Song of Sorrow

Not long after their son started kindergarten, Henry Nevison and his wife, Jacqui, documentary filmmakers who lived on the Main Line in Philadelphia, started worrying about him. Once a smiling, outgoing child, over time he had grown increasingly nervous, withdrawn around other kids, inclined to complain about vague stomachaches and body pains. But low-grade worry turned to full-blown panic when Joel (not his real name) came storming downstairs one November afternoon in 1997 in the grip of a desperate fit, crying inconsolably. Joel, then 8, had covered his face with a white mask made of underwear he’d ripped up. Across it, he’d scrawled with a black Magic Marker, I’M A BITCH, I SUCK, I’M A LOSER. When Jacqui tried to persuade him to take it off, he refused. “I’m bad,” he told her. “I don’t want you to see my face.”

Joel’s parents were as baffled as they were horrified. Almost a year would pass before they’d come to understand the source of his demons, a year in which their curly-haired boy was frequently suicidal and obviously terrified. In therapy over the subsequent months, he slowly started revealing the torments he’d endured at the hands of his own family. He’d been sexually abused by his uncle Larry (his father’s older brother, who confessed in 1999 and is currently in prison), and also by Larry’s adult son Stewart, who pleaded guilty and served a year before being released on parole. Finally, the boy charged, he was sexually abused by his uncle Howie (his father’s oldest brother, fourteen years Henry’s senior).

Uncle Howie is better known to New Yorkers as Cantor Howard Nevison, part of the rabbinical hierarchy at Congregation Emanu-El, the city’s most prominent Reform Jewish synagogue, for 23 years. In the early-morning hours of February 20, police arrested him in his Upper West Side home. On April 17, a preliminary hearing will determine whether there is enough evidence for the case to go to trial. He is contesting the charges. “Howard Nevison is innocent, and we are confident he will be exonerated,” says his attorney, Ralph Jacobs.

These accusations are very different from the suddenly ubiquitous stories of priests molesting parishioners. This is strictly a family affair. Whether or not Howard Nevison is guilty – the prosecution’s three-year delay in bringing charges against him could severely undermine the case, according to experts – the charges comprise a tragic textbook example of what psychologists call intergenerational transmission. When Larry confessed to detectives that he had abused Joel, he also claimed that Howard had sexually abused him when he was young. Stewart says his father molested him when he was a boy. Most remarkably, Henry told detectives he believed his son’s charges because, as a boy, he too had been abused by both Howard and Larry, and in much the same ways: Larry gently, and Howard violently, with penetration, pain, and threats. Howard Nevison has denied those accusations, too.

Three days after Howard Nevison was charged with sexual abuse, Emanu-El’s associate rabbi, David Posner, eased into his Saturday sermon with a joke. How is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, he asked soberly, like the upcoming festival of Purim – a day of colorful masks and costumes and make-believe? The punch line: It’s the day when people dress up and pretend to be real Jews. No one laughed. “It’s a distasteful joke,” he acknowledged apologetically to the scattering of people in the cavernous, chilly sanctuary.

The congregants at Emanu-El – New York’s swankest synagogue, with a Fifth Avenue address; a powerful, well-connected board; and a membership of 10,000 – can be famously casual about religious observance, even by the standards of the Reform movement, Judaism’s liberal branch. Its spectacular stained-glass rose window and five-story-high limestone buttresses lend it a cathedral-like air: Our Lady of Emanu-El, some members call it fondly.

On that Sabbath, however, the members who gathered might well have been seeking spiritual guidance on a particular matter. If so, they were disappointed. Rabbi Posner never addressed Nevison’s absence – at least not directly. He talked instead about the terrible precariousness of fate, how Purim’s tale depicts national heroes and enemies of the state switching places with dizzying speed, then back again, all in a matter of days.

But for Nevison, the blow had been coming for years; the cantor first learned he was a suspect not long after Joel’s parents initially approached the police in 1998. Linda Fairstein, former longtime chief of the New York district attorney’s sex-crimes-prosecution unit, says she’s “stunned” that it took so long to file charges against the cantor. “I’ve never heard of that,” she says. “It’s quite extraordinary that people who already gained the trust of a child for the prosecution of relatives couldn’t then also elicit his consent in prosecuting another one at the time.”

