Cantor- the messenger of prayers: Israel Nachman on the joys of hazzanut

Today, Nachman serves as cantor at the Tel Aviv International Synagogue (TAIS-Temple Beth El) and is well-recognized for his talents, having given concerts all over Europe.

Cantor Israel Nachman (photo credit: YARON)
Cantor Israel Nachman
(photo credit: YARON)
Listening to Cantor Israel Nachman sing is like going back in time to a Polish shtetl 100 years ago. Listening to his personal story is like discovering a new hassidic tale. His natural talent was discovered twice. The first time was in Jerusalem at a bakery where he was working just before Passover when he was 17. The second time was in Krakow, Poland, during the 2014 Jewish Culture Festival, where he was noticed by the director of the festival and where he gave his first solo performance.
Today, Nachman serves as cantor at the Tel Aviv International Synagogue (TAIS-Temple Beth El) and is well-recognized for his talents, having given concerts all over Europe. This year, during Hol Hamoed, the was going to perform on Broadway; however, the coronavirus kept him at his home in Safed, from where he prays online, live.
In this interview, he spoke to the Magazine about this completely new experience, and about his way of becoming a cantor. We met a few days before Passover on Skype.
We are meeting in very unusual times, during the national or the world quarantine, online. What were your plans for Passover this year?
I was going to perform on Broadway in a show produced by Yossi Green. I had concerts planned during Hol Hamoed.
Instead, you are at your home in Safed, from where you recently started praying on social media. How does it feel to do a “live” Kabbalat Shabbat service?
I did it twice already and it is an amazing feeling!
What is amazing about it?
On one hand, it feels strange because there are 150 people watching me, and I cannot really see or touch anyone. Everyone is sitting and listening in their homes. But with all that is happening in the world right now, this is a very unique feeling; something we should never forget.
How different is it to sing to a phone? Does it affect your singing?
Yes, of course, I have to learn exactly how to express emotions in every song. I don’t know how people hear me. Some friends sent me a few videos of me singing on their phones or computers. In one of the videos, a child of my friend was dancing while I sang Kabbalat Shabbat. It is beautiful and crazy. I think even when we go back to normal life, we should keep this form and maybe once a month to have songs before Shabbat online, live.
How would you explain what a cantor is to people who are not Jewish?
To be a cantor, a hazzan in Hebrew, is to be the messenger for the public. We need to know exactly what prayers we are saying on each day and on holidays. We have the privilege to take prayers from everyone and bring them to God. This is the job of a cantor. And twice a year we say it very clearly, on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, “I am the messenger, bringing the prayers of all these people to You.”
Is hazzanut, liturgical Jewish singing, a different way of singing? What is the difference on the technical, musical side between singing opera and singing cantorial music?
Today, this is very similar. Most of the big cantors have opened their minds, and learn with professional opera teachers. I did, too. Over the last 50 years, things have changed. Hazzanut used to be much more quiet and sad. Nowadays, we are much closer to the world of opera. And it feels amazing to sing opera with hazzanut, to pray with this music!
You are a tenor who sings arias from opera. Is opera singing a part of cantorial learning?
I studied operatic singing with Agnes Massini, the Hungarian-born voice teacher from the Jerusalem Academy of Music. And I studied this because I really love opera. When I heard [Luciano] Pavarotti for the first time, I cried. It was something so emotional that I knew his voice was not from here but came from God.
You are an observant man. It is forbidden in Orthodox Judaism for a man to listen to a female voice. Have you ever been to the opera?
No, but I have been listening to Pavarotti and [Placido] Domingo for as long as I can remember.
What is your favorite aria?
“Nesum Dorma” [by Giacomo Puccini]. And I have been singing it regularly in Hanukkah concerts in Amsterdam for five years already. Every year I try to learn a new aria.
In Amsterdam you also sang “Hallelujah” when Leonard Cohen died?
Yes, we dedicated it to him. Those concerts in Amsterdam are amazing. Two thousand people in the audience, the orchestra, choir, everyone is Jewish.
Conductor Barry Mehler, the producer of Amsterdam Hanukkah concerts, said when he first heard you praying in a synagogue, he whispered to you: “You are a singing animal,” and you started laughing, still praying. He said that was how the shidduch [match] was made, and how you became a regular guest in Holland.
Yes, I really enjoy performing these Hanukkah concerts, and it’s a holiday I really love. The lights from those little candles give power for the entire year.
When did you decide to be a cantor?
I have been a cantor for seven years. Someone discovered that I had a voice when I was 17 years old, while I was working at a cake factory, just before Passover.
You were baking cakes?
Yes, cakes for Passover. A very hard job, I had to carry 40 kilograms of flour on my arms.
And you were singing while doing that?
No, but the mashgiach Akiva Darbamediker, the man who was checking if we were doing everything according to the rules of kashrut for Passover, he was singing all the time. And I asked him, “What is this music? What genre is it? You take the most beautiful words from prayers and sing so beautifully.”
