June 26, 2008
At Congregation Beth El in South Orange, a recent congregational survey to determine what members want out of worship services revealed that they would like more participation and more variety.
The synagogue had already instituted Friday Nite Live!, an instrumental kabalat Shabbat service that incorporates both American music and melodies reflective of the Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach spiritual style.
At the end of a recent Friday Night Live! service, a newcomer gushed, “I just love that service. I don’t know any Hebrew, I don’t know the prayers, but I love the music.”
But that kind of statement makes some cantors cringe.
As congregations seek to engage more unaffiliated Jews, many see music as the key. But to the chagrin of some cantors, the lure is not traditional liturgical music but more contemporary American styles and melodies — sometimes derisively referred to as “happy clappy” music.
After spending as many as six years studying hazanut and nusah, or traditional chanting modes, cantors come to congregations where some members have little knowledge of — and often less appetite for — Hebrew, prayer, or Jewish liturgical music.
All of which leaves cantors asking if they should challenge the congregants by continuing to offer the traditional modes or simply meet them where they are.
“Each congregation is part of a larger, evolving American-Jewish population that either knows or doesn’t know their rich musical heritage,” said Cantor Erica Lippitz of Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange.
Musical outreach poses a dilemma, she said. If contemporary music does indeed get “more people in the door,” is that worth “raising a generation of people ignorant of the depth of the traditional service?” asked Lippitz.
Her biggest concern, she said, is the “profound illiteracy of the American-Jewish community.”
She has crafted a service that she hopes will appeal both to whom she calls “the serious davener” as well as to the person “who hasn’t come to services in 10 years but says, ‘For this I’ll come back.’”
Cantors who rigidly stand their ground will find themselves “on the losing end” of the issue, said Cantor Mark Biddelman of Temple Emanuel in Woodcliff Lake. Biddelman uses hazanut — the classic cantorial prayer mode — only on the High Holy Days. At other times of the year, however, “there’s no way that stuff would go over in my community.”
Cantor Erica Lippitz of Oheb Shalom Congregation worries about “the profound illiteracy” of American-Jewish congregations and believes a great cantor, as a great artist, can rise above the tension.
Photo by Johanna Ginsberg
“This is the issue confronting the Conservative movement right now,” said Cantor Henry Rosenblum, dean of the H.L. Miller Cantorial School at the Jewish Theological Seminary. “In the last 20 years, there has been an anticlerical move. You see this in the increase in the minyanim with no cantors and no rabbis. People say, ‘As long as we have tunes we can sing, we’ll be fine,’” Rosenblum said.
But the consequences of that approach worry him. “It turns the professional cantor into merely a song leader,” he said. “In between the congregational melodies, what the leader does is a throwaway just to get to the next congregational tune.” He pointed out that historically, “the traditional cantor is the keeper of the tradition who leads services based on traditional prayer modes.”
Orthodox and Reform Judaism both jettisoned traditional nusah and hazanut during the last century. Today, Orthodox congregations rarely engage a cantor to lead services, relying on rabbis or skilled lay people to lead what is essentially individualized prayer punctuated by congregational singing. (Among Orthodox audiences hazanut is gaining popularity, although strictly in a concert forum).
The Reform movement continues to train cantors, but there is little hand-wringing over the issues of style or congregational participation.
“The crisis is over. People realize you have to integrate the styles of all the different groups. My position is it’s all good,” said Cantor Bruce Ruben, director of the School of Sacred Music at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
His view is underscored by the fact that singer/songwriter Debbie Friedman, whose folksy melodies have long symbolized the rebellion against hazanut, now serves on the faculty of HUC’s School of Sacred Music.
Traditional hazanut enjoyed its golden age from the late 19th century through the 1930s and 1940s, when figures like Yossele Rosenblatt loomed large not only in synagogues but also in concert halls.
Since the 1960s and ’70s — particularly under the influence of the folk trio Peter, Paul and Mary — the sounds of contemporary American music began to be heard in the synagogue service.
In 1968, Gershon Kingsley, a pioneer on the Moog synthesizer — the first widely used electronic music instrument — composed a Friday night rock service, the first of its kind, that premiered at Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel in South Orange; although forms of it sprang up elsewhere, it ultimately did not take root. The contemporary influence did, however, particularly through the compositions of Friedman, Jeff Klepper, Dan Freelander, and others. Baby boomers went to summer camp, where they were exposed to participatory worship experiences that they wanted to recreate in the synagogue. At the same time, neo-hasidic music, popularized by Shlomo Carlebach, also grew in popularity.
