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Not Dead Yet: The Remarkable Renaissance of Cantorial Music

Standing at the foot of the crowded, steep staircase outside the old Eldridge Street shul (now the “Museum at Eldridge Street”) on a Sunday afternoon earlier this month, I heard someone call out, “Nu, Professor Nadler?”  Looking up, I recognized the familiar grimace of an ancient, ardently secular sage, one of the few such surviving consumers of Yiddishkeit in all its iterations, whom I had last seen 20 years before in the grand old Reading Room of the YIVO Institute, then located in the Vanderbilt Mansion on East 86th Street.  I responded in strict adherence to the one-upmanship that regulates Yiddish conversation: “Nu, nu!”  The old man cautiously made his way down one more step, firmly gripping his walker, then pronounced, “Nu? Loy almen hazones!”

Hazzanut is no widower.  His aphorism was a Yiddish adaptation of the words of comfort issued by the prophet Jeremiah 2500 years ago to the exiles in Babylonia: “Lo alman Yisrael,” Israel has not been widowed by God.  It was perfect for the occasion: the magnificent cantorial concert we had both just experienced, in which other comforting prophecies of Jeremiah (“If I forget thee, Jerusalem, let my right hand wither . . .”) were artfully chanted by Cantor Netanel Hershtik, accompanied by the choir from his shul, the Hampton Synagogue, along with the superb Amernet String Quartet and the gifted cantorial pianist Alan Mason.

While the aged atheistic, anti-nationalist Bundist inching down the stairs would never have walked into a synagogue to daven, enjoying some nice shtikelah hazones—cantorial pieces—on a Sunday afternoon was another matter, the next best thing to a Yiddish concert on Second Avenue (which is, alas, no longer an option).  It did not strike me as odd at all: during my decade as research director at YIVO, I came to know many such wonderfully complex Jews, for whom, despite all their secularist ideological bluster, everything Jewish is precious, even religious “zionides” addressed to a God whose existence they deny.

As the great Yiddish poet Jacob Glatstein wrote in the Holocaust’s aftermath, “The God of my unbelief is magnificent, and I watch over him.”  Glatstein subversively used precisely the promise of the 121st Psalm—“Behold, the Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps”—to imagine a very different, post-Holocaust arrangement in which it is Israel that keeps watch over the idea of God, by never forsaking the culture generated by the Jews’ covenant with Him: that is, by never abandoning Yiddishkeit

The concert was sponsored by Pro Musica Hebraica, founded in 2008 by Robyn and Charles Krauthammer to promote the performance of “lost and forgotten” masterpieces of Jewish music.  As Charles Krauthammer puts it, "When people hear ‘Jewish music,’ they think of Israeli folk-dancing, of ‘Hava Nagila;’ they think of liturgical music, they think of Kol Nidre; they might think of klezmer, and that's it.”  He might have added that even the liturgical music most Jews know consists of the folksy faux-Hasidic tunes of Shlomo Carlebach, z”l, or the syrupy tunes of the late Debbie Friedman. 

“It turns out,” says Krauthammer, “there's a great, rich tradition of classical Jewish music people just don't know about.”  Pro Musica has done a wonderful job of remedying this gap with magnificent concerts, mostly at Washington’s Kennedy Center for the Arts, featuring precisely those forms of Jewish music that do not come readily to mind when one thinks of “Jewish music.”  The recent Eldridge Street concert added many long-neglected classics of Jewish liturgical music’s early 20th century “Golden Age” to the endangered works that Pro Musica has resurrected. 

Krauthammer introduced the concert by saying that Hershtik’s and his repertoire choices were guided by the theme of the Jews’ historic yearning to return to Zion.  This was somewhat misleading; only four of the concert’s 12 compositions were what might anachronistically be termed “Zionist.”  The longest and most complex single piece—“Umip’nei Hata’einu,” made wildly famous by Cantor Moshe Koussevitsky’s recording and recited to perfection by Hershtik—bemoans the exile but piously submits to it as God’s will, hardly a Zionist sentiment: “On account of our sins, we were exiled . . . and we are not able to return up [literally, to make aliyah] to be seen and to bow down before Thee in Thy Holy Temple.” 