Why the delay? Joel, according to the Pennsylvania district attorney bringing the charges, was too afraid to testify against the cantor, allegedly the most terrifying of the three men accused of molesting him. In the affidavit of probable cause that resulted in Howard Nevison’s arrest, the boy describes him as “a big man with a mean, powerful voice and frightening glare,” who threatened to kill him if he spoke up.

That characterization bears little resemblance to the man known to Emanu-El’s members, most of whom describe him the same way: private, but gracious and understated. “He’s a teddy bear,” says one woman whose sons were bar mitzvahed at Emanu-El, one recently. “This is not a man who’s a scary person.”

“He’s worked with many young boys preparing for their bar mitzvah, and everyone just loves him,” says Joan Salomon, an artist and former member of the music committee who helped select Nevison for his job. She’s convinced, she says, that “Howard is as innocent as I am.”

The day the allegations broke, the news spread instantly. “All my friends e-mailed me back, and they all said the same thing: Oy vey,” says Iris Fishman, an Upper West Side mom whose daughter was bat mitzvahed at Emanu-El last year. Fishman says she immediately grilled her daughter about whether the cantor had ever behaved inappropriately with her. She got a DefCon Level 10 eye-roll in response.

Some parents were outraged to learn that the temple leadership had known since 1998 about an investigation of the Nevison family yet continued allowing the cantor to meet with boys and girls preparing for their bar mitzvahs. (“Hideous” is how one Upper East Side attorney, whose child is in nursery school, describes Emanu-El’s handling of the affair.) Vicki Weiner, a spokeswoman for the temple, responds that the leadership did “due diligence” at the time and felt comfortable keeping him on. They were then unaware, Weiner says, that his two younger brothers had accused Howard of sexual abuse.

“Cantor Nevison had alerted a select few officials that something was going on, but this was a family matter,” says Weiner. “We were told that his brother and nephew were being investigated, but he was never charged, and there was never any formal investigation. He told us there had been some questions about him, but that was it.” In fact, responds Risa Vetri Ferman, the Montgomery County sex-crimes prosecutor on the case, the investigation began in October 1998 and was “official, formal, and ongoing” until the cantor was arrested in February.

For much of their marriage, Henry and Jacqui lived in a quaint white house with a wraparound porch, two dogs, and a third-floor office for their small film-production company. Staff members came and went; the couple bickered and made up; Henry hammed it up for employees, trying to boost morale as they pulled together projects like an earnest ten-part educational series about Native American history.

Although Jacqui and Henry remain close, they separated in October. Now Henry lives and works alone, mostly editing military histories, cutting and pasting, trying to make sense of the mayhem.

“Nothing prepares you for this,” he says, perched on a couch near the front door. Heavyset, like his brother Howard, Henry has small, sneaker-clad feet, a mustache that’s just shy of walrus, and glasses just shy of arty. Still reeling from the extent of the exposure his brother’s arrest got in New York, he points to an oversize Sony TV that dominates a corner of the room. “We anticipated that it would be big, but nothing prepares you for the fact of your dysfunctionality becoming national news.”

In the affidavit, police quote Henry describing Howard as “intimidating, controlling, mean, and sadistic.” Contemplating how to characterize him as an adult, Henry snorts. “Howard shows you the side of Howard he wants you to see,” he says. “He always felt he had the answers for me – where I’d live, who I’d marry.” He pauses. “The interesting thing is that he cared about those things. Our relationship wasn’t all negative.”

It’s clear that Henry still feels some residual pride in his brother’s talent. “That throat,” he says. “It was legend in our house. I was very proud of my brother. I used to love to brag about who he is and what he does. I felt very proud of that.”

The day Henry learned Howard had finally been arrested, he drove to his mother’s Philadelphia home, breaking the news to her before she heard it elsewhere.

“People keep saying, ‘Why’d you go after the family? Why couldn’t you keep it in the family, handle it that way?’ ” says Henry, suddenly defensive. His face flushes red, then just as suddenly drains of color. “I didn’t go after my brothers. The prosecutors went after my brothers.”

