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Community Blog Enduring Traditions Meet Community Customs

By Cantor Becky Khitrik
Cantor Becky-Khitrik

The following speech was given by Cantor Becky Khitrik, Can`14, MAJS ’14 at her installation as Cantor of Temple Sinai in Sharon, MA on November 17,  2019.

The chairs of the cantorial search committee asked me to give a teaching today, and I am going to honor their request.  But I won’t just give you one teaching — instead I will share five teachings, one from each of my mentors here on the bimah.  Each of these individuals trained me, shaped me – gave me the diverse tools that qualified me to be here today, and perhaps most importantly, instilled in me a deep love of the cantorate.  The role of a chazzan has undergone several shifts over the past decades, and the skill set that one needs to create a successful singing community has broadened. If I am able to fulfill the roles of your prayer leader, educator, pastor — it is because of the guidance of the people sitting behind me.

I want to begin with a teaching from someone who might not be in your immediate line of vision, but is here today, and I’m so grateful for her presence. That person is Carol Marton. Carol conducted a choir of cantorial students at Hebrew College 10 years ago, where I was enrolled as a first year student.  (Incidentally, that year our choir also came to Temple Sinai to sing a Shabbat service. Little did I know…) Thanks to Carol, I was introduced to a broad spectrum of Jewish choral music.  In fact, I still use Carol’s repertoire book today when planning out our own choral programs here. The music in it spans centuries — from Salamone Rossi, a composer of the late Italian Renaissance, to pieces composed by a Cantor I had just met named Jeffrey Klepper. Carol taught me that the Jewish choral tradition is as old as the history of our people — you can think of the Levi’im — the priests at the Temple as being the first choir — and now crosses over intro genres of jazz, folk, and even pop music.  That this tradition has endured so long, even through its multiple evolutions, is a testament to the way that choral singing is relevant and important to our worship today.

Teaching number two is also about enduring traditions — about the sense of authority and sanctity that our musical tradition has had over the centuries. Also about ten years ago, Cantor Doctor Brian Mayer introduced his Foundations of Ashkenazic Nusach class by reciting the opening verse of the first mishna of Pirkei Avot:

משֶׁה קִבֵּל תּוֹרָה מִסִּינַי, וּמְסָרָהּ לִיהוֹשֻׁעַ, וִיהוֹשֻׁעַ לִזְקֵנִים, וּזְקֵנִים לִנְבִיאִים, וּנְבִיאִים מְסָרוּהָ לְאַנְשֵׁי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה.

Moses received the torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly.

That legacy, that line — why did the rabbis feel it necessary to include that?  Because all that follows comes directly from God. Sinai. And for the better part of two thousand years that was the concept of Judaism that reigned. It really wasn’t until the nineteenth century when it was being challenged by someone like Spinoza.

The musical legacies and traditions of our liturgy — they are diverse, they have been met with controversy over the years — but similarly, they have serious heft. Some of the melodies, like Kol Nidrei, project back to a mythic figure of authority – Moshe Rabbeinu – who, as the story goes, heard them on Mount Sinai, along with the rest of the Torah.  We hazzanim are keepers of that legacy, and that is why you may have heard me introduce different melodies for the Chatzi Kaddish on a Shabbat morning and for Shochein Ad this past Sukkot. Because when I use the nusach – the prescribed melodies, modes, and motifs for certain times, I am honoring that age old legacy.

On the other hand, a good cantor knows that she must not muck too much with the customs of her congregation.  In Cantor Mayer’s class we also learned about one of the greatest figures of Cantorial authority — the Maharil.  He was born in, we think in 1357 or 1360 — we’re reaching back to the fourteenth century. Ya’akov Levy – Moreinu Ha Rav (The Maharil), he was a German dayan posek, a prayer leader. In siman 619 of Orach Chayyim of the Shulchan Aruch, a line is quoted from Sefer Maharil: “v’al mishane Adam b’minhag ha-ir afilu ha niggunim” “One should not deviate from the local custom, even concerning the melodies and piyyutim that are recited there.”

This principle laid out in the Orach Chayyim also underscores the sense of authority and sanctity of musical traditions, but this time speaks to those specific to a local place. The Maharil was insistent that one should never be a shaliach tzibbur — a prayer leader — until one has experienced the traditions and customs of the community.