He answered, “This is called hazzanut. I didn’t know what it was. I told him  that when I was a child, eight or nine years old, my grandmother took me to the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, but I was not interested in the voice, but in the lights and choir, and the hat that the cantor was wearing.
The mashgiach gave me a CD with three songs on it and told me to learn one. So I learned and came back to him another day. He was shocked listening to me, and immediately took me to a choir run by an amazing man named Shlomo Goldur. I was asked again to sing. I was a teenager. I was shy. I did not know what to sing, so I just started with some tune and I was accepted into the choir. I started rehearsals twice a week and discovered a beautiful world that I didn’t know even existed, the world I’ve never left since.
How did you continue your musical education?
Two months later I started to learn at the Petah Tikva Cantorial Academy, which was run by the famous Mordechai Sobol. He died two years ago. The experience of studying there was unreal. They were teaching big cantors and conductors who I knew from videos. I studied there for five years.
I remember when I first heard you at The Tel Aviv International Synagogue, in 2016. I came home and searched for you on YouTube and found your concert from Krakow during the Jewish Culture Festival from 2014. So only after a year of singing, you were 20 years old and you performed at this famous international festival! How did you manage this?
This is another an amazing story. I went there as a member of a choir. Our concert was on Sunday night, so they brought us there three days before. We spent Shabbat in Krakow. I come from a hassidic home, and Shabbat is something special. We sing so many songs during Shabbat meals, and I started to sing a song from home. The manager of festival heard me, and he told the agent who brought the choir, “I want this guy to have a solo performance.”
Janusz Makuch? You were discovered by the founder and long-ime director of the Jewish Cultural Festival in Krakow?
Yes, that was him! When the choir agent told me that I would be singing solo, my hands were shaking. I had never been at the front, always in a choir behind cantors. I had never before performed solo, and certainly not in front of such a large audience. But the words of the song I sang, “Tanya,” were so incredible. In the song, God is asking his son to give Him the blessing.
I am proud to discover that your individual career started in my homeland, in Poland, in Krakow in 2014.
Yes, from that moment my solo career started. As a matter of fact, I was going to give a concert at the festival in Krakow again, in two months, but due to the situation with the coronavirus, the festival was canceled.
What happened after Krakow six years ago?
Slowly, I started to have my first Shabbats as a cantor. The very first professional Shabbat was in the North of Israel, in Ein Hanatziv. A friend of my father heard that I was singing hazzanut and asked me to sing for his 50th birthday. He sent me a long list of songs he wanted.
At first I thought I would sing for free, this was my first time. But because he gave me such a long list of songs, I asked for a lot of money, a professional cantor’s fee, and he agreed. After that there was the Great Synagogue in Tel Aviv. I was lucky, a famous cantor, Benjamin Muller, was there. He heard me and invited to me to Belgium to train me. My father told me, “You should follow the dream and do what you love to do. You have to make it!” So I left my friends and my job and went to Belgium to learn.
What was your job at that time? Still cakes? Or being a cantor was already a full-time job?
No. [He laughs.] I was selling books in leather covers during the week, and being a cantor on Shabbat. I went to Belgium for two months, where Muller took me under his wings and decided to teach me everything. It took me two months to sign a contract in Holland to be a guest cantor in various synagogues.
You mentioned that you always sang at home, and that you grew up in a hassidic home. Your family has Moroccan, Sephardi origins. Can you share something about that? When was the shift made to Hassidism?
My parents were French immigrants to Israel. My mother’s roots are from Algeria, and my father’s are from Morocco. He decided to learn and live by the traditions of Hassidut. And that is how I grew up.
Does your father sing?
My father used to sing when he was young. Never professionally. But he still has a fantastic voice. He is a very religious man, I think the only artist in the world who has made 613 paintings, as we have 613 commandments. And he is the one who told me I should always do what I love.
You sing your way. When you lead prayers at the Tel Aviv International Synagogue, where you have been the regular cantor since 2016, you incorporate opera tunes and modern music; Leonard Cohen, Andrea Bocelli...
And Michael Jackson. I don’t think there is a problem with it from the religious side. I like to add to Jewish prayers songs that are also not written by Jews. It works very well because people hear something familiar and they can relate to it better.
People, like me. I was not born a cantor. I discovered hazzanut when I was 17. I am a simple guy, and I want other people like me, to be interested in words and in music when they come to a synagogue. I know how to share emotions with people who come to pray. Sometimes they are people who come to the synagogue but they don’t know how to read a siddur [Jewish prayer book], but when they listen and recognize songs from the world, the melodies of those songs together with words of prayers are more accessible to them.
Often after prayers they come to me and say, “Wow, you did it with my favorite song, I loved it!” And this is what I am looking for, everywhere I go. To make people happy.
And you do; these days live and online.