As Henry talks about his family, he seems almost numb, as if flattened by the mass of circumstances weighing on him. He brightens only once, when asked about a collection of early-twentieth-century cameras displayed on some shelves. As he gently handles a 16-mm. camera, Henry explains that he collects historical home videos, footage of parents and kids goofing around on holiday in San Francisco in the twenties, or maybe on a cruise. He has hundreds of reels – sweet, nostalgic depictions of family lives long past.

Even before Joel’s manic episode with the mask, there had been signs of trouble. When he was 3, he came home from school one day and said his penis hurt. In fact, it was bruised. There are a number of ways it could have happened – a bump on a piece of furniture, for example – but it worried Jacqui enough that she went to his preschool to ensure that no caregiver would ever be alone with him.

Although Joel continued on and off to complain about pain – sometimes in his stomach, sometimes around his genitals – Jacqui and Henry had little sense of what could be troubling him. “They were seeing signs something was wrong, but they couldn’t put their fingers on it – it’s the unthinkable,” says Jill Talus, a close friend of Jacqui’s with a child around Joel’s age. “How do you even go there? It’s almost easier to believe your kid has cancer than to think it’s sexual abuse.”Jacqui and Henry saw Henry’s brothers several times a year: One summer, Larry spent a lot of time helping them renovate the house. Howard and his wife, Fern, a petite woman who worked for years in a dentist’s office, visited on holidays. When Larry’s son Stewart needed to save some money and pull his act together, Jacqui and Henry took him in. A few months later, after finding blood in Joel’s stool, Jacqui took her son to the doctor, who didn’t sound any alarms. Only after the incident with the mask was she concerned he was being harmed. She whisked Joel off to another doctor; when she returned, Stewart was gone, leaving his belongings behind.

Joel never seemed the same after that: He tried to throw himself in front of a car; he was angry and out of control. Jacqui started spending less time at the production company, and more with Joel and Laura (also not her real name), his younger sister by three years. In therapy, it all came out. Eventually, in October 1998, Jacqui walked into a police station to talk about what they’d learned.

The assertions in the affidavit of probable cause supporting Howard’s arrest are grim: that Howard partially penetrated Joel and pinched his penis (causing the bruise), threatening to kill him if he talked; that Larry licked his genitals, and that Stewart “pulled his pants down, got on top of him, and rubbed his penis back and forth.” The affidavit also states that Stewart penetrated Laura with his finger. ‘Ihad no reason to disbelieve what my son said when he told me,” says Henry, “because Howie did the exact same thing to me. It wasn’t like ‘What is this bizarre thing you’re saying about a member of my family?’ I was horrified – suddenly it was like a switch turned on in my head and I started to remember vividly the pain.”

Henry believes that someone may have abused Howard, inflicting an earlier sin, if not the original one. But who that might be, he doesn’t speculate. The Nevison parents, Mervin and Sylvia, started their family in Strawberry Mansion, then a comfortable, close-knit Jewish community in Philadelphia. Both Mervin’s and Sylvia’s fathers were cantors; Henry was told neighbors used to come by to hear his maternal grandfather recite the Shabbat prayers on the stoop.

Mervin was a grocer, a mild man who suffered a heart attack at 40, then never worked again and stayed home with the kids. (“It wouldn’t have been him,” says Henry. “He hated confrontation.”) Sylvia, who supported the family as a seamstress, was more assertive (her first words upon meeting Fern were, “Nice to meet you, Howie’s not getting married until he goes to Europe,” where she hoped he’d launch his career).

Henry says that Howard, already a student at the Curtis Institute of Music, one of the country’s most prestigious music conservatories, penetrated him when he was about 8, in the bathroom, up against the cold tub, as his parents watched TV on the floor below. “It was probably Walter Cronkite,” he says. “It doesn’t take long. I was seeing stars. I remember praying and hoping it would end.” He claims it happened on one other occasion; a third time, he slipped away. Within the family, to his brothers, Howard was cruel and sadistic, Henry says, adding, “I don’t think anyone outside the family ever saw it.”

Henry says his own experience with his two brothers helped him understand Joel, but also intensified his feelings of responsibility for the terror his son endured. “Imagine the guilt that I have to live with,” he says. Another flush of red, then a quick fade.