That teaching provides a perfect segue to draw your attention to another cantor on the bimah: Hebrew College faculty member Cantor Louise Treitman. I would not be here today, were it not for Louise, who called me about five years ago to encourage me to apply for a part time job in Sharon — conducting the choir that had been under the baton of Carol, and working closely with Cantor Jeff Klepper.  “It’s a wonderful community,” she told me — “with the best rabbi — try it, get your feet wet–in other words, learn about the place and its customs and its music — and you might be able to grow into the position one day.” Cantor Treitman herself had, of course, spent many years singing on this bimah as your High Holiday cantor. In fact, as I was preparing to lead Yizkor this year at Shemini Atzeret, I found Louise’s old service outline that she had shared with me years ago in her Accompanied Repertoire class.  I also had a large packet of music from the same class, and suddenly I was finished with my preparations.

Louise taught me about how to create musical flow in a service — but perhaps even more importantly, she taught me the lesson that a teacher is not just a purveyor of knowledge, but a source of mental and emotional support. When the School of Jewish Music was going through a difficult time, Louise was a rock — a comforting fortress of support to me and my classmates. And so with her in mind, I offer as a teaching a line from this week’s Torah portion, Chayyei Sara.  You are likely familiar with the story — Abraham has sent his servant back to his homeland to find a wife for his son, Isaac. At the well, the servant meets Rivkah, who offers to let him drink from her pitcher, and also leaps to draw waters for his ten camels:

 וַתֹּ֖אמֶר שְׁתֵ֣ה אֲדֹנִ֑י וַתְּמַהֵ֗ר וַתֹּ֧רֶד כַּדָּ֛הּ עַל־יָדָ֖הּ וַתַּשְׁקֵֽהוּ׃ יט

And she replied, “Drink, sir!” Quickly she lowered her pitcher from on her hand and let him drink.

This quality of going the extra mile to help someone out, employing a strong work ethic in life to make the world brighter for others — Louise Treitman exemplifies these characteristics, and I hope that I can be as supportive to my b’nei mitzvah students here as she was to me and my fellow classmates at seminary.

Another expert in support is Hebrew College Head of Vocal Arts Cantor Lynn Torgove, who was perhaps single-handedly responsible for helping me find my voice — my singing voice, that is. Lynn reminds us all to go back to our breathing. To take care of our bodies. In the beginning of my studies with Lynn, our voice lessons would involve lying on the floor on our backs and re-learning how to properly breathe. On Shabbat mornings at Temple Sinai we read Elohai Nehshama Shenatata Bi, T’hora Hi — My God, the soul you placed in me is pure. The Hebrew Word for Soul, Neshama, is connected to the word for breath, Nishima.  The particularities of who we are, our inner essences, are deeply connected to our life force, our breath. I could say more about this wonderful woman, who is not just my teacher, but in some ways, my soul sister, but instead, I’ll invite you all to take a moment, and breathe.

Out of silence and breath comes song. My last teaching this morning comes from the person who has created an enormous legacy in this community: Cantor Jeff Klepper. Jeff has taught me so many skills, both as a teacher at Hebrew College and as a mentor here at Temple Sinai. It was hard to choose one teaching from him to share with you. (How does one step into the shoes of such a legend?)  Here’s the one I settled on. This is from an article written in 2008. Jeff writes:

“As I have grown into adulthood and now, into my 50s, I have come to realize one great truth for living a life: people need each other.  We cannot do it alone. We need each other’s care, support, love, guidance, wisdom and concern. Even the great Moses, who at 80 had to be a man of great stature, imposing presence and in superb physical shape to do the things he did, needed to rest.”

I am humbled and grateful to call upon my teachers and colleagues and friends for help. And I likewise hope that you and I can be a support to one another as we deepen our relationship over the years. I am so very excited to create our own singing community, our own traditions, our own legacies together at Temple Sinai.

Cantor Becky Khitrik received her ordination from Hebrew College’s School of Jewish Music in 2014. Originally from Washington, DC, she holds a bachelor of arts degree in music and religious studies from Macalester College (St. Paul, MN), a certificate of study from the Zoltán Kodály Institute (Kesckemét, Hungary), and a master’s of arts degree in religion from the Yale Institute of Sacred Music (New Haven, CT). Cantor Khitrik became the cantor at Temple Sinai in Sharon, MA after the retirement of Cantor Emeritus, Jeff Klepper, faculty member in the Hebrew College cantorial program.

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