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Community Blog Choose Life: the Cantorial Profession in a Time of Change

By Hazzan Matthew Austerklein

The profession of cantor is changing.  A wonderful and learned colleague recently penned a moderately depressing article lamenting such changes, characterizing aspects of them as the “slow death” to the continuity and dignity of the cantor’s vocation. I say “moderately depressing” because as a pulpit cantor and survivor of an exhausting cantorial school reorganization and re-visioning process, I am used to periodic questioning of the direction of my profession and calling. The author of this article, Charles Heller, is himself a master of the music, composition, style, and history of “The Golden Age” of cantors. He has witnessed crowning moments in the development of Ashkenazi chazzanut in the 20th century, some by his own creation.

And yet, as a 32-year old cantor with many years ahead of service to G-d and the Jewish people, Mr. Heller’s article gave me pause to consider what is really at stake for the future of the cantorial profession. Regular jeremiads, while cathartic, simply will not do. We must radically evaluate how we define our success — not just musically, but religiously and spiritually as well.

It is true, as Heller points out, that cultivated art music of all kinds is under siege in our day, a byproduct of prevailing cultural winds and shrinking budgets. The professional, aspirational quality that defines both Western music and cantorial artistry has been utterly transformed (and in some cases, lost) in some of our synagogues and minyanim. So many younger worshippers in particular are opting for easy-access, Carlebachian melodies that allow for instant (and constant) participation, rather than attentive listening to great, professional interpretations of the liturgy from the musical elites of the cantorate.

And yet, there is an important piece of cultural insight that I think is missing from Heller’s woeful tidings, which I think both will help us more accurately describe the state of affairs, and call us to action rather than only tell us to mourn.

We live in a very different time, and a very different culture, and with very different Jews than the Golden Age . Heller is perhaps only beginning to feel this more acutely due to the deeper-rooted traditionalism of his own Canadian Jewish community, but certainly in America his critiques have rung true for some time already. Normative cultures, including Judaism, in all realms, are under attack. The entire Ashekenazi cultural complex, which used to provide thick Jewish identities for the price of a synagogue membership and a corned beef sandwich, has thinned immensely. This has left generations of younger Jews who are loosely bound to the normative immigrant Jewish culture of their parents’ generation (including Yiddish language and chazzanut), and who are simultaneously thirsty for a spiritual identity that will give them wholeness in the maelstrom of our confusing, anti-normative, post-cultural era.

When Heller describes the role of the synagogue cantor as disappearing, his vision harkens to a very specific time and place—one in which high-level artistry, nusach authenticity, and musicianship were the ultimate cantorial qualities. The era described produced many cantors that I admire deeply, and they created amazing spiritual art. But the essential allegiance of the cantor, in halakhah and beyond, is to G-d as much as it is to his music. We are called be shlucha d’rachamana (“messengers of G-d”) and shlucha d’tzibura (“messengers of the community”), representing each of these both through our ministry and music. In our time, to spurn legitimate cantorial leadership in alternatives—whether it is mindfulness practice or using the ecstatic/meditative melodies of Carlebach and his ilk—is a huge disservice to our fundamental calling as representatives of the community and G-d.

We live in a world so different from the cantorial bubble of 1850-1950. We have so many people yearning for spirituality, healing, and meaning. Jews from multiple generations who felt alienated from their Jewish institutions long ago are now looking to return. We need to give them that on-ramp in the most authentic way we can. The methods are many: ecstatic melodies, wordless nigunim, responsive pizmonim from the Sephardic repertoire, tasteful and eclectic popular tunes, even Hebrew Kirtan and Jewish chant. These genres and other “music of meeting” is what the communal singing ethos is for: connecting people to their emotions, to themselves, and to each other in an era of profound alienation and disconnect.

