The Arts: Scales Out of Shul
Great cantors once amazed congregations and concert-goers with their renditions of Jewish liturgy. Today, cantorial music is again garnering acclaim.
The Metropolitan Opera House in New York often sells out, but for cantorial music? On December 3, 2006, a crowd of more than 4,000 people paid upward of $250 per ticket for the hall’s first-ever evening of cantorial music, or hazzanut. a The star of the program was Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot who, accompanied by members of the New York Philharmonic, not only made history, but shared the stage with history: He sang a virtual duet with legendary hazzan Yossele Rosenblatt (who died in 1933) and kept musical company with video clips of famous cantorial artists. Helfgot’s former teacher, Mordechai Sobel of Tel Aviv, conducted and narrated the show before a rapt audience.
Once, before Jewish literacy was available to all, every synagogue had a cantor to lift up, with a beautiful voice, the prayers of a congregation.
In America, the Golden Age of hazzanut took place from the late 19th century through the 1940’s. During this time, the waves of Jewish immigrants brought their synagogue sounds from Europe. Even as the birth of recording technology and radio created new audiences for cantor-composers with extraordinary voices – Moshe Koussevitsky, Mordechai Hershman, Rosenblatt – listeners sought out live voice, starting in the music’s home territory, the synagogue.
Today, audiences are once more hungering for those vocal flourishes and stirring sounds, and an increasing number of venues are fueling their appetites. In Israel, hazzanut concerts by Sobel’s Tel Aviv-based Yuval Symphony Orchestra and Chorus attract diverse audiences.
Luxury cruises, such as Suite Life’s Alaska voyage (https://slkosher.com) with Helfgot this coming August, feature cantors. And Cantors World (www.cantorsworld.com), an organization devoted to the revival of the liturgical music, hosts Shabbatonim that bring together cantors and their fans for days of musical delights.
Among the 50 CD’s in the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music, the ones that sell best are cantorial recordings and Yiddish theater, according to Paul Schwendener, the archive’s chief operating officer.
Even the Orthodox women’s organization Emunah hopped on the bandwagon with an evening of hazzanut by women for women at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art last March.
Is a new Golden Age dawning for this uniquely Jewish, historically religious vocal art?
“As an entertainment, yes,” says Cantor Bernard Beer, director of Yeshiva University’s Belz School of Jewish Music. Hazzanut is on the rise, but “as an integral part of…synagogues we have a long way to go,” he adds. Orthodox synagogues are reluctant to hire cantors who sing like the ones in concerts. “The few that are looking for a cantor are looking for someone who will [just] add spirit and Carlebach tunes.”
In the 40 years since Beer came to YU, enrollment in the Orthodox cantorial school has grown. Endowed in 1983 by a music-loving family from Memphis, the program also draws older students.
“Because of Cantors World concerts, a lot of Hasidim… take classes in hazzanut and voice lessons,” he says. Still, “it is not bringing cantors into synagogues.”
Nevertheless, there are exceptions.
Benzion Miller has been resident cantor for 25 years at Brooklyn’s Young Israel/Beth-El of Boro Park. Once dubbed “The Carnegie Hall of Brooklyn,” Beth El in the early 20th century was home to legendary cantors such as Koussevitsky and Hershman. Miller’s soaring tenor also stars on best-selling CD’s from the Milken Archives and the PBS special Cantors: A Faith in Song.
“On the bima, you’re an intermediary,” explains Miller, who was born in Germany just after World War II. “You’re like a lawyer, pleading a case for your client. You keep your eyes on your siddur and your direct connection with God. When you are onstage performing, you’re an artist, trying to look your best, put on the best performance; you’re all dressed up in your tuxedo, looking at the dressed- up audience, all those smiling faces.”
When Beth-El merged with Young Israel, Miller recalls, he had two years left on his contract. Some members of the Modern Orthodox Young Israel opposed having a professional cantor on staff; they preferred lay members lead the services. Today, Miller says some of his staunchest supporters are those who originally objected to keeping him. The shul’s choir—which began as Miller’s son and grandson’s spontaneously harmonizing with the cantor—now includes a full contingent of boys and men who back him up with the full harmonies, dramatic crescendos and sudden sforzandos of Golden Age hazzanut.
“As a survivor of the Shoah, [I knew] the giants in Europe.… That world was lost,” says Rabbi Arthur Schneier of Park East Synagogue in New York, where Helfgot is chief cantor. Schneier points out that Helfgot’s last name means “help God.” “If God gave you such a gift,” he adds, “you have to use it.”
And, indeed, Park East (www.parkeastsynagogue.org) holds many cantorial events. A schedule of the shul’s Shabbat music themes is like a tour of the communities of which Schneier speaks: selections from great cantors of Hungary and Russia. There is also a Shabbat devoted to Rosenblatt.
