and singer—that’s why he started me at 5 on the accordion. He was always very supportive of the direction I chose.”
Gole attended Los Angeles Valley College and then graduated from the music department at the University of Southern California.
“At 14, I had a band, hired the musicians, and played the accordion and sang. I put myself through school playing music at events like weddings and bar mitzvahs,” Gole says.
Gole’s first job as a cantor came at age 18 at Temple Emanu El in Burbank.
“It was part-time, a small synagogue, and I had a limited role,” he says. “I’d show up at services, conducted the choir, and assumed some responsibility.”
Gole later became cantor of Sinai Temple in Westwood, a Conservative Jewish synagogue, at age 25 and served there for 10 years. He moved on to other temples before returning for a second stint 18 years later.
In the Jewish religion, there are different strains of worship: Orthodox, the strictest in observances; Conservative, which relaxes some of the rules of the Orthodox—for example, allowing congregants to drive to services on the Sabbath; and Reform, which emphasizes Jewish ethical tradition over the obligations of Jewish law. The Reform movement, to which the majority of American Jews belong, has sought to adapt to modern sensibilities, and sees itself as politically progressive and social-justice oriented while emphasizing personal choice in matters of ritual observance.
A cantor is a clergy member who may lead worship, officiate at life-cycle events, teach adults and children, run synagogue music programs, and offer pastoral care.
Gole’s self-description as a cantor: “I’m not stuck in my ways. I like mixing it up. I like doing things differently. Until World War II, cantors were all European-trained and came from a very traditional environment. After the war, immigrants weren’t coming here so much anymore, and the schooling of cantors broke into different organizations.
In 2016, Gole—divorced after 28 years of marriage with two children, a son (now 26) and a daughter (31; “She gave me a beautiful grandson!”)—was renting in West Los Angeles when he realized what a value it was to relocate to the Coachella Valley.
“Although I wasn’t really ready for retirement,” he says, “I wanted to get away.”
Now working with Har-El, Gole is coaching a young man preparing for his bar mitzvah; and a young man singing for the holidays at the temple. He has gone on cruises as a pastoral presence for Hanukkah and Passover services on board.
One of his current joys is working with a group of older women who wanted to prepare for bat mitzvah, which was not necessarily available to them when they were young. Bar mitzvah has always been a rite of passage for young Jewish men at age 13, including the privilege of reading from the Torah in front of the congregation. In Conservative and Reform Judaism, bat mitzvah is now also available as a rite of passage for young women, generally performed by giving a lecture on a Jewish topic or reading from the Book of Esther in the Old Testament.
“The women I’m working with have developed a real sense of community,” Gole says. “The experience of studying together for bat mitzvah became very meaningful for them. To be able to have this interaction is what makes it all so meaningful for me.
“I realize now that at 25, I was scared. At 35, I was still in touch with people from my old temple associations. I hadn’t comprehended the impact I’d had on people—I hadn’t really appreciated (it) in the moment. That realization was very powerful for me, that I could touch people in such a profound way. It’s been an important part of my life ever since—the interaction with people at critical points in their life, whether happy or unhappy. The fact that I get to share in those moments offers a powerful opportunity.
“I’ve realized that my journey has been to explore and understand my inner self—a truly liberating experience. … My message is to follow your passion. Find mentors who will encourage you. Don’t be afraid. We’re all afraid. Just follow your heart.”
Cantor Joseph Gole has done just that, and rediscovered his passion here in the desert. Isn’t there a story in scripture about that?
Anita Rufus is also known as “The Lovable Liberal.” Her show That’s Life airs weekdays on iHubradio, while The Lovable Liberal airs from 10 a.m. to noon Sundays. Email her at Anita@LovableLiberal.com. Know Your Neighbors appears every other Wednesday.