The therapeutic elements of communal singing are, however, not an end, but a beginning. They are meant to open the hearts of Jews to the faith (and, yes, the nusach) of our ancestors. As my own synagogue’s cantor emeritus and my friend, Hazzan Abe Lubin, is quoted in Heller’s article, we cantors are “trustees of nusach.” Indeed we are, and with good reason: Ashkenazi chazzanut and nusach have embodied wisdom that is worth preserving. Their sonic landscape recalls profound truths in traditional theology: G-d’s judgment, His lovingly-given commadments, the witness of Jewish history, and the greatness of Divine mercy. All of these are, to me, the embodied spirituality of the Ashkenazi cantorial tradition. To leave these expressions as such out of the sonic world of the service (such as does happen in many Carlebach and new-age experiences), is something that Jewish people musically and theologically reject at their own peril.

But we do not need to only return to the classical cantorial canon (which is what I think the author yearns for). We need, as my colleague Cantor Hinda Labovitz puts it, “innovation steeped in preservation.” We need renewal, not retrenchment, in the study of nusach and the art of chazzanut. This includes both completely gripping congregational singing and cantorial artistry that eruditely and spiritually interprets the liturgy, honors the nusach, brings people closer to HaShem, and serves the spiritual needs of our present communities where they are now.

I am not advocating for a world filled with Carlebach-friendly cantors like myself. Indeed, the Jewish world often suffers from homogenization of the worship experience. The great high-art synagogue experiences of North America and beyond should continue to do what they do, and do it well. But as cantors and synagogue music professionals we should do it knowing whom we serve—G-d—the Holy One of Blessing, and the Jewish people who are called to His service. We must be messengers of both.

Cantors, to be sure, have a lot of additional work to do in this new era. During the prior two centuries of North American Jewish community, Jewish music and cantors gained access to the popular culture in amazing ways. In the 21st century, we are woefully behind in the difficult task of spreading Jewish musical and spiritual content to people who need it. We need podcasts, electronic media, YouTube videos, Spotify playlists, and freely shared teaching resources to help disseminate Jewish music, culture, and faith. We have to do this in a way Yossele Rosenblatt or Koussevitsky never had to consider.

We have to have a broader musical palette, being conversant and skillful applying styles of music beyond Ashkenazi chant and beyond Carlebach, embracing the gifts of Jewish musical traditions throughout the world in order to find music that speaks directly to modern hearts.

And we also have to work on ourselves. Our prayers, our music, and our leadership in the Jewish community should emerge from a place of faith, as well from musical taste and cultivation. The extensive medieval treatises on the qualities of a shaliach tzibbur (culminating in the Shulchan Aruch’s Orach Hayyim, Chapter 53) consistently put an emphasis on kavannah (intention), communal involvement, and piety on par with (if not above) musicianship and melody. It is on these terms that we should continue to evaluate the work that we are doing.

I sympathize with Heller deeply—I love the power, artistry, and emotion of the cantorial tradition with every fiber of my being—but I love G-d and Torah just as much. I want our people to experience that great heritage, through the immense wisdom of nusach and the cantorial tradition, and through the power of communal singing. Both are important partners in sending God’s message to this unprecedented generation of Jews.

And so in responding to the “slow death” narrative of this article, I say to colleagues: choose life. As G-d says to our people at the end of Sefer D’varim: “I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. So choose life in order that you may live, you and your descendants, by loving the LORD your G-d, by obeying His voice, and by holding fast to Him; for this is your life and the length of your days. (Deut. 30: 19-20a).”

Let us renew our focus on our faith, and to the beautiful witness of our cantorial tradition, that we may use both nusach and song to bring our communities closer to the M’chakeyl Chayyim B’Chesed, the One who sustains life through love.

Hazzan Matthew Klein is the cantor of Congregation Beth El in Bethesda. He received his cantorial investiture and Master of Sacred Music from the H.L. Miller Cantorial School at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has lectured and mentored cantorial students across the non-orthodox world, including at JTS, HUC-JIR, School of Jewish Music at Hebrew College, and in the Aleph Cantorial program. He is also married to Rabbinical School of Hebrew College alumna Rabbi Elyssa Joy Auster, Rab’11.

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