Borderline Views: The majesty of the cantor

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.

NYC (370) (photo credit: BEN G. Frank)
NYC (370)
(photo credit: BEN G. Frank)
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 audiences.
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 commonplace.
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employed full-time cantors, and as their music was seen by many – particularly in Israel – as being too formal and too outdated, and where many congregants complained that prayer services took too long.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 graves.
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 compositions.
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 1980s.
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.
There have even been intrigues as top cantors have competed for the top cantorial positions, with fees for concerts and the High Holiday period reaching astronomical sums.
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 informality.
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 first-time visitors.
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.
The renaissance 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 ago.
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.