The concert took place as Hannukah approached, but Krauthammer assured the audience that they would not be hearing “Dreidel, Dreidel.”  Indeed, since during the winter holiday season Jews commonly bemoan the absence of any Jewish equivalent to the magnificent liturgical music of the Christmas Midnight Mass, it was especially good to be reminded of hazzanut, our own equally magnificent treasury of classical composition for the synagogue, which for too long has been spurned and scorned by Jews of all denominations.  It was comforting and inspiring to be moved not by Handel’s “Messiah,” Bach’s “Weihnachts Oratorio,” or Schubert’s “Ave Maria,” gorgeous as they are, but by selections from our own classical liturgy, which have been lost or forgotten not as the consequence of pogroms or the Holocaust but on account of the low-brow musical predilections of most American shul-goers. 

After a half-century of steady decline, however, there is increasing evidence of a cantorial renaissance, emerging from two groups in the Jewish world that held hazzanut in contempt when it was king.  One group is the Hasidim, who regarded the great European cantors as conduits of subversive Western—goyish—musical influence and banned attending services at the grand choral synagogues, which were considered treyf because of their adoption of church aesthetics: chorales, cantors dressed up in clerical gowns and hats and, worst of all, decorum.  The other major source of opposition was the Zionists, for whom hazzanut was yet another cultural by-product of the despised galut, with its incessant minor-key kvetching and moaning about the painful state of the Jews, instead of happy music conducive to the folkdancing of the new Yishuv.

Yet it is precisely from those two sectors that there now emerges a new generation of cantors, reviving hazzanut in much the same way that Wynton Marsalis and his coteries of young jazz turks brought bebop back from the dead a few decades earlier.  The most celebrated of the new Hasidic cantors is Isaac Meir Helfgot, a Gerer Hasid who incongruously leads prayers at Manhattan’s stodgy Park East Synagogue—in full Hasidic-Shabbes, rather than cantorial, regalia.  There are more than a dozen other incredibly gifted young Hasidic hazzanim, but only Helfgot has performed with musical giants like Isaac Perelman and the Boston Conservatory’s Hankus Netsky.  

The Zionist revival of hazzanut stems mostly from the work of Naftali Hershtik, father of the Netanel Herstick who sang at Eldridge Street. Naftali Hershtik’s school, the Tel Aviv Cantorial Institute, now places the world’s finest cantors in American and Canadian synagogues, eclipsing the three denominational cantorial schools in the United States.  Manhattan’s highest-brow Conservative congregation, the Park Avenue Synagogue, recently hired Azi Schwartz, a gifted disciple of Naftali Hershtik, while at Canada’s oldest and Montreal’s largest traditional synagogue, Shaar Hashomayim, services are led by Gideon Zelermyer, blessed with the richest voice in today’s cantorial world. 

Zelermyer’s newest CD, The Shabbat Experience—with accompaniment by the Shaar choir, directed by the talented Stephen Glass—is unlike any other cantorial recording with which I am familiar.  It is strictly, smartly thematic, featuring multiple classic and modern versions of the prayers that bracket the Torah-reading ceremonies—namely, the most dramatic moments of the Sabbath morning service, when the Ark is open and the congregation paying the greatest attention: “Ein Kamoha,” recited before the Torah’s removal from the Ark, and “Uv’nuho Yomar,” chanted just before its return. 

The concept and realization of the recording are nothing short of brilliant.  It is worth more than its price to hear Zelermyer’s spectacular rendering of just two of the 12 variations on “Uv’nuho Yomar,” by, respectively, modern hazzanut’s pioneering, and most prolific, composer, Louis Lewandowski, and the legendary “King of Cantors,” Yosseleh Rosenblatt.  The former Zelermyer rendering, I would argue, is as aesthetically pleasing as anything to be heard at the finest Midnight Mass.  The latter, far more complex but equally as beautiful, clocks in at just under eight minutes; it is, thus, better listened to in an armchair than while standing during synagogue services. 

