Not Dead Yet: The Remarkable Renaissance of Cantorial Music

By Allan Nadler
Tuesday, December 25, 2012

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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