New York, city of the big voices, will sing a little louder next week as 450 Conservative cantