Revolution and Evolution of the American Cantor

Sound of Judaism Has Changed Radically in the Past 30 Years

The Changing Face of the American Cantorate: Judy Greenfeld, seen here in 1998, reflects some of the radical changes that have characterized the last thirty years in the soundscape of American Judaism.
Getty Images
The Changing Face of the American Cantorate: Judy Greenfeld, seen here in 1998, reflects some of the radical changes that have characterized the last thirty years in the soundscape of American Judaism.

By Jenna Weissman Joselit

Published July 12, 2013, issue of July 19, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

It should come as no surprise to anyone who reads the Forward that American Jewish life is awash in change, much of it far-reaching and monumental. Most of us can catalog those changes in a flash: intermarriage, the waning support of traditional Jewish charities, an increasingly contested relationship with Israel. But there are other, equally wrenching changes afoot that have not yet garnered the attention they deserve, perhaps because they take place right under our noses and within close range: I have in mind the re-tuning of the American Jewish soundscape, especially that associated with prayer.

Synagogues across the country, and across denominations, too, are rethinking the role of the cantor and with it the nature of the Sabbath and holiday service. Where once formally trained cantors, well-schooled in nusach (traditional liturgy), held sway, more and more congregations are dispensing with them altogether, placing their faith instead in one of their own. Formality has given way to informality; the guitar has supplanted the tuning fork and improvisation trumps stewardship.

Outside the precincts of the sanctuary, within the byways of middle-class, American Jewish life, professionalization is de rigueur. But within the sanctuary, the pendulum has swung in another direction, so much so that it wouldn’t be amiss to speak of the de-professionalization of the cantorate.

Some of this has to do with the growing popularity of independent minyanim, lay-led congregations whose members prefer to go it alone, relegating the clergy to the sidelines. It’s also a reflection, I suspect, of the open- or crowdsourced approach to life in the 21st century, whose enormous appeal inevitably spills over from the quotidian into the sacred. Then again, we might do just as well to look to the recent past for explanations, which is where a website comes into play.

The handiwork of Mark Slobin, a celebrated professor of music and American studies at Wesleyan University, and of Mark Kligman, an equally celebrated professor of Jewish musicology at Hebrew Union College, the website, which recently made its debut, contains much of the “raw data” on which the two scholars based their groundbreaking 1984–86 inquiry into the American cantorate.

Drawing on questionnaires, field research, recordings and interviews, they gathered a treasure trove of information. The fruits of their research made their way into Slobin’s “Chosen Voices: The Story of the American Cantorate,” which was published to critical acclaim in 1989, and into the proceedings of the Cantors Assembly as well as those of other associated professional organizations.

Now, nearly 30 years later, these primary sources have been “unlocked and opened to the world,” as Slobin recently told me, adding that “scholarship is about access.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “This is a dangerous region, even for people who don’t live there and say, merely express the mildest of concern about the humanitarian tragedy of civilians who have nothing to do with the warring factions, only to catch a rash of *** (bleeped) from everyone who went to your bar mitzvah! Statute of limitations! Look, a $50 savings bond does not buy you a lifetime of criticism.”
  • That sound you hear? That's your childhood going up in smoke.
  • "My husband has been offered a terrific new job in a decent-sized Midwestern city. This is mostly great, except for the fact that we will have to leave our beloved NYC, where one can feel Jewish without trying very hard. He is half-Jewish and was raised with a fair amount of Judaism and respect for our tradition though ultimately he doesn’t feel Jewish in that Larry David sort of way like I do. So, he thinks I am nuts for hesitating to move to this new essentially Jew-less city. Oh, did I mention I am pregnant? Seesaw, this concern of mine is real, right? There is something to being surrounded by Jews, no? What should we do?"
  • "Orwell described the cliches of politics as 'packets of aspirin ready at the elbow.' Israel's 'right to defense' is a harder narcotic."
  • From Gene Simmons to Pink — Meet the Jews who rock:
  • The images, which have since been deleted, were captioned: “Israel is the last frontier of the free world."
  • As J Street backs Israel's operation in Gaza, does it risk losing grassroots support?
  • What Thomas Aquinas might say about #Hamas' tunnels:
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.