‘You have to adapt’
If cantors fret about the loss of nusah, the buzzword for congregations is participation, which they see as key to engaging worshipers in the service.
For its monthly Friday Night Live! service, Beth El adapted a service created in 1998 by Craig Taubman at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.
Cantor Jack Mendelson teaches a group of cantors at the 61st annual Assembly cantors Convention how to fuse old style hazanut and nusah with contemporary American sounds.
Photo by Johanna Ginsberg
He understands the desire people have to connect with the message of the prayers.
“One thing about the neo-hasidic melodies is that people do not need Hebrew to participate. As fewer and fewer people are versed in Hebrew, this can be a barrier to prayer.”
Much of Carlebach’s music, by comparison, is based on the often wordless chants called nigunim.
“You can sing ‘yai da dai’ and pick up a singable melody,” said Fine. “That’s a great thing. People want to be connected, and why not?”
He readily acknowledges the need for innovation. “You just can’t use the Friday night service from the 1950s. It’s been there, done that. It’s tired. It’s a dead sound. We need to bring new vitality to the congregation.”
At the same time, he acknowledged that as a traditionally trained hazan, he has struggled to adapt.
“It’s hard. I was trained at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the long tradition of great teachers in a service based on nusah hat’fila [traditional chanting] and solo singing. People say, ‘I don’t want to listen; I want to participate.’ That’s great, but what about active listening? You can be moved by what you hear. The hope is that something the hazan offers will inspire you.”Still, he repeats, “you have to adapt.”
Cantors interviewed for this article expressed the desire to have the music they hear in synagogue reflect the meaning of the prayers. For example, Rosenblum of the JTS cantorial school pointed out, “The prayer ‘V’shamru’ used to be a cantorial solo; now it’s a congregation tune that does not reflect the feeling of ‘Keep the Sabbath.’ Instead it’s snappy and upbeat.”
Among those who have already adapted is Cantor Sheldon Levine. He said he inherited a participatory service when he came to Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen nine years ago.
But he has taken the model further, reducing the distance between the congregational choir and the worshipers.
“The synagogue’s volunteer choir used to do four-part harmony, and the congregation would sit and listen. I’ve replaced this, little by little, with stuff the congregation can sing along with,” he said.
Levine “loves hazanut,” he said, but offers it only in small doses. Still, he refuses to leave tradition behind. “In order to grow, we need to know what came before us and make sure we are not violating those principles.”
Lippitz of Oheb Shalom believes a hazan still has a role to play in shaping the prayer experience.
“The service has a certain flow. What is appropriate at one point is not appropriate at another,” she said. “A great hazan is a great artist. She knows where the peaks of the service are and knows where the service can be supported by a traditional sound and where the communal moments of service can support an accessible congregational melody.”
Old and new
But can you marry Yossele Rosenblatt and Debbie Friedman?
Cantor Jacob Ben-Zion “Jack” Mendelson of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, NY (and the subject of the 2004 documentary film A Cantor’s Tale), thinks so. At the Conservative movement’s Cantors Assembly convention — held this month at the Hudson Valley Resort and Spa in Kerhonkson, NY — he led a session designed to show how to fuse the new and the old.
He led about 50 cantors through the beginning of the familiar “Shalom Rav” melody composed in the ’70s by Jeff Klepper and Dan Freelander. The cantors looked at the music and, under Mendelson’s direction, began to sing.
But right in the middle, Mendelson had inserted a riff he had written that came straight from the golden age of hazanut. It segued perfectly back to the Klepper/Freelander melody.
Cantor Perry Fine with children’s chorale of
Congregation Beth El. in South Orange
Photo by Nomi Colton-Max
Many in the field have reached the same conclusion. Hazzan.net, a chat room run by the Cantors Assembly, has reportedly seen heavy traffic on these issues. Although the list is closed, administrators shared snippets of conversations with NJJN.
Participants contributed nigunim for a “Kedusha” prayer that enabled congregational participation and discussed how to bring spirituality to even the simplest congregational tune.
Underscoring the shift, Friedman served as keynote speaker June 16 at the convention.
Cantors aren’t adapting alone; the educational institutions behind them are also changing. As Rosenblum said, “Today, we have to teac
h students to be as eclectic as possible. They must do Carlebach, Debbie Friedman, Joe Black, and Craig Taubman —you have to make it all part of their repertoire. If it were all traditional hazanut, we’d lose people. Those who find a niche are the ones who say, ‘I’m flexible. You want vanilla today? I’ve got the best vanilla around.’”
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