From the moment she learned that her husband wasn't going to survive his heart attack, Sara Partiyeli Bloom knew that she would, that she could, that she had no choice but to do this one thing for him. On Thursday, after nine months of nervous anticipation, she fulfilled her pledge and blazed a path.
Wearing Ken Bloom's blue yarmulke and fringed tallit, she made her way to the balcony at Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington and rooted herself in the same spot where he had stood every year on Rosh Hashanah, at the start of the High Holy Days. Before a congregation of 1,000, she raised to her lips the spiraling shofar her husband always played, took a deep breath, and blew a series of piercing notes meant to evoke the theme of remembrance.
With that, Bloom, 60, became the first woman in the synagogue's 70-year history to sound the sacred ram's horn during the Jewish holidays.
"It's him, not me. I'm just a carrier," she said beforehand. "As the sound of the shofar fills the sanctuary, it is a reminder that Ken is with us."
Rabbi Robert Leib once doubted that Sara Bloom could master the ancient instrument, which is controlled not by valves, but by the player's breath. He told the congregation Thursday that she had proven him wrong. "Thank you for having made sure that your beloved Ken's shofar would not be rendered silent forever," he said.
Bloom's debut came after months of struggling to recover her bearings. Her husband of 21 years collapsed on New Year's Day during his regular Sunday morning basketball game at a gym in Bucks County. After lingering for 10 days, he died at age 55.
The couple had lived on a Willow Grove block of tidy homes and well-trimmed lawns. They raised two daughters there, Gabrielle, 21, and Arianna, 20, and traveled often to Israel, where Sara Bloom's parents reside.
A kitchen and bathroom designer, Ken Bloom had bought the house as a bachelor, anticipating the day he would start a family. Sara Bloom, who was born in Tehran, Iran, moved to Philadelphia in 1979 seeking political asylum after Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was overthrown; her parents and six siblings fled to Israel. She studied briefly at the University of Pennsylvania in the hope of becoming a physician, but when she couldn't afford the tuition, she transferred to a community college in Delaware and studied to be a dental assistant.
In 1993, Ken and Sara were introduced by a mutual friend during a dinner on Rosh Hashanah. They married in 1995, the same year she earned her U.S. citizenship.
The source of Ken Bloom's fascination with the shofar remains a mystery to his wife. But she knows he loved the resonant bellow of the instrument. Several years ago, he shopped for a shofar with his wife on a trip to Israel. They purchased their beige, gray, and lavender instrument for $200 after walking the streets of Tel Aviv and visiting 15 factories. He taught himself to play the horn, and eventually became part of the corps of four shofar players at Beth Am.
It was "his way of being involved in the synagogue, and it was a wonderful way to be involved," she said, adding that he also played at area nursing homes. "Because it was important to him, it became important" to me."
After he died, she pledged to uphold the traditions that he had so joyfully lived out. She and her daughters still sang along to Billy Joel songs in the car, and she still laughed and sipped with the synagogue musicians in the bridal room after Friday night services, where her husband used to wear his signature cowboy boots and serve as resident mixologist.
Filling the vacancy he had left in the shofar quartet — why not?
A female shofar player is "not traditional, and also not universal," said Rabbi Philip Warmflash, CEO of Jewish Learning Venture, a Jenkintown-based nonprofit that advocates for Jewish engagement. Playing the instrument often becomes the domain of a small cadre in the synagogue or a family that has passed down the tradition, and "it's hard to get in line," he said.
Although Bloom was confident she could do it, Leib was not. "I didn't think she had the expertise. It's a difficult instrument to perfect," he said.
When the rabbi recommended lessons, Bloom enlisted the aid of two other members of the shofar corps, Dave Simon of Dresher and Philip Davis of Mount Airy. Also a trombonist and music teacher, Davis took on most of the instruction. Starting in early August, they met once a week at Bloom's home, although about half of the three-hour sessions was reserved for chatting and dining on homemade Iranian delicacies.
"She always fed me a meal, and that was a big plus, 'cause she's a really good cook," Davis said.
He found her to be a determined student who progressed quickly. She did breathing exercises for breath control, and lip "buzzing" exercises to strengthen the muscles around her mouth. She practiced daily, buzzing her lips while cooking, driving, and taking a shower.
"I said I was going to learn, and I wouldn't rest until I learned," she said.
Last week, Bloom played for the rabbi and several others during a rehearsal and audition. She did better than her husband when he first played for an audience, Simon said.
Leib recalled being "blown away. She was remarkable."
He couldn't say for sure why it had taken so long for a woman to play the instrument during High Holy Days services. In a Reform synagogue, women have "full religious equality," the rabbi said. "But I'll admit, we hadn't had any inquiries."
Bloom believes her husband would approve of her performance. As he had done, she will repeat it for Yom Kippur, which begins at sundown next Friday.
"He'd say, 'Sariness [his nickname for her], I knew you could do it.' But he would also be mad that he wasn't doing it himself. He'd say, 'I didn't know how much you loved me.' "
But, she said, he knew.