Benjamin warschawski, 28, an Orthodox cantor, officiates at Conservative and Reconstructionist Ezra Habonim, the Niles Township Congregation in Skokie, Illinois, when he is not singing opera in Sarasota, Florida, or performing Rigoletto in Illinois. Across town, his more seasoned colleague, Alberto Mizrahi, resident cantor at Chicago’s Conservative Anshe Emet Synagogue, is an world-renown concert performer.
Despite the glowing reviews for his television specials, CD’s and Three Tenors-style performances, Mizrahi will not call the heightened interest in his art a renaissance. “When I became a hazzan in the late 60’s, early 70’s, I knew I was a dinosaur,” he says. “I wanted to be a Koussevitsky [to]…preserve the art form…. But when I looked at [cantorial] school, even they were saying if you want to be a cantor, you have to teach, do pastoral counseling, lead choirs. But my main goal was to see if I could get on the concert circuit.
“I’d love to say it’s coming back,” Mizrahi continues, “but, ironically, most who are saying there’s a resurgence in the cantorial arts are Orthodox males.” The irony, he explains, is that “Orthodoxy pretty much killed hazzanut over the last couple of decades [with an attitude of] let’s daven fast, let’s get out, anybody can daven.”
Cantor Jack Mendelson has a more hopeful point of view. “My mission is keeping nusah alive and keeping hazzanut alive,” he says. (Nusah, the traditional musical modes for specific seasons, days or holidays, has been handed down from cantor to cantor over generations.) Mendelson, who grew up steeped in Orthodox tradition and hazzanut in Borough Park, Brooklyn, is the focus of director Eric Greenberg Anjou’s well-received documentary A Cantor’s Tale. The film follows the cantor as he travels to Borough Park and beyond in search of the roots of hazzanut—singing and getting everyone around him to sing as well.
Mendelson, who is married to a Reform cantor and serves Conservative Temple Israel Center in White Plains, New York, teaches at the Reform movement’s School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.
“I think [the] woman’s voice in the cantorate will be the salvation of hazzanut,” he declares. “I think congregations are going to rediscover hazzanut through women’s voices.”
At the School of Sacred Music and at the Conservative H.L. Miller Cantorial School and College of Jewish Music in New York, more than half the students are women.
Deborah Katchko Gray was invested as a cantor at H.L. Miller and serves Reform Temple Shearith Israel of Ridgefield, Connecticut. Granddaughter of Adolphe Katchko, a celebrated Golden Age cantor, Gray can reproduce “that old sound” by calling on melodies she received personally, in true oral tradition. She founded the Women Cantors’ Network (www.womencantors.net), which includes professionally trained and lay prayer leaders.
Many women cantors, she says, struggle with issues unique to them, including lack of support from rabbinical colleagues and a less than warm welcome for some of their creative efforts. The network’s annual meeting (this year it is in June) “is our strength,” she says. “The network is an incredible place to feel supported.”
The tradition of jews lifting their voice in songs of prayer goes back centuries. In the Temple, there were the Levite choruses that once marked Judaism’s central worship experience. Talmudic literature refers to the hazzan as a community leader of significant responsibilities, including public reading of the Torah and prayers and the teaching of children. From earliest days the hazzan was expected to have a pleasant voice and nice appearance.
That pleasant voice became a virtuoso voice in the Europe of the mid-19th century, when the European term cantor came into use among Jews. While young Mozart was entertaining in the capitals of Europe, Aaron Baer, working as a hazzan in Berlin, was writing down the traditional nusah (including “Kol Nidrei”) still used in Ashkenazic synagogues today.
Not long after, as Berlin-born Felix Mendelssohn blazed across the Christian music skies, a young Jew named Louis Lewandowski began his cantorial career in that same city. (In fact, a Mendelssohn cousin was Lewandowski’s patron, bringing the young cantor-to-be into the Berlin Academy of Arts as its first Jewish student.) In Vienna, 1827, 23-year-old tenor Salomon Sulzer revolutionized synagogue music. Our most familiar tunes for “Shema” (and its partner, the Ark-opening “Ki Mitzion” in the Shabbat morning services) are Sulzer’s, influenced by the music of his friend, Franz Schubert. Concert sophisticates of the day, from critic Eduard Hanslick to pianist-composer Franz Liszt, would make their way to Sulzer’s temple to be electrified by the power of both the music he composed and his voice.
As the style called bel canto took flight in opera, synagogue-goers, too, discovered the exhilaration of listening to long, sustained lines that showed off a singer’s vocal range and florid passages requiring exquisite technique. The voice capable of singing bel canto is a rare gift. The combination of talent, the technique to develop it, the music fit for it and an eager audience is rarer still. But in the first half of the 20th century, all these came together. Jews flocked to hear cantorial singing, both in the synagogue, where cantors were accompanied by boys’ choirs, and in concert halls, where many virtuoso cantors performed their own compositions.
Opera combined with cantorial service has a storied past: It is said that the composer Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff and the opera star Feodor Ivanovich Chaliapin went to hear Zavel Zilberts, cantor of the Central Synagogue in Moscow from 1907 to 1914. In the United States, Richard Tucker and Jan Peerce went from bima to opera in the 1940’s and 1950’s.
