After Years of Decline, Cantorial Music Gets a Second Act


By Gabriel Sanders

Published December 08, 2006, issue of December 08, 2006.
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This past Sunday, a concert featuring a Hasidic cantor and 64 members of the New York Philharmonic drew 4,000 listeners to a sold-out Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Tickets went for as much as $250, and those on the waiting list numbered more than 1,000.

Last month, at a conference co-sponsored by the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary and Reform Judaism’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, composers and cantors met to remember the “golden age” of American liturgical music — when synagogue music directors were still commissioning new works and had the resources to perform them in grand style — and to discuss how this lost legacy could be reclaimed.

Now making the rounds on the Jewish film festival circuit — and earning a slew of prizes — is the documentary “A Cantor’s Tale,” a profile of ebullient New York-based cantor Jack Mendelson and his drive to preserve the cantorial traditions of his Brooklyn youth.

And meanwhile, New York bluesman/latter-day cantor Jeremiah Lockwood and his band, the Sway Machinery, are reinterpreting the vocal stylings of the great 20th-century cantors (including Lockwood’s own grandfather, Jacob Konigsberg) in ways that are both faithful and startlingly new.

Across the denominations and beyond, a revival of cantorial music, or hazanut, is well under way. After decades in which more democratic, participatory models were the norm, congregants, in some quarters, appear to be hungering for more from their worship than rote sing-along, and rabbis and cantors are beginning to heed the call. While opinions differ as to why hazanut fell on hard times to begin with — and why it is enjoying a revival now — the simple fact of its return seems to be beyond dispute.

For Arthur Schneier, chief rabbi of New York’s Park East Synagogue, which is also home to Met headliner Cantor Yitzchak Meir Helfgot, hazanut suffered a terrible blow in the Holocaust, a blow from which it still has yet to fully recover. “The Shoah claimed many of the giants,” said Schneier, who, along with his son, Marc, another New York rabbi, has done much to bolster the fortunes of the cantorial art in recent years. “It took time to train a new generation.”

Composer-conductor Michael Isaacson, who delivered the keynote address at last month’s conference on the legacy of American liturgical music, located a different starting point for the move away from a more elevated, performative mode of worship. For him, it was the camp music of the 1960s that shifted the balance. The camp song movement, of which Isaacson himself was a pioneer, became, he said, “codified and institutionalized” at the expense of other musical modes. What is required now, he said, is a “musicallybalanced bimah.”

The democratization of worship is a trend that occurred across denominational boundaries, from Reform to Orthodox, whether in the form of guitar-centered prayer or in the participatory model devised by the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, whose Hasidic-inspired melodies are characterized by both their spiritual power and their accessibility. For Isaacson, the democratization of worship in the 20th century’s closing decades can be seen not only musically but in the rabbinical realm, as well. Sermons ceased to be pronouncements from on high; they became discussions.

But if there is one figure on whom discussion of postwar American cantorial history lingers, it is Moshe Koussevitzky, the Lithuanian-born master who performed at the Royal Albert Hall in 1955 and spent the final years of his life as the cantor of Temple Beth El of the Boro Park section of Brooklyn. For Cantor Benny Rogosnitzky, president of Cantors World, the four-year-old organization that sponsored the concert at the Met, Koussevitzky’s death in 1966 signaled the end of an era.

Mendelson, the cantor featured in the new documentary, also sees Koussevitzky’s role as central, but for different reasons. For Mendelson, the cantor at the Conservative Temple Israel Center in White Plains, N.Y., Koussevitzky became a victim of his own talents. “Everything was a matter of setting up for the next high note,” said Mendelson, who was a member of Koussevitzky’s congregation. “Half the congregation whipped out their tuning forks. It was like trapeze — void not just of spirituality, but art.”

Another factor that led to the decline of hazanut, according to Mendelson, was the growing affluence of America’s Jews. “One of the most common modes in cantorial singing is the so-called ‘crying mode,’” he said. “As Jews became rich, they didn’t want to cry anymore. They wanted to have their cholent; they wanted to go home.”

But now the tables have turned. Today, it is wealthy congregations, like Schneier’s Park East Synagogue, that are championing the cantorial revival. “It’s become like a status symbol,” Mendelson said. And yet, according to Schneier, the new appeal of hazanut comes not from ostentation but from disenchantment with a materialist, consumerist culture. “It comes from a spiritual yearning,” he said. “Man does not live by bread alone.”

What’s more, Schneier said, hazanut, like the ba’al teshuvah movement, is helping to return Jews to the fold. When Schneier installed Helfgot (whose name means “help God” in German) as his cantor, he told the congregation that Helfgot would be “helping God bring back many who may have been on the periphery.”

For the Reform movement, the embrace of cantorial music has also been a kind of return. Cantor Bruce Ruben, director of the School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College, likened the growing interest in hazanut to the Reform movement’s embrace of a number of once-neglected traditions. “Many in the movement are now donning tallit and a yarmulke, and if you go to services at HUC on a weekday morning, you’ll see tefillin. There’s a big return to tradition, and hazanut is part of that.” In the end, for Mendelson, the answer to why hazanut is returning is simple.

“It’s beginning to come back because it had to,” he said. “Why? Because it’s good. Hazanut is a great art form. It’s terrific and uniquely Jewish. How many uniquely Jewish art prayer forms can we afford to lose?”

Gabriel Sanders is the Forward’s associate editor.

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