The popularity of the midnight choral Selichot services which took place
throughout the Ashkenazi world this past Saturday evening is evidence of the
renaissance of hazanut
, or cantorial music, which has taken place in recent
years. From the magnificence of the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, to Fifth
Avenue in New York and the St. Johns Wood synagogue in London, the world’s
leading cantors, such as Chaim Adler (Jerusalem), Moshe Haschel (London) and
Yitzchak Helfgot (New York), along with their choirs, performed before packed
Attendance at prayer services is free, and one has to arrive a
long time before the beginning of the event to find a seat. A large section of
the audience is made up of haredi (ultra-Orthodox) communities of Meah She’arim,
Stamford Hill or Williamsburg, people that would not normally be seen in these
large, ornate synagogues with their magnificent stained-glass windows. But on
this occasion, they make an exception, as they arrive en masse to hear the
world’s leading cantors and their choirs.
Hazanut has made a major
comeback during the past two decades. This is reflected not only within the
synagogues, but also in a wealth of sell-out concerts, digital recordings and
YouTube videos. Cantorial-themed weekends at hotels, cantorial cruises, concerts
to mark major events, not least to mark Independence Day, have become
This is in stark contrast to the situation just 20 years
ago, when cantorial music was seen as being in danger of extinction, as less and
less synagogues employed full-time cantors, and as their music was seen by many –
particularly in Israel – as being too formal and too outdated, and where many
congregants complained that prayer services took too long.
As with so
much else within the global Jewish world today, cantorial traditions and customs
have developed their own post-modern mix of old and new styles. The classic
Central European compositions of master composer Lewandowski can now be heard
alongside the hyped-up, more Hasidic styles of Dudu Fisher, Avram Fried and
Shlomo Carlebach, in a social reorganization which would probably have some of
the great cantors and composers of a century ago turning in their
Go into any music store in Jerusalem, the duty-free stores at
Ben-Gurion airport, or spend some time searching YouTube, and you will find an
endless offering of new, old and renewed digitalized cantorial
And while cantorial music is mostly the domain of the
religious population, it is not exclusively so.
One of the people who
played a major role in reviving hazanut at a time when it was in danger of being
forgotten was former Tel Aviv mayor Shlomo (Chich) Lahat, during his tenure as
mayor of the country’s largest and most secular city during the
Tel Aviv and Jerusalem competed with each other in opening
cantorial schools and choirs, while personalities such as Raymond Goldstein
(composer and arranger) and Eli Yaffe (conductor and choir maestro) have become
household names among the growing number of hazanut afficionados.
have even been intrigues as top cantors have competed for the top cantorial
positions, with fees for concerts and the High Holiday period reaching
For many, the concerts and DVD recordings are, today,
more popular than the weekly services. Many synagogues, including some of the
larger ones, will employ a cantor for the High Holiday and festival periods, but
not necessarily on a weekly basis.
Synagogue services have, not only in
Israel, become less formal over time. Regular attendees, especially the younger
generation, do not want to sit through a threehour service every week, while
there are many who opt for a sing-along Carlebach-type service as a modern
alternative (which can also take an excessively long time), even if this is
viewed by the cantorial perfectionists as being an inappropriate way to conduct
prayer services. There is more on offer today, a greater variety from which to
choose, unlike the past when it was cantor or nothing.
I recall the first
Friday night service in the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem in the early 1980s,
when the leading cantor of the time, Moshe Stern, officiated. Half of Jerusalem
must have attempted to get in the doors to see the new edifice and to hear Stern
perform – in an Israel which was assumed to have discarded European formality
for prayer services which were based on a new type of Israeli
Hershtik, Hainowitz and Adler have graced Jerusalem for the
past 30 years, with their American counterparts of Helfgott, Malovany and Stern
doing the same in New York, or Haschel in London. For some, synagogue attendance
is as much about hearing a free weekly concert as it is about active
participation in the prayer service, while the regular attendees will not
hesitate to boast about the superior vocal talents of their own cantor to
The serious season of cantorial music in the
synagogues, as contrasted with the concert halls, got underway this past weekend
with the midnight choral Selichot services. This will continue through Rosh
Hashana and Yom Kippur.
There will be those who will attend the
synagogues to pray, but there will also be many who will come for the free
concert, sans microphones or orchestras as befits an Orthodox synagogue,
remaining for only part of the service – perhaps even visiting for half an hour
after their own local synagogue has finished its services.
It is a
blending of the old with the new, the formal with the informal and the classic
compositions with the trendy and the more lively. It reflects a form of consumer
orientation, as much as it responds to the professionally trained cantors
desiring to show their vocal skills and operatic skills.
of cantorial music has come full circle as it has adapted to the changing times,
but without losing the essential majesty and formality of the great 19thand
20th-century compositions which, many had feared were lost some 20-30 years
Prayer and music go hand in hand. Neither Hasidim or cantors created
this concept. Each one to their own style.
There is much to be gained –
both spiritually and musically – from going to listen to the contemporary
maestros as they perform in the world’s great synagogues during the coming
weeks.The writer is dean of the faculty of Humanities and Social
Sciences at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of
Geopolitics. The views expressed are his alone.
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