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America’s Enduring Cantorate

In mid-twentieth century Borough Park Brooklyn, cantors were the rock stars of the neighborhood at the end of what was called the “Golden Age of Chazanut (Cantillation).” In neighborhood shops – bakeries, delis, and such – the customer line made way for these local celebrities who were treated like royalty, catered to like the most discerning mother-in-law.

Cantor Jack Nachalah
Cantor Jack Nachalah

Cantor Jack (Jacob Ben-Zion) Mendelson, who grew up in Borough Park, tells how at his father’s deli, they would pull out all the stops when David Kussevitsky, one of the talented Kussevitsky brothers, all renowned for their extraordinary ability to hit the high notes, came in for a sandwich and a beer that was not refrigerated so as not to disturb his delicate vocal chords. And in a film about the Eastern European cantorial music, called A Cantor’s Tale, Cantor Mendelson, Alan Dershowitz, and others reminisce how each Sabbath in the neighborhood could be a concert series, with worshipers flocking from one sanctuary to another to hear the incomparable voices of the day – a smorgasbord of worship-tainment!

This warm reminiscence was part of an informative event called “America’s Enduring Cantorate” recently held at the Center for Jewish History in New York City that boasted a distinguished panel: Dr. Mark L. KligmanDr. Mark Slobin, Cantor Jack Mendelson, and Cantor Dana S. Anesi, who sat in for Cantor Barbara Ostfeld. They delved into the history of the American cantorate from its inception in 1696 to the present day, touching on styles from chazanut to church-inspired choir and organ to familiar, engaging folk-style guitar, the genre popularized by Debbie Friedman. And they discussed the role of women in the profession, beginning with the ordination of Cantor Barbara Ostfeld in 1975 from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR).

The program highlighted the American Cantorate web-site, a joint project of Wesleyan University and HUC-JIR. The site is based on a project conducted by Dr. Slobin in 1984-86 and features audio examples of selections from the liturgy expressed in a wide variety of styles. In these examples, cantorial students and interested laypeople can find numerous interpretations of a single liturgical phrase all in one place. The site also offers audio interviews with some the most well-known cantors of modern times including Samuel Adler, Vicki Axe, Charles Davidson, David Kussevitsky, Jeff Klepper, Barbara Ostfeld, Max Wohlberg, and more.

Dr. Slobin noted how throughout history, the role of the cantor has not been required by any religious authority but exists at the will and desire of the people for the beautification and efficacy of texts, which remain fixed. Changes in the way the liturgy is sung and presented, and changes in the role of the cantor take place from generation to generation.

Discussion turned to current desire of many synagogue congregants to sing all together, accompanied by guitar, in a folk music style in a manner popularized by Debbie Friedman. There’s no question that her beautiful, accessible music has been a major influence toward enriching the synagogue experience. Recognizing this, the Union for Reform Judaism has just published a new collection of her work, Sing Unto God: The Debbie Friedman Anthology.

Finally, Cantor Mendelson demonstrated how to heighten musical intensity in a congregational setting. When he, the cantor, intones the prayer, he has the congregants sing chords on “ah” to back him up. The combination of an inspiring chazan and participating congregation yields a full and rich result.

From the heartwarming anecdotes to the useful resources and insights the event held much to offer to those who love Jewish music.

Audrey Merwin is a member of the communications team at the Union for Reform Judaism and a lover of Jewish choral music.