Louis Lewandowski

Yosseleh Rosenblatt

Hearing 19 versions of the prayers uttered as the Torah is removed, then returned to the Ark confirms my wizened Yiddishist friend in his declaration.  Not only is hazzanut no widower; it is a cultural treasury, long abandoned but, thankfully, again thriving, in many instances practiced more artfully and intelligently than even during hazzanut’s Golden Age. 

Allan Nadler is Rabbi of Congregation Beth El and Visiting Professor of Jewish Studies at McGill University in Montreal.

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Daniel Sayani on December 25, 2012 at 12:14 am (Reply)
As a practicing chazzan, trained in nusach hatefillah, I can assure you that there is no renaissance of chazzanus. The cantorial profession among Orthodox circles is dead. Shuls are not hiring professional cantors anymore. Instead, they use volunteer lay baalei tefillah who use whichever tunes they please. While these concerts may be in vogue, they are an artificial, subversive phenomenon that bares no resemblance at all to what the original goal of chazzanus is- to have a professional shaliach tzibbur trained in nusach leading Shabbos, Yontiff, and High Holiday davening. MiSinai tunes and the wealth of cantorial compositions was never intended to be mere concert music; its very purpose is to guide and dictate how we come together to approach the Divine as a community and as a people. Until synagogues place a premium on hiring cantors, and until we revitalize training for Orthodox cantors, the professional cantorate should be considered a dead profession among the Orthodox. With the Conservative and Reform, it is a different story, although many Reform cantors I've heard sound more like pop stars than chazzanim, which is an affliction that has struck Orthodoxy, with Chevra, MBD, Lipa tunes, etc. supplanting nusach.
schneur on December 25, 2012 at 9:45 am (Reply)
I am glad that the author mentions the Cahsidic imput into the revival of Chazzanauth. While Rev. Helgott amy be the ebst known of Chassidic cantors there are many others as well such as Ben Zion Miller of Temple Beth El in BP. Many modern orthodox shuls which have p/t cantors employ Chassidic cantors.Authors fromt eh satamr communtiy have also penend several books on the hisotry of the modern cantorial art. I was recently interviewed on a Chassiidc talk show on REb Yossele Rosenbaltt and there was a fair amount of feedback.
I posit that while the auhtor is correct in terms of the Chassiidc community's distatste for the cantor's gowns etc there always was a strong interest in the actual music. A n account fromt eh 1930's in regards the great modern Tlomocka Temple in Warsaw states thta many chasidim attempted to enter the sanctuary to listen to cantor Sirota but were restrained by ushers. That sounds like Temple Beth El in BP.
Yossele himself was a Cahsid and close to various rebbes of the Ruzhin dynasty and was beloved by the Chassiidc world.
In Lubavitch in the days of the 6th rebeb cantor kantaroff was a featured artist at dinner sof the Lubavitcher Yeshiva he was a cantor who was a slo a cahsid of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.
So in fact I think Chasisidm were always interested in cantorial music even though they had a distate for tis modern aspects liek the formal dress, show business aspects and the things wer enot helped by the fact that most synagogues whoc oudla fford a world class cantors were modern like the Choir Shul in Vilna or OZ in NYC.
Indded most schoalr agree that the modern cantorate originated in the chasiidc courts of the Ukriane in places liek talna with cantors liek Yeruchem haKatan and others.
Rabbi Eli Mallon, M.Ed., LMSW on December 25, 2012 at 10:51 am (Reply)
"...the low-brow musical predilections of most American shul-goers..."
It's a pity that the average shul-goer doesn't live up to higher standards of music appreciation.
Or is it?
A synagogue service is, or should be, for "worship," not "entertainment." We're there to talk to G-d far more than to listen to the cantor critically. In fact, we're there to listen to G-d, too, but that's another topic.
The "Golden Age" of cantorial music ebbed because the line between "worship" and "entertainment" became overly obscured. A "service" became a "concert."
The Talmud tersely tells us, "G-d wants the heart."
Our hearts. Not just the cantor's.
From a "Jewish" point of view, our time is better spent developing sincerity in prayer than in developing "high(er) brow" musical tastes.
I've had musical training from age 9 on multiple instruments and have even had some cantorial/vocal training and experience). But I'm reasonably certain that on Yom Kippur -- or at any other time of year -- G-d doesn't accept our prayers based on our musical tastes.
Torah says: "Love G-d" and "Love your neighbor as yourself." Not: "Thou shalt judge thine own, and everyone else's, worthiness by the music you/they like."
I appreciate fine music. I enjoy it. But love, kavannah, and sincerity are essential to worship. "High brow" standards of music appreciation -- maybe not so much.
    Charles Blattberg on December 27, 2012 at 10:46 am (Reply)

