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.”

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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