The possibility that Henry, too, could well be a recipient of whatever behavioral “virus” might have afflicted his family was not lost on the police, who briefly looked into Henry’s relationship with Joel. They submitted him to a polygraph test, which he passed, confirming one he’d taken independently. After questioning Joel repeatedly on the matter, they ultimately ruled Henry out as a suspect.

Henry himself says that for a long time, he was afraid to have children, unsure, at some level, of the kind of father he’d be. He says he was troubled to see the way Larry beat up on his own kids, impulsive behavior Henry now chalks up to sexual humiliations Larry says he suffered at Howard’s hands. “I didn’t have children with my first wife,” says Henry. “I really believe it’s because I was afraid of being abusive. I was afraid of repeating, of doing the very thing … I think there’s a part of us that we’re afraid is a dark corner, and we don’t want to put ourselves in situations where we might reveal it.”

Of the three sons, Howard seemed to be the golden one. After graduating in 1965 from Curtis, he eventually moved to New York with Fern. For nearly fifteen years, he tried to make it in the opera world while making a living as a cantor at Progressive Shaari Zedek Synagogue in Brooklyn and in the choir at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, near Lincoln Center. Eventually it became clear that the Met wasn’t about to tap him. The opportunity at Emanu-El, which came up in 1978, provided a level of prestige and security that made it easier for him to relinquish his operatic ambitions. It apparently didn’t matter to Emanu-El that he had no seminary training. He sang, as one Curtis classmate described him, “like a pint-size Robert Merrill.” His voice was particularly prized because the temple’s Friday-evening Sabbath service is broadcast weekly over WQXR-FM.

Outside of social life within the synagogue, Nevison kept up with his classical-music connections: He stayed in touch with several classmates from Curtis, including prominent Metropolitan Opera soprano Judith Blegen. And he remained active in some local classical-music groups, serving as vice-president of the once prestigious, now somewhat musty Bohemian Society. “Our official position is innocent until guilty,” says Bohemian Society president Abba Bogin. “We’re distressed by the situation, but we don’t want to make any prejudgments until the trial.”

For all of Montgomery County district attorney Bruce Castor’s grandstanding, the case is far from airtight. Joel evidently sustained physical injuries, but there’s a man in jail and another one just out who could be responsible for that. The prosecution will have to rely heavily on the testimony of a 12-year-old repeating the statements he made as a 9-year-old recalling what happened to him as early as 3. Linda Fairstein describes testimony by children remembering incidents that happened when they were that young as “treacherous” in terms of potential unreliability. She also points out that the delay gave the D.A. time to coach the young witness – a point that surely will not be lost on the defense.

Should Henry and Larry testify about their alleged abuse as children – and it’s unclear the judge will allow that testimony – their statements would prove problematic, too: Larry is hardly sympathetic, and Henry’s description of his memories is complicated. He doesn’t claim to have blocked them out entirely (the standard for classic recovered-memory syndrome); on the other hand, he says he only confronted them after Joel spoke out.

Defense attorneys would have no trouble finding expert witnesses to question the reliability of Henry’s memories. And if he claims they weren’t suppressed, why would he allow his son to be alone in a room with the man he says tormented him? Or putting Henry on the witness stand could backfire: If he’d been abused himself – or believed he’d been – could he have pressured his son into testifying in his stead?

Stewart Nevison’s older brother, scott, is a 32-year-old truck driver who lives in Philadelphia. “He’s a pompous prick,” he says about Howard, “and I haven’t talked to him in ten years. What’s it to you?” It smells like kitty litter in the hallway of his apartment, and there’s a sticker on the plywood door inviting guests to open their arms to Jesus.The crack in the door gradually grows wider as Scott counterattacks: “How’d you feel if it was your family? I’ve got three blows – my father, my brother, and my uncle.”

Inside Scott’s dimly lit apartment, there’s a small Christmas tree in a dark corner, overflowing ashtrays, overflowing boxes of kitty litter. Lighting up a cigarette and leaning against a doorway to the kitchen, Scott seems relieved to be talking about the subject. “Yeah, you could say he was the hip uncle,” he says, “because he was more freewheeling than my dad.” Until Scott was 9, Larry beat both Scott and Stewart – closed-fist hitting, in the head, on the shoulder. “I used to piss my pants when I saw him coming at me,” says Scott.

