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From one biker to another

Remembering Cantor Ilan Mamber

Cantor Ilan Mamber plays guitar. Inset, Lenny Mandel
Cantor Ilan Mamber plays guitar. Inset, Lenny Mandel

My wife and I were on a cruise in the Mediterranean four years ago this summer when I got an email from Cantor Henry Rosenblum that Cantor Ilan Mamber died from a heart attack.

I was devastated.

I didn’t meet Ilan until the mid-1990s, when I became the cantor at Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson, but we hit it off from jump.

He was a folk singer, I was a folk singer. He played guitar, I played guitar. He rode a motorcycle, I rode a motorcycle. And neither one of us was a casual, hey, I ride once-in-a-while biker — I was a founding member of Chai Riders, and he was starting a motorcycle club in Bergen County that was called Hillel’s Angels.

Let’s be honest, one of the many things a Jewish mother would never say is: “Be good, and if you’re good I’ll buy you a motorcycle for your birthday!”

The question I’ve been asked since I got my first motorcycle in Brooklyn in 1965 is why would a Jewish kid ride a motorcycle?

A young Cantor Lenny Mandel as Tevye.

It’s as if it’s not something a Jewish boy would do.

Ask a gentile and he’ll just shrug his shoulders and wonder why you’d ask such a silly question. “Why wouldn’t a Jew ride a motorcycle?” Ask a Jew and he’ll look at you quizzically, also wondering why you’d ask such a silly question. “Jews don’t ride motorcycles. They’re dangerous.”

Well, there are plenty of reasons for a motorcycle club, so why not a Jewish club? My father rode a motorcycle in Vienna, until the day the Nazis marched in and took both him and his motorcycle. And there was a Jewish bike club called Maccabee in Europe in the ’30s. It, once again, recalls Shylock’s speech in The Merchant of Venice (“hath not a Jew eyes … if you tickle us do we not laugh…”).

Unlike our ancestors, who rode horses out of necessity, we ride because we love it. Not unlike many of these ancestors, we think of ourselves as noble knights, riding into some foray with sword in hand, or rescuing damsels in distress astride our mounts.

Chai Riders and Hillel’s Angels went on myriad runs that supported myriad charities together. It’s the way we have always given back, and we still do.

And, like his friend Ilan Mamber, on guitar.

The Harley Davidson credo is “Live To Ride, Ride To Live,” but the Members of the Tribe’s credo changed the last word, so it’s now “Live To Ride, Ride To Eat.” Yes, it’s meant to be funny, but we also live by the words of William Shakespeare from Romeo and Juliet: “…the more I give to thee, the more I have…”

Ilan certainly embodied those words.

Cantor/Rabbi Lenny Mandel, who left the wilds of Manhattan some 46 years ago and lives in West Orange,  has been the hazan at Congregation B’nai Israel in Emerson for the past quarter century.

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