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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Much like S. An-sky, who, in the years prior to World War I, ventured into the Russian hinterland in search of the musical history of the Jews, among other things, Slobin and Kligman and their research team asked all sorts of pressing questions of their “informants,” eager to find out what made the cantorate tick. What do rabbis think of their fellow cantors, they asked? Turning to the cantors, the researchers asked what they thought of their fellow rabbis. With a keen eye for the telling ethnographic detail, they also made sure to pay attention to the kinds of hand gestures cantors were apt to deploy, how they dressed and whether congregants sang along, mumbled or otherwise murmured in response.

Their findings are nothing short of a revelation. Uncovering a world, they situate contemporary patterns of prayer within a broad historical context. With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see the shape of things to come.

In some instances, we read of rabbis who were given to ad hominem comments about their colleagues, taking them to task for tending more to the state of their voice than to the well-being of their flock, or criticizing them for driving around in a fancy car — a “Mark Continent,” as one rabbi erroneously would have it, referring to the snazzy Lincoln Continental Mark IV. Cantors, in turn, took their colleagues to task for failing to understand what it meant to be a successful “music man,” ruing the fact that they, along with their congregants, “wonder what the Cantor does all day long.”

Most of the time, though, both rabbi and cantor cast their observations in terms of a more systemic and shared set of concerns, from the cultural illiteracy of their congregants and the absence of a steady band of “daveners” (worshippers) to the winds of sweeping change, which increasingly rendered nusach a “lost art.” Those who attend services these days “prefer the informality of the small room in a Havurah where they can sing off-key, if they so wish,” related one clergyman in 1986. The “center of gravity,” he went on to note, had shifted from the professionals to the “mass,” and from the well-appointed sanctuary to a space casually adorned with pillows. Another glumly pointed out that the “traditional cantor [was] being replaced slowly by self-appointed hand-clappers and commercial-jingle-crooners,” and all in the name of congregational participation. Meanwhile, a third cantor, indicting more than the Havurah and the guitar, insisted that the “influx of female cantors is the beginning of the end of the cantorate. It will die.”

More singer than seer, this cantor was, happily, proven wrong: The changing composition of the cantorate did not spell its death knell so much as its transformation. As anyone who has attended a synagogue service within the past couple of years can readily attest, the presence on the bimah of a female rabbi and a female cantor has become commonplace.

Even so, there’s no getting around the fact that change was very much in the offing in the 1980s, setting in motion a reassessment of prayer, tradition and community whose ramifications remain with us a generation later.


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