Larry, who worked in a print shop, left his wife when Scott was 9, Stewart 8. (Larry’s first wife, Carol, remarried and is now a Jew for Jesus living with her second husband in Philadelphia; she declined to comment.) When Larry walked out, Howard effectively cut him off, stepping in to help Carol. Howard and Fern would spend weekends at Carol’s home, pitching in, splurging on gifts for the kids. “He and Fern – they just kept us laughing 24/7,” says Scott. Now he smiles boyishly, remembering, and sits down at the table. “I just loved him as my uncle. He was the one responsible for getting me motivated to go to college. That’s why all this is so hard.” He flushes red, and then the color fades almost immediately, a physical response startlingly similar to Henry’s.

The relationship abruptly ended when Scott, struggling financially with school, dropped out to take a job driving a recycling truck. “Howard was like, ‘Real nice job for a Nevison,’ ” says Scott. “I said, ‘F you, buddy, I don’t have to take it from you.’ ” A flush, a fade. “I was mad at myself for not being able to do what I wanted to do. A lot of stuff wasn’t going my way.”

Scott blames Howard and Larry for a lot of things, but neither of them, he says, ever touched him sexually. As for the array of charges, Scott doesn’t know what to think, except that he believes in Stewart’s innocence. Stewart initially contested the charges, but shortly after a jury sentenced his father to five to fifteen years (Larry is appealing the conviction), Stewart pleaded guilty to two counts of lesser molestation charges, spending about a year in prison before being released on parole this past November. “I told him,” says Scott, ” ‘You didn’t do it, so then don’t say you did!’ ” Despite the rift with Howard, he can’t fully accept the notion of his uncle as a pedophile. “For one thing, he wasn’t there that often,” he says, adding, “How do you prove you didn’t do something like that? If they could accuse Stew … they could accuse me.”

Now married (to a woman fifteen years older, with ten kids from earlier marriages), he says he’d never hurt her or her kids, an assertion he makes with pride. “So boo-hoo-hoo, something happened, your dad beat you up. I was beat, but I never touched a soul in my life,” says Scott, smoking furiously. “If there’s something wrong, you think, I better go to the doctor, not I’ll just hide it. You have to take responsibility.”

Still, he feels ashamed of his family. “I feel guilt,” he says, trying to work out why. “It’s my family. Maybe there’s some kind of gene in the blood.”

Scott occasionally talks to his grandmother Sylvia. Even after all that’s been charged, the mundane kinds of guilt persist. “Sylvia always asks me, ‘Have you tried writing your father?’ ” says Scott. He looks down sheepishly. “And I have to lie and say that I do.”

When thinking back on Howard’s career, Henry remembers feeling most gripped by one of his early roles, with the Opera Company of Philadelphia. “I have a vivid memory of him playing the villain who kills his wife in Puccini’s Il Tabarro. I loved to watch that because he was so demonic.” Henry’s chest practically puffs up and his eyes grow slitted as he reenacts his brother’s performance for a moment. He wraps his arm across his front with a flourish as if enfolding himself in a cloak. “I used to think that was so cool. He had this evil, baritone voice” – he sits up straight, opens his voice, and lets out a deep trill. Then he deflates; he looks confused, like he’s trying to understand why he loved his brother in that role, admired it so.

“When he attacked me, when he did what he did to me, it was with that same level of dominance,” he finally says. “I felt his evil. When I read what my son said about Howard – that he had an ‘intimidating voice’ – that really sent it home to me. That was my experience.”

Eleven days before his extradition hearing, at around ten on a Friday morning, Howard, possibly hoping to avoid press, unexpectedly turned himself in at a small courthouse in Narberth, Pennsylvania, arriving with a vanful of friends and family. Later that day, after a handcuffed trip to the police station for fingerprinting, he was released on $25,000 bail. On the way out of the courthouse, as he faced the photographers the police had alerted, Fern tried to make light of the situation: Make sure not to be too “mean-looking,” she was reported saying dryly to her husband. But back in the courtroom, she’d turned to a friend and wept in her arms.

Song of Sorrow