‘Cantor wanted: Must have a wonderful voice’

As the hagim approach, what is the place of ‘hazanut’ in our synagogues today?

FAMED CANTOR Yitzchak Meir Helfgot sings at a Tel Aviv concert, with philharmonic orchestra and choir, conducted by the late Dr. Mordechai Sobol. (photo credit: YUVAL ENSEMBLE FOR CANTORIAL AND JEWISH MUSIC © ANDRES LACKO)
FAMED CANTOR Yitzchak Meir Helfgot sings at a Tel Aviv concert, with philharmonic orchestra and choir, conducted by the late Dr. Mordechai Sobol.
As the High Holidays draw near,
A job market opens up for cantors.
They scan the ads placed by synagogues and minyanim:
“Cantor Wanted. Must have a wonderful voice...”
So begins a Yiddish golden oldie with words by Shalom ben Avraham and melody by Shalom Secunda (1894-1974), famed composer of Bei Mir Bist Du Schein and many other mainstays of the Yiddish theater and of the synagogue liturgy. The song, “Hazzonim Oif Probe” (“Auditioning Cantors”), parodies the hiring of hazanim (cantors) for the High Holidays in American synagogues with biting humor, and is a popular concert piece in which the singer gets to show off his vocal talents as he plays the part of three very different types of hazanim appearing before a typical synagogue search committee.
Are things any different today from 1935 when this parody first appeared? Israelis and Jews all over the world still gravitate to the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur more than at any other time of the year. And many Ashkenazi synagogues still look to hire a hazan and possibly even a choir for the High Holidays, even if they do not have them during the year.
“We know of at least 240 communities in the US alone that hire someone to lead their High Holiday services,” says cantor Benny Rogosnitzky of New York’s Park East Synagogue who uses the Facebook page of the Cantors’ World organization to help synagogues find an appropriate hazan. “They range from large synagogues to Chabad houses. At least 100 of those who get hired are Israelis.”
But according to renowned cantor and director of the Tel Aviv Cantorial Institute Naftali Hershtik, not all of them are professional hazanim. “Some are talented but amateur ba’alei tefillah [prayer leaders] who hopefully know how to conduct services but may be taking a job just for the experience of traveling to unusual places.” Both Rogosnitzky and Hershtik point out that this results in many professionals not finding positions. “For a hazan,” remarks Rogosnitzky, “there is nothing more frustrating, if not painful, than not to have a position for the High Holidays.”
PARADOXICALLY, WHILE fewer and fewer synagogues employ full-time cantors, hazanut (cantorial music) as entertainment seems to have increased in popularity, moving from the synagogue to the concert stage. Major concert halls and even opera houses around the world are filled to capacity as hugely talented hazanim sing the classics, accompanied by large choirs and philharmonic orchestras. In the US, lavish “Shabbatot Hazanut” (hotel weekends featuring star cantors) and cruises with evening concerts by hazanim are regularly sold out.
In Israel, there are frequent special Shabbat services featuring prominent hazanim leading services in towns all around the country and hardly a month goes by without a concert somewhere. The late Dr. Mordechai Sobol, who was a major force in bringing hazanut to audiences worldwide, produced an annual series of glittering concerts, now led by his son Ophir, in the Heichal Hatarbut in Tel Aviv. The chief cantor of the IDF, Shai Abramson, is a familiar figure who takes part in all the ceremonies marking the national days of celebration and of memorial.
Israel has two cantorial schools, the Tel Aviv Cantorial Institute, directed by Naftali Hershtik, and the Central Cantorial School of Petah Tikva, whose musical director is Elli Jaffe, conductor, composer and the choirmaster of the Jerusalem Great Synagogue. Studies at both schools are part-time and they are filled with aspiring hazanim who, even if they will choose to make a living in some other career, want to put their talent to use and want to learn nusach – the standard prayer melodies – and serious vocal techniques.
“On average,” says Elli Jaffe, “perhaps two of each class of 20 or 30 might eventually make a name for themselves as hazanim. Many just want to learn to become fully competent at leading services, which is very admirable.”
THE SIMPLEST explanation for the disappearance of hazanim from the synagogue, their natural setting, is that there came a time when people felt that they just didn’t need them anymore. For much of our history, most Jews lived in, or close to, poverty and were subject to random persecutions. Their inner cries of distress and desperation found expression in the pleadings of their hazan. And even when times were better, the level of Jewish education of the average synagogue-goer was much weaker than today and, since most were not capable of leading services, they needed a professional.
Today, it’s rarer to see people crying in synagogue, and with confidence in their synagogue skills, many congregants feel they can do the job of the hazan themselves. Their sincerity is unquestioned, but without professional training, it’s sometimes hit or miss if they will adhere to the traditional nusach. Also, they often feel free to introduce melodies that simply sound pleasing to them. Many inspiring tunes by the late Shlomo Carlebach and other composers and singers, which were not originally written for use in synagogue prayer, now have a permanent place in many synagogues. But despite their undisputed popularity, they are not always entirely in sync with the meaning of the words.