    "Rabbi Ya'akov says: One, who while walking along the way, reviewing his studies, breaks off from study to say, 'How beautiful is that tree! How beautiful is that plowed field!', scripture regards him as if he has forfeited his soul." Ethics of the Fathers, 3:7.
Will Kahane on December 25, 2012 at 12:02 pm (Reply)
why can't we have beautiful music? Must we be relegated to dreidel dreidel dreidel while our christian friends get silent night etc?
Rabbi Eli Mallon, M.Ed., LMSW on December 25, 2012 at 12:52 pm (Reply)
I think yours is a fair question, Will. Why should an adult be satisfied with the same simple song that pleases a young child?
But a parent singing "Dreidle..." together with your children serves a very different purpose than your own listening to a fabulous musical concert (even when part of a service).
Also, why should the only special aspect of the holiday be musical? Why not do some extra reading or learning about the holiday, then teach what you've learned to your family or friends? I blog-posted two pieces on "Chanukah Thinking" aimed much more at adults than children.
Again, you ask a good question. It deserves much more discussion.
M. Sussman on December 25, 2012 at 10:06 pm (Reply)
Gideon Zelermeyer is a fine Cantor, but in whose opinion, besides the author's, is he "blessed with the richest voice in today's Cantorial world?"
Gilla Nissan on December 25, 2012 at 10:29 pm (Reply)
This is a blessed discussion.
When something is ending, it can not die without something else to emerge and continue it. Music is the language of the soul and will never die.
There is a change since what is needed in the jewish world today, is changing.
What I see that can illuminate what is the "next step" is sefaradic and ashkenazic music/cantors coming together, influencing each other.
Second, listening to piutim. As you probably know, in Israel, a whole new movement with new concept emerges. It arrives from the voices of our grandparents and their parents. People in israel, from all Jewish "camps", get together to sing piutim. It is not considered a religious movement therefore, men and women sing together.
It's a new modality, it is what we need today. We here in the state, need to follow it. It's the right impulse to follow. I hear how Jewish renewal people borrow Indian methods of singing because what we have is boring and does not speak to many anymore. They also want to attract young people so they imitate Indian music and add Hebrew words. I hope they can hear the amazing piutim which are coming now from Israel. This is a pure Jewish response to the need of our times.
Charles Sobol on December 26, 2012 at 4:19 am (Reply)
I fully support Daniel Sayani's reply. The so called revival of Chasanu is only in concert, but not in Shuls. Indeed, due to the lack of finances many Shuls are not able anymore to support a fulltime Chasan. In my Shul, in Basel/Switzerland, we still have the privilege to have a f/t Chasan for more than 200 years. But we all know, that this will be the last f/t Chasan. Today he Chasanim having a f/t-job have many other tasks beside their weekly singing, e.g. Kryat Hatorah, Shiurim, Kashrut issues, etc.
Nevertheless, I'm fan of Chasanut - I'm singing in the Choir regularly on all Shabatot and Chagim - and the mnore I deepen into this subject I discover a hughe amount of - partially unknown to the public - musicsheets, manuscripts etc, worthwhile to be introduced in the Services.
Geraldine Auerbach on December 26, 2012 at 5:45 am (Reply)
A cantorial Renaissance of sorts is also happening in the UK and throughout Europe – especially Eastern Europe which is just discovering its Jewish musical heritage. A new framework has been set up – the European Cantors Association (ECA) – through which practicing cantors and Ba’alei Tefilla are empowered to create a dialogue with those in power in the synagogues and in the organisations of orthodox Jewry. Their aim is to alert the powers that be to the fact that the unique and beautiful music of Jewish worship may disappear because of ignorance and neglect. We have branches in London; also in Manchester as well as in France and Hungary. We aim to work with children and the younger generations and to educate members of congregations, rabbis and hon officers so that they understand the heritage and continue to love the special music of Jewish worship. We also provide training and networking opportunities for practitioners and are open to work everyone who has an interest in synagogue music. We will also develop academic programmes of conferences and courses relating to this extraordinary music. (Our motto: no more blame – get on with the game). If you would like join our Association and to receive our Newsletter or attend our Convention in London in June 2013 or express your solidarity in any way please contact ECA Convenor Alex Klein at [email protected] or download a membership form at
adam davis on December 26, 2012 at 2:55 pm (Reply)
the rosenblatt is sublime!
charles hoffman on December 26, 2012 at 7:18 pm (Reply)

