Talk to any cantor in Connecticut today and you will learn three essential truths that lie at the heart of the profession:
Most people don’t know that a cantor has the same pedigree as a rabbi when it comes to conducting a wedding or a funeral, or leading liturgical services.
Synagogue budget cuts and mergers tend to jeopardize the cantor’s position.
You can’t please all of the people all of the time.
To illustrate this last point, Rori Picker Neiss, former congregational intern at Beit Chaverim Synagogue in Westport, tells it like this: “I remember once davening at a shul in New York and the chazzan had a beautiful voice and led a lovely davening, and afterwards someone went up to him and said, ‘Great job. I just have two words for you: tircha de-tziburah’” – Aramaic for the halachic prohibition against ‘burdening the public.’” Such is the juggling act of the cantor, a figure caught in the midst of competing and sometimes conflicting tastes and expectations, buffeted by the waves of budgetary woes and the pull between traditional and popular musical genres.
Such criticism can be traced back to the 13th century, when Rabbi Yehudah Alharizi took a cantor to task for being pompous and untalented, as described in Jewish Musical Traditions by musicologist Amnon Shiloah.
“Some of the critiques of cantors through the ages is that they love to hear themselves sing and that they go on and on,” says Rabbi and Cantor Dan Sklar of Temple Israel in Westport. “You hear people say that a skilled shaliach tzibur [Jewish legal emissary of the congregation] can get you through the service quickly and get you home in a reasonable amount of time.”
It seems like a waste of talent for a trained musical professional to be rushed through his or her repertoire so that the audience can get to lunch. Especially given the echoes from the American cantorial golden age, between the two World Wars.
But if numbers are any indication, the cantorate is on the wane. There are three U.S.-based international cantorial associations, one affiliated with each major denomination. According to a 2008 tally, the Conservative movement’s Cantors Assembly was near 550 members, the Reform American Conference of Cantors counted 450, and the Orthodox Cantorial Council of America had 125. At that time, as the U.S. was on the cusp of economic crisis, there were three Orthodox cantors in Brooklyn, a tiny sliver of the 30 who chanted a generation earlier.
This downward trend can be seen across the denominational and geographic spectrum, and Connecticut is no exception. Especially over the last five years, the economy can be blamed for the phenomenon, but there are other, older contributing factors as well. As Judaism and Jewish demographics have evolved, so has the role of the cantor.
A quick look at Jewish history shows that a chazzan was expected to have knowledge of biblical and liturgical literature and the prayer motifs, as well as a pleasant voice and artistic delivery. During the early Middle Ages, as public worship was developed and Hebrew literacy declined, singing gradually replaced the spoken or instructive character of the service.
In much of the 19th century Jewish world, the shtetl and ghetto were self-governing bodies, with the rabbi serving as arbiter and the cantor responsible for worship services. If you had a dispute with your neighbor, you would go to the rabbi and he would consult Talmud and come up with a halachic ruling.
But with mass migration to the U.S., the roles of the two clergy-members changed rapidly, bound by the separation of church and state and influenced by the worship style of mainstream Protestant churches. The U.S. government actually recognized cantors as the first Jewish clergy, as many new synagogues, led by a committee of laymen, would hire a chazzan before seeking a rabbi. But eventually, the rabbi came to take on more of the liturgical responsibilities formerly held by the cantor, and now the two share the bimah.
The great cantors of Central and Eastern Europe resettled in the big U.S. cities between the two World Wars and achieved rock-star status within the synagogue setting, some also crossing over to opera fame.
And access to cultural venues like opera meant less time for synagogue engagement, says fourth-generation cantor Debbie Katchko-Gray of Temple Shearith Israel in Ridgefield. “Eight hundred people would come to hear my grandfather in New York on Shabbat. They were poor, so it was a way to be uplifted; a spiritual gift whose value they understood; a way to be connected to the Divine.”
“As people could access opera, Broadway, and all kinds of concerts, the synagogue became less of a center for the powerful musical movement that cantors represented,” she says. “So cantors couldn’t just get up there and sing – there wasn’t enough interest in their music, and had to take on other roles.”
Post-golden age cantors were now prepared in the new schools established by American rabbinical seminaries. While their European predecessors had come to the cantorial role by apprenticing or, in the budding Reform movement of Germany, conservatory training, this new generation returned to the earlier requirements of fundamental Jewish learning, taking on both a Judaic curriculum and a musical one.
The cantor was brought back to the bimah as an equal clergy partner to the rabbi, invested with the same credentials. Katchko-Gray is not alone among her colleagues when she says, “I conduct weddings and funerals and people are surprised to learn that that is one of my qualifications.”
Katchko-Gray began her career in the Conservative movement, migrating after 17 years to the Reform. “It broke my heart to leave the movement I grew up in,” she says. “But the Conservative movement had begun to slow down and the cantorate was suffering as a result. I believe that, for a long time, our rabbis were being trained separately from our cantors, so they couldn’t see us as prayer partners. The movement came to believe that a high level of Torah knowledge and scholarship was the most impressive credential for working with a congregation.”
The role of the cantor, from earliest times, has been to lift up and inspire worshipers, to help them find meaning in the prayers they are reciting.
“The work we do is sacred,” says Cantor Raphael Bokow of Congregation Agudath Sholom in Stamford. “At the end of the day, our purpose is to connect people to HaShem. We’re in HaShem’s house, after all, so while the experience should be enjoyable, it is meant to be spiritual.”
The South Africa-born Bokow has served as cantor in his native country, as well as Israel, Spain, and Scotland. The struggles faced by American cantors are shared by their overseas counterparts.
“It’s a global issue: shuls are looking to save on costs and, where the chazzan used to be traditionally more involved in the pastoral work as well as the cantorial, one doesn’t find that any longer,” he says. Like U.S. congregations, many European synagogues only employ parttime cantors or soloists.
Most cantors have become synagogue educators as well, training b’nai-mitzvah students, facilitating adult- and family-education programs, and teaching congregants to lead services. They participate in pastoral work and fundraising, and lead choirs, both within their respective synagogues and outside.
For Cantor Anita Schubert of Beth Sholom B’nai Israel in Manchester, synagogue budget cuts reduced her full-time position to three-quarters time. “In more cases than has occurred in the past, synagogues are looking to combine jobs, e.g. a kol bo [“all-in-one”] rabbi who also leads the worship, or a cantor-educator who runs the religious school in addition to performing cantorial work,” she says.
In fact, says Cantor Sanford Cohn of The Emanuel Synagogue in West Hartford, the cantorial schools are now encouraging – or even requiring – their students to earn dual degrees, such as cantor-educator, cantor-administrator, or cantor pastoral counselor, in order to accommodate these changing needs. Cohn has taken his cantorial duties into the community leading. HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir, a project of the Zamir Choral Foundation, which he co-founded with Cantor Joseph Ness of Beth El Temple in West Hartford.
“The biggest challenge is making people and congregations aware of all the ways that cantors can contribute to the life of the community. Some perceive the cantor as just a singer or musician. In my congregation, in addition to the typical duties, I have taught Israeli dance classes to adults and children; created a multi-congregational choir for the 2011 Zimriyah; create professional level flyers, posters and other printed materials for the congregation; and produced siddurim. My biggest challenge is continuing to find ways to serve the interests of my congregants. We have a large segment of seniors, but also a growing school-family community, whom we want to integrate more into congregational life.”
Some cantors find it necessary to supplement their income outside the cantorate. Schubert returned to her former career as a licensed nutritionist. Others earn rabbinic ordination after completing cantorial school, like Dan Sklar of Temple Israel in Westport. “The role is a new hybrid,” he says, “and especially in a small synagogue, it’s helpful to be a ‘utility infielder.’” In his current position as senior cantor, Sklar can fill in for the senior or assistant rabbi when necessary.
But all cantors will agree that their primary role – to uplift and inspire each worshipper at some point in the service – is the trickiest. You have to mix it up. “Because you have people in shuls who come from a variety of backgrounds with different musical tastes, the challenge is to give everybody in shul something to walk away with regard to inspiration and tefila,” says Bokow. “The traditional chazzanim have a specific style but that doesn’t talk to everybody; some people want to be involved and sing along. Some will want an uplifting and spiritual tune, some will want to hear the chazzan do his thing.”
Nowhere is this convergence of traditional and popular more evident than at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, whose cantorial school was renamed for Debbie Friedman, who died in 2011. An iconic singer-songwriter, Friedman was renowned for bringing the sing-along tradition of Jewish summer camp into the synagogue, leading to a more participatory and accessible worship experience for many congregations throughout the country and across the denominational spectrum. Friedman was appointed to the HUC-JIR faculty in 2007, where she taught both rabbinic and cantorial students.
The decision to rename the school kicked up debate among cantors.
“There are differing opinions about the decision,” says Dan Sklar. “Some people feel that it legitimized Debbie in a way that she hadn’t been in her early career; for a long time, some people denigrated her music. There were those of us in the cantorate who looked down our noses at the folk traditional, she elevated the folk traditional to its rightful place. I feel that she was legitimized in her later years. Others felt that, because she was a folk musician and not a cantor, to put her name on the school was a mistake. After all, the guy who wrote the Shema – his name is not on the school of sacred music.”
The task is to build a musical bridge between the 20th and 21st centuries, says Cantor Mark Perman of Farmington Valley Jewish Congregation-Emek Shalom, a Reform synagogue in Simsbury. “People like a variety of things: they appreciate particular singing and prayers and I try to encourage participation; they also appreciate traditional chazzanut, old-fashioned davening, improvisation,” he says. “Some don’t know what they’re looking for. Some aren’t even Jewish – on Saturday mornings, with b’nai-mitzvah ceremonies, we have to make the service meaningful for both members and non-members, Jews and non-Jews.”
That power to create a connection between earthly and divine must be respected and preserved, says Debbie Katchko-Gray, if a synagogue community is to survive and thrive. “We’re guardians of nusach [melody of the service],” she says. “If lay people are leading with a guitar and a songbook, congregants are missing out on the kishkes of our music. While traditional and participatory styles can be combined, there should be a cantor leading, or we will lose the power and spirit of music in synagogue. Where there’s a vibrant music program, I don’t see diminished attendance and membership; rather, the synagogue thrives.”
Synagogue health should not be dependent on a debate about which clergy position to save, says Perman. “The cantorial profession has contracted, a lot of congregations use soloists or a song-leader with a guitar, and we’re struggling to maintain our profession and remain valid,” he says. “If we’re honest, the rabbi has more training in certain areas and is more steeped in Jewish text and law, and people know what a rabbi is but not what a cantor is. We have a long way to go, in terms of marketing. There are people who can do both, and it might be threatening to the rabbinate that a cantor can lead services, and threatening to the cantorate that a rabbi can sing and play guitar. But, in the end, this should be a combined effort to try to bring people through the synagogue doors, to make our spiritual homes warm, inviting, relevant, inspiring places.”
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