Desperately Seeking S'lihot
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.
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.
("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.
Two points. First, it is not only the "Debbie Friedman" folk style that endangers traditional nusach [prayer style or melody]. Makor Rishon, here in Jerusalem, published a lengthy article a few days ago bemoaning "young people's minyanim" for the Yamim Nora'im wherein the prayers are far too "joyful" (dancing, communal singing) and disregard the "norah" part of the Yamim Nora'im. In Israel this is at least partly due to the prevalence of "Carlebach" nusach and tunes at many minyanim.
Second, your statement that 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" is inaccurate. I grew up in the Conservative tradition, and my shul in the New York area has had "S'lichot" (hazzan and choir with no instruments) for at least the last 50 years. The Rabbinical Assembly published its first "S'lichot" about 50 years ago as well. While this tradition, along with many others, was indeed discarded by the Reform Movement, the same cannot be said for the Conservative Movement.
I know personally about the dearth of traditional nusach in the Southeast coast cities, in which the local synagogues seem very Protestant these days. I have also personally known rabbis whose great goal was to minimize the power of hazanut as a perceived threat to their positions.
The seriousness of s'lichot cannot be captured in "serious" popular guitar strumming and "cool" modern pop singing. Not for me. Not for many.
As for modernity, the Eil Melech Yoshev on this page is modern, yet stirring enough to capture the King sitting on mercy's seat. As for the pop enthusiast, the secularization evangelist, the supporter of hootenany styles and the like, none of their music speaks of awe, drama, or majesty. So it seems to me.
Thank you for the article, and especially including the melodies, the voices and the texts spinning into my heart.
Your article is informative, passionate, and well written. As part of the hip, current, post-modern-and-loving-it kahal, I wonder what the thoughts of the older guard were when the style you so love came into being? Despite your elocution, there is no way around the sense that you long for the good old days--which are, of course, both good and gone. This generation is replicating, adapting, fragmeting, and eschewing what is fleeting or no longer the correct idiom, as it must. There is terrific techno and generational adjustment out there. I wish I, too, could raise my kids in a "same" world circa 1965. Perhaps their perceived joyousness during solemn times is the practical response to the rather disjointed status quo that presides at the moment? Judaism is a rock, but the reasons for and methods applied to climbing it are, per usual, adaptive.
A postscript: Ari Klein is a great hazzan, but I would not daven in that shul because it obviously doesn't count women. The Jewish nation is a mess. Fix the neshama and everything will go well. Get to work.
1. Until very recently, HUC-JIR New York had an extremely traditional (and demanding) cantorial program. Those graduates really knew their nusach.
2. The best, most haunting s'lihot service I have ever heard was led by Ramon Tasat, at the time a cantor in a Reform congregation (now he's at an independent one), in Washington, D.C.
Must we start the Days of Awe with more movement-bashing? My own rule is: if you're going to bash a movement, start with your own.
If you want to be emotionally stirred, consider the 500-mile drive to Toronto next year to participate in the Beth Tikvah Synagogue S'lihot service. You are guaranteed to be moved by the prayer renditions of Cantor Tibor Kovari, the Beth Tikvah Choir, and the Festival String Quartet, made up of musicians from the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Klara Bagley, wife of the late David Bagley, zichran livracha. The music is largely composed or arranged by the late Srul Irving Glick, zichrana livracha, and also includes, for example, the El Melech Yoshev by Levandowski. You'll never want to go anywhere else after participating in this service.
Regarding the "best, most haunting s'lihot service I [we] have ever heard . . . led by Ramon Tasat, at the time a cantor in a Reform congregation . . . :" To be clear, I don't believe he was trained at HUC. Hazzan Tasat delivers prayer through nusach that transcends all movements. He can be heard every Shabbat evening and morning at Shirat HaNefesh in Chevy Chase, MD.
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