The main "followers" of chazunus are hasidim who would be scandalized were their own shtiblach to use a real chazzan with his traditional (and repeating) melodies.

They go to hear chazzunim at concerts because it's the only "safe" or politically correct entertainment. But come shabbos morning, they listen to the same krechtzing from a guy whose "Ivre" or Hebrew pronunciation makes him sound like a bathhouse attendant in Debrecen
sarah mckibben on December 28, 2012 at 11:40 am (Reply)
Superb and beautiful music! Why is there argument ? Adoration can be voiced by simple, childhood melodies and also by gifted mature musicians!
David Mendelson on December 29, 2012 at 6:35 pm (Reply)
Allan.Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Sounds like it was a wonderfull evening.

I agreee that we should not be reciting Kaddish over the demise of Hazzanut. It is alive and well but not always appreciated.
David on December 30, 2012 at 8:29 pm (Reply)
I agree with Rabbi Mallon. I sing christian music in choirs because it's very beautiful, but if I found similar "performance" music appearing in my own shul, I would be knocked completely out of a "prayer" mentality and into an "audience" or "performer" mode. I wouldn't be able to fulfill my goal in attending shul (though I'd probably have more fun). I love the bits of amateur singing we do in shul, but that is because they are short and simple, and thus avoid overwhelming the fundamental prayer purpose. We're not the only religion to deal with this issue; at various times in history the catholic church attempted to crack down on overly ornate 'sacred' music that was distracting from the underlying religious purpose of the service. Of course, after being cut back after each crackdown, music immediately began getting more complex---it seems an unavoidable phenomenon.
Robert Shuster on January 3, 2013 at 7:25 pm (Reply)
Chazanut does not interfere with davening. As long as the mood of the music reflects the meaning and emotion of the prayer being sung, it enhances the service.
David on January 3, 2013 at 11:51 pm (Reply)
I have to disagree. Beautiful music transports me into the music, and distracts me from whatever else is going on. Fortunately, I don't like most chazanut, so it doesn't interfere with my praying.
Russel Lurie on January 11, 2013 at 8:59 pm (Reply)
Nothing can be more inspirational than to communicate with Hashem thru music to suite the mood, occasion and prayer being recited. Led by a Chazan whose soul embodies prayer to music can only be inspirational. Ghazzanut concerts amplify the art form of Synagogal music .... the plaintiff cry, the expressions of joy, fulfill our spiritual needs. Yes, we must move on and develop music for the 21st century maintaining piety and dignity. I am proud to state that for 27 years the Johannesburg Jewish Male choir has strategically positioned itself to fulfill the ideas of modernity. People come and go, but the music continues.

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