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.
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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.
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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.”


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