Desperately Seeking S'lihot

By Allan Nadler
Friday, September 23, 2011

There was a time, not so very long ago, when the Saturday night preceding Rosh Hashanah was the rough equivalent of the season's opening at the Met for opera enthusiasts.

On that date (September 24 this year), as over the centuries, Jews throughout the world initiate themselves into the somber spiritual mood and hauntingly beautiful melodies of the High Holy Days by attending the late night penitential S'lihot ("forgivenesses") services. It is during S'lihot that the musical tropes and central prayers of the High Holy Days, like Sh'ma Koleynu and the confessional Ashamnu, are first recited.

In recent decades, something curious has happened to the ritual: it has undergone a simultaneous regeneration and degeneration.

The regeneration is thanks to the widespread adoption of S'lihot by non-Orthodox congregations, which had abandoned the service more than a century ago. Hundreds of Conservative and Reform synagogues across the country have not only embraced but enlarged the occasion with elaborate, anomalously joyous "S'lihot programs": lectures, films, discussion groups, and lavish wine and dessert receptions prior to the actual prayer services.

As for those services, their tenor has likewise undergone a transformation, from a fearful evocation of our mortality before the Divine Judge and the fragility of our own destinies to a communal celebration.   

And therein lies the degeneration of S'lihot.  For even as the occasion has been invigorated by its transformation into a major event in the liturgical calendars of non-Orthodox congregations, there has been a catastrophic loss of mimetic musical traditions.  An American Jew attending this year's typical "S'lihot program" is likely to hear the heartrending words of the Kama Yesartanu ("O Lord, how have you chastened us, that we have become so persecuted and trampled, an object of scorn and hatred among the nations") sung not by an operatic and emotionally attuned cantor but by an earnestly cheerful one accompanying himself or herself on a guitar.

"Kama Yesartanu" ("Slichos 1999") ©2000, Cantor Ari Klein; all rights reserved.

The loss is more than aesthetic.  The precipitous decline of classically-trained cantors in contemporary America is a story that deserves fuller treatment than can be provided here.  But among its greatest casualties has been the rise of soppy, sing-along shul music.  Particularly at this time of year, American Jews' eager embrace of simple, Debbie Friedman-style folk tunes not only betrays a stunning tone-deafness to the humbling, harrowing liturgy but testifies to the dearth—if not quite yet the death—of classical S'lihot. 

During the "Golden Age" of hazzanut (cantorial musicianship), in the heyday of New York's Lower East Side and analogous Jewish neighborhoods across America, S'lihot services were the venue for competing cantors to showcase their vocal artistry. Many attendees held off until the Sunday morning following the services to purchase their seats for the Days of Awe, deciding which synagogue to attend largely on the basis of the cantor's performance the prior night. As a teenager, I reveled in joining the feverish shul-hopping that took place in Montreal's old, synagogue-saturated Mile End district, catching the acts of as many as a half-dozen cantors in a single night.

No other Jewish litany even remotely competes with S'lihot for its stirring melodies and vocally challenging cantorial recitatives, all packed into a shockingly brief (by synagogue standards) 60-to-90-minute service.  And while much of the liturgy is focused on martyrology and the terror of divine judgment, the concluding refrain of the central penitential prayer,  Lishmoah el ha-Rina ve-el ha-T'filah (to hearken to the melodies and prayers), has been set to a variety of uplifting compositions, the most popular being that of the legendary "King of Cantors," Yossele Rosenblatt.

            Cantor Ari Klein, "Lishmoah el ha-Rina ve-el ha-T'filah," 2003.

Those inviting words, "to hearken to the melodies and prayers," were historically featured in synagogue advertisements of S'lihot services in the Yiddish press, usually alongside a splendid photo of the officiating cantor in full regalia. And the advertisements were not targeted only to men. Traditionally, aside from the Purim M'gilah reading, S'lihot were the only evening services attended by pious women.

Before moving to New York, I was fortunate to serve as rabbi for Canada's oldest Ashkenazi synagogue, Shaar Hashomayim.  That congregation has formidably deep cantorial traditions, and Cantor Joseph Gross's S'lihot were the most moving I have ever heard. Today, the service remains a magnet for Jews across Montreal, and everyone from secularists to Hasidim flock to take in the services led by the magnificent tenor, Gideon Zelermyer.


"Eil Melech Yoshev" ("Shehecheyanu: The Music of Congregation Shaar Hashomayim,"
McGill University, arranged and conducted by Stephen Glass.)  
©2011, Congregation Shaar Hashomayim; all rights reserved.


In my early years in New York, the Park East Synagogue was the premiere destination for S'lihot, where Cantor Ari Klein, a Montreal-raised second-generation cantor (whose father, together with my late father, was my own hazzanut mentor), moved me to tears.  His plaintive recitation of the opening "Ashrei" prayer was the most stirring rendition I've heard since listening, as a youngster, to the great Joshua Rosenzweig.

"Tsaddik Hashem," sung by Joshua Rosenzweig.


"Tsaddik Hashem," sung fifty years later by cantor and choir of Shaar Hashomayim
("40 Years of Hazzanut in Montreal")
© Jewish Cantorial Federation of Montreal; all rights reserved.


Now that I miss the opportunity to hear great hazzanut on a weekly basis, S'lihot has always proved a welcome respite from the musical desert of contemporary American synagogue culture. The service takes place, after all, on Saturday night, so, unrestricted by Sabbath laws,  I may drive anywhere in the tri-state area and unapologetically park close to an Orthodox shul.  Even better, now that congregations begin S'lihot at different times, ranging from nine in the evening to midnight, I can catch multiple services, from the Upper East Side to Boro Park.

This year, however, I find myself in the charming city of Charleston, and am in dire straits as Saturday night approaches. Having Googled "S'lihot, South Carolina" and then expanded my search to include North Carolina and Virginia, I am facing a harsh reality.  While undoubtedly passing up some wonderful hushpuppies and other Southern pastries by skipping the area's Conservative and Reform "S'lihot programs," I find nothing within 500 miles that might satiate my appetite for good cantorial music, or spark the sacred sentiments and conjure the melancholy mood in quite the way that a proper, old-school S'lihot can.  

I considered driving to Atlanta for the weekend, to catch the S'lihot of a great cantor whose recordings are on my iPod—until I was informed that he died almost a decade ago. Florida, with its geriatric Jewish community, is promising, but a very long drive away. Perhaps, in desperation "to hearken to the melodies and prayers," I'll catch a last-minute flight to Miami.  Then, while the beautiful denizens of South Beach are deep in their weekend debauchery, I'll find myself a few miles north, being prodded to penitence by one of the few remaining practitioners of the great lost art of "forgivenesses."    

 Allan Nadler is a professor of religious studies and the director of the program in Jewish studies at Drew University. He is currently serving as the Norman and Gerry Sue Arnold Distinguished Visiting Chair in Jewish Studies at the College of Charleston.

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