A case in point is the prayer Ochilah la-kel, a brief paragraph in the mussaf service of both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The ark is opened, everyone stands and the hazan pleads with God to grant him eloquence in his prayers. Traditionally, this was always chanted by the hazan as a very dramatic solo cantorial recitative. But recently, a beautiful, lilting tune to these words was composed by Hillel Peli and made popular by the singer Yitzchak Meir, and suddenly congregations everywhere want to sing it. What is supposed to be the heartfelt personal plea of the hazan, written in the first person singular, now becomes a sweet-sounding song for everyone to join in. Soon, all will come to believe that this is the authentic nusach, and the dramatic solo cantorial chant used for centuries will be forgotten.
SO IN anticipation of the upcoming High Holidays, if you are not already a lover of traditional Ashkenazi hazanut, you might like to try to gain a greater appreciation of it. In a sense, hazanut is the Jewish equivalent of classical music. Just as classical music is an acquired taste, so hazanut needs to be worked at in order to be understood, so that when you listen to Kol Nidrei in your synagogue, or Unetaneh Tokef or any of the other prayers, they will be more familiar and you will be able to immerse yourself in them to a greater extent.
There is a vast range of recordings available on YouTube, on CDs, and as downloads by virtually all the great hazanim of the past and of the present day that you may sample to discover your preferences. The first half of the 20th century became known as the Golden Age of Cantorial Music, when most of Europe’s great hazanim moved to America and recordings proliferated. Listed here are five of the greatest hazanim of that era, together with suggestions of pieces for you to listen to. You can find all of these recordings on YouTube.
• Yossele Rosenblatt (1882-1933) was perhaps the best-known and the most beloved of all of the great cantors. Rosenblatt was one of the most prolific composers and recording artists of cantorial music. To hear his range – both vocal and emotional – listen to his “Hineni,” “Geshem” or “Ata Yatzarta.” His “Shir Hama’alot,” “Rachem Na,” “Vehu Rachum” and “Kevakarat” are perhaps the most often-heard pieces that he made popular.
• Gershon Sirota (1874-1943) was one of the most powerful and highly trained tenors of his time, with climactic top notes and outstanding voice control. The only one of the great hazanim of his era not to accept a position in America, Sirota perished in the Warsaw Ghetto. You can hear the emotional intensity of his dramatic tenor voice in the famous “Retzei” and in his rendition of “Avinu Malkeinu Zechor Rachamecha.” You can also hear his extraordinary vocal agility in “Veshamru.”
• Mordechai Hershman (1888-1940) was a master of Yiddish folksong as well as of hazanut. The fluidity, elegance, and warmth of his singing and the power and sweetness of his tenor voice are evident in such pieces as “Eilu Devarim,” “Umipnei Chata’einu” and “Tal.”
• Zevulun Kwartin (1874-1953) is best known for his rendition of “Tiher Rabbi Yishma’el,” one of the most dramatic and moving pieces of hazzanut ever written. The intensity of Kwartin’s phrasing and delivery, as well as his interpretative power in such pieces as “Ve’al Yedei Avadecha” and “Uveyom Simhatkhem,” make him very worthwhile listening to.
• Moshe Koussevitzky (1899-1966) is still remembered by many as the greatest hazan of the post-World War II era. He had a graceful and powerful lyric tenor voice with a phenomenal upper register with which he could do wonders. For sheer artistry, it is hard to beat his “Hashem Malach,” “Aneinu” or “Ledor Vador.” Koussevitzky’s rendition of Israel Schorr’s “Sheyibaneh Beit Hamikdash” is his most famous recording.
There are, of course, many more outstanding hazanim that you might like to try. Some of them may be easier to appreciate, such as Shmuel Malavsky, Moishe Oysher, Leibele Waldman or Richard Tucker. If you would like to hear some of the leading hazanim of our day, listen to Chaim Adler, Yitzchak Meir Helfgot, Joseph Malovany, Yaacov Motzen, Yanky Lemmer, Simon Cohen, Zvi Weiss, Shai Abramson and Netanel Hershtik, among others. All of these, too, have many performances available on YouTube.
Listen to the music a few times before you decide if you really like it. See how it reflects your own understanding of the words of the prayer. See if it inspires you. Or just listen to it for the extraordinary artistry of the performer and the beauty of the music.
Since hazanut is a genuinely Jewish art form, there is a special satisfaction involved in enjoying it. The rewards are many and varied, so I encourage you to learn to appreciate this unique manner in which generations of our people have chosen to speak to the Almighty, on the High Holidays and throughout the year, in words and in song.