The legendary Yossele Rosenblatt increased his own fame by refusing to make the leap to the opera stage; he wound up touring in vaudeville to pay the bills. Today, 73 years after his passing, Rosenblatt still makes headlines. Last year, the discovery of previously unknown manuscripts in the cantor’s own hand was celebrated as a find of great historical value. And Rosenblatt’s energetic rendition of “She-yiboneh Beis Hamikdash,” composed by Israel Schorr, is famous among concert history buffs.
Jack Mendelson has a theory about the Golden Age’s end: Assimilating American-born Jews rejected the mournful sound. The cantor with a tear in the voice didn’t speak to them.
“You can have a piece of the pain,” says Katchko Gray. “We want it to be uplifting, but we don’t want to lose the intensity.” Classic cantorial sound, she says, “should have that pathos.” The Ashkenazic “Kol Nidrei,” perhaps the most famous cantorial solo of all, carries centuries of baggage in its soul-wrenching melody.
Cantor Bruce Ruben is director of the School of Sacred Music. He recalls that his teacher, Max Wohlberg, cautioned him about the “excesses”— more performance than davening—that led hazzanut to fall out of favor. “The hazzan used to take a half hour to do one page,” Ruben remembers his grandfather, who lived in a village in Russia, saying, “‘People used to brag about how long their cantor took for the Sabbath morning Kedusha.’
“Most of those people understood every word,” Ruben adds of the congregations where the art was born. “If you don’t understand the words, it’s just a show.”
When asked why there are no hazzanim now similar to Golden Age singers, Neil Levin, Milken Archive’s artistic director, responds, “The first thing I always say is, we don’t have children’s choirs in shul. There isn’t a single great hazzan who didn’t start in the children’s choir!”
And yet there are some hoping to revive children’s choirs. In Baltimore, Cantor Shalom Kalib has created The Jewish Heritage Men’s and Boys’ Choir to train voices in the sounds Kalib learned in a choir nine decades ago. They perform around the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., areas.
At Helfgot’s concert, a boy joined him onstage—enriching an already luminescent performance.
Kalib, with his daughter Ruth Eisenberg as manager, also pushes ahead with the Jewish Music Heritage Project (www.jmhp.org), through which he has already published, with Syracuse University Press, two out of a projected five volumes in The Musical Tradition of the Eastern European Synagogue series; a CD accompanies each volume.
At least one player in today’s cantorial renaissance draws inspiration from, well, the Renaissance. British-born Cantor Simon Spiro thrills to the music of Elizabethan composer William Byrd. Spiro pays homage to Byrd’s multilayered harmonies in his own arrangements, both on Milken Archive CD’s and at the Conservative Beth Tzedec Congregation of Toronto.
Elsewhere in Canada, KlezKanada’s artistic director, Yiddish songster Jeff Warschauer, is tucking cantorial training into his schedule. “Klezmer, Yiddish song, Hasidic niggunim and hazzanut are all coming from the same cultural pot,” he emphasizes.
Does he think hazzanut has a chance of returning to the shul?
Warschauer answers by referring to the man on a mission: “Jack Mendelson would like to see what’s happened to klezmer happen to cantorial music,” he says. “I think he’s not alone in that.”
Gigi Yellen, an alumna of George Wagner’s children’s choir, hosts a classical music show on Seattle’s KING FM.
Sounds of Prayer
- In Synagogues
n Yitzhak Meir Helfgot
Park East Synagogue
New York, NY, 212-737-6900
- Deborah Katchko Gray
Temple Shearith Israel
Ridgefield, CT, 203-438-6589
- Jack Mendelson
Temple Israel Center
White Plains, NY, 914-948-2800
- Benzion Miller
Young Israel/Beth-El of Boro Park
Brooklyn, NY, 718-435-9020
- Alberto Mizrahi
Anshe Emet Synagogue
Chicago, IL, 773-281-1423
- Simon Spiro
Beth Tzedec Congregation Toronto, Canada; 416-781-3514
- Benjamin Warschawski
Ezra Habonim, the Niles Township Congregation, Skokie, IL, 847-675-4141
- A Cantor’s Tale, Ergo Media, 201-692-0404;www.acantorstale.com
- Great Cantors of the Golden Age/Great Cantors in Cinema National Center for Jewish Film 781-899-7044;www.jewishfilm.org
From the Milken Archive of American Jewish Music, 310-570-4800www.milkenarchive.org
- Cantor Benzion Miller Sings Cantorial Concert Masterpieces
- The First S’lichot: The Entire Midnight Service According to Orthodox and Traditional Ritual
From Tara Publications
- The Immortal Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt (6-CD set)
- Great Voices of the Synagogue
Listen online to classic hazzanut on weekly radio broadcasts and podcasts at www.cantorsworld.com