“Cantors’ Concert Extraordinaire” will celebrate installation of New Haven cantor…four years later
By Paul Bass
NEW HAVEN – Malachi Kanfer discovered in his teens that, while he sometimes had trouble speaking, he had no trouble singing. In fact he could belt it out, and move people in the process.
That discovery led him on a lifelong musical and spiritual journey.
He ended up moving to New Haven, where he found a cantor’s pulpit at Congregation B’nai Jacob. Four years later, the congregation is ready formally to “install” him – and fellow cantors from throughout the area and New York City are turning it into an event of the season called “Cantors’ Concert Extraordinaire.” The cantors and several choirs will perform at the free concert at B’nai Jacob at 75 Rimmon Rd. in Woodbridge on Sunday, Nov. 12, starting at 3 p.m.
It’s a long way from a childhood in Columbus, Ohio, where Kanfer discovered at eight years old that he had a stutter. That made social life difficult, especially in high school.
Until, during his sophomore year, he summoned his courage to join the school choir. He’d always liked singing; attending weekly services as a younger kid with his family at their Orthodox synagogue, he’d come home continuing to sing the prayers. Now he discovered that he could indeed sing in front of other people. Without hesitation.
“It was this amazing healing thing in my life,” Kanfer recalled during an interview on WNHH radio’s “Chai Haven” program.
It was a competitive choir. It won contests. It toured the Czech Republic.
“I got to sing in these cathedrals. I said, ‘This makes sense to me. I have that kind of voice. That’s a voice that comes out of me in a natural way.’”
After graduation he attended Oberlin Conservatory of Music with plans to become an opera singer. The conservatory placed him on an even more competitive singing track.
“It was a hard thing. When I was first at Oberlin I had only been taking voice lessons for maybe half a year, maybe a year. Most of my colleauges there had been involved in voice and competitions since they were eight. It was a bit of a shock,” he said. “I think they took me because I have a big voice, some talent. It was hard at first. It was hard to be with people who had much more experience than I did.”
As part of the program, students were expected to perform concerts back at their hometowns during school breaks. Kanfer returned to his childhood shul to perform there. He had in fact stopped attending the shul in high school. He was in questioning mode at the time – still observing Judaism, but not engaged in the communal rituals.
It turned out the synagogue was going through some questioning, too. By the time Kanfer returned for the visit, it was a Conservative synagogue.
The concert was a hit. The synagogue’s then-president, Eric Fingerhut (no president of Hillel International), had an idea: Kanfer should return at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to lead the Days of Awe services.
With the help of his mom, Kanfer took up the challenge, learned the extensive liturgy, and led the services.
In retrospect, there was no turning back at that point.
Because meanwhile, on campus at Oberlin, Kanfer wandered into a Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat service and reconnected to his roots, at first through that service’s transportive melodies.
“I went in there, and the music is so beautiful. I sang and I harmonized. I met lots of people,” Kanfer recalled.
“I didn’t have the most easy time in college for a lot of reasons. It was a beautiful thing to be at the service and have that be a time of the week that was pure. And the meal afterwards. I don’t think I missed a Shabbat at Oberlin from my sophomore year on.”
Kanfer returned to Columbus each year to lead Days of Awe services. His musical focus remained opera, though. He was able to compete with fellow students and land roles in productions.
Then, while working at Oberlin the year after graduation, he says, “one day I woke up and decided” cantorial singing meant more to him than opera performance. Says Kanfer: “The opportunity to lead a community in prayer and try to think about the wants and the desires and the needs of everyone there. And to channel all that into prayer. In an opera it’s not the same thing at all. The things that I’m thinking about right before a show: Is my high G ok? It’s not the most important thing to me in the world. I care what’s going on in people’s lives. I don’t care about the high G. It’s nice to have a high G. It’s nicer to ascend in prayer with a community.”
So, Kanfer attended cantorial school at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He landed the job at B’nai Jacob in 2013. He faced another daunting task: following in the footsteps of a popular longtime cantor, Joshua Konigsberg.
Kanfer met that challenge, too. By all accounts he won the congregation over with his enthusiasm, passion, and talent. In addition to leading services, he serves as education director for B’nai Jacob’s joint religious school with Congregation Or Shalom, officiates to life-cycle events, and directs a choir and instrumental ensemble.
At 28, settled in an apartment in New Haven’s Goatville community, Kanfer has become a fixture at the shul and in the broader Jewish community. You can hear cantors sing his praises – and sing praise, period – at the Nov. 12 concert, where B’nai Jacob “installs” its musical leader.
This article is reprinted with permission of New Haven Independent (www.newhavenindependent.com) where it appeared on Nov. 2.
Cantor’s Concert Extraordinaire and the installation of Cantor Malachi Kanfer to the pulpit of Congregation B’nai Jacob, 75 Rimmon Rd., Woodbridge, Sunday, Nov. 12, 3 p.m. For information: (203) 389-2111, www.bnaijacob.org.