Home > Cantorial Arts, History, Louis Lewandowski, Music > What is a Cantor to Do?

What is a Cantor to Do?

Sunday morning at the Lewandowski Festival, we were privileged to learn from some world-class scholars of Jewish music.

The first session I attended was “The Status of Jewish Liturgy in the World Today” taught by Cantor Binyamin Glickman, the conductor of the Jerusalem Cantors Choir; the other was “Nusach Lewandowski: The Reshaping of Traditional German Synagogue Chants by Louis Lewandowski” taught by Cantor Eli Schleifer, who used to teach at the Hebrew Union College cantorial program in Jerusalem, and currently works as a nusach historian with the Abraham Geiger College Cantorial School in Germany.

I was very impressed with both lectures, but, especially regarding the first lecture, mixed reviews abounded. Cantor Glickman mostly talked about the failing statement of nusach today, and lamented that congregational melodies were chosen first fort heir catchiness and secondarily or not at all for their association with the text.

A couple of things Glickman said continue to stick with me:

“You wouldn’t sing Kol Nidre to any old folk tune. Why would you do that to any other piece of liturgy?”
Granted: we sing Kol Nidre once a year, three times through. We sing, for example, the Shabbat R’tzei Vim’nuchaténu about 160 times per year, so it begs more variety and a wider range of melodic flexibility. Daveners in the pews have different expectations for the consistency of this text’s recitation than they do for Kol Nidre. Then again, Kol Nidre doesn’t even appear in the historic liturgy of some communities, where as the blessings for Shabbat and festivals are consistently central to liturgies across the global Jewish spectrum.

“The cantor must create an atmosphere that allows Jews to fall in love with coming to shul.”
Although singing and chanting in the synagogue service is a large piece of the cantor’s job, Glickman was talking about a broader perspective on the cantorate when he expressed this beautiful sentiment. He talked of engaging different kinds of people through his choirs, and one can imagine that this extends to keeping this in mind while performing all of the duties required of a cantor in a modern synagogue.

– Glickman talked of Hazzan Leib Glantz, who was “ahead of his time, but always had the tradition in mind. He might take a walk in the park for a bit, but he always came back to the traditional nusach.”
This is an approach that I think it behooves cantors to emulate today. Perhaps our “walks in the park” are different, but innovation rooted in tradition is important for any cantor who wants to engage his or her congregation.

The second session I attended brought even more wonderful insight. One of the most profound statements from this session came toward the end, when Cantor Schleifer explained that there are two levels to nusach: first, the basic melodies, the simple songs in which the congregation can engage with the cantor, and second the hazzanic flourishes, which constitute the nusach’s neshamah y’teirah.

Cantor Schleifer also told us that Lewandowski insisted that cantors must have four qualifications: (1) Jewish; (2) with an artistic soul; (3) knowing the history of synagogue music; and (4) having a mastery of the Hebrew language. I agree wholeheartedly. What Lewandowski indirectly states, then, is that becoming a qualified cantor is a combination of inherent talents and learned subjects. One cannot learn from scratch to be a cantor if one’s being does not drive him or her that way, but one who has the neshama of a chazzan can learn the skills necessary to become one.

Here is my takeaway from the whole morning, perhaps from the whole weekend: I am sure now that being a cantor, serving a Jewish community through music and through worship, is how I want to live the rest of my life. Scary to say something like that aloud (perhaps even moreso to write it down to be read for posterity). The cantor’s task really is to make his or her congregants fall in love with being in shul, and the music a cantor chooses might influence a congregant’s life wholly. I want to be a part of that.

Of course, attached to this particular experience in Berlin this weekend, I recognize also that Jewish life and Jewish music are extraordinarily unifying forces that bring Jews together intellectually and spiritually. If Jewish communities are like bricks, the music we sing is like the mortar holding us permanently together. How wonderful that we are so bonded with this music between us, and what else could we do but keep singing?

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  1. December 20, 2011 at 2:18 pm

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts, Hinda. They are enlightening for me, who will probably continue to do quasi-cantorate work for a long time. I have no doubt that you will be a spectacular cantor who will help many people draw closer to Judaism through your work.

    David

  2. Devin
    December 23, 2011 at 5:32 pm

    You might as well face it; you’re going to be an amazing cantor. I have spoken, therefore it will be so.

    Devin

    • December 24, 2011 at 8:36 pm

      Spoken like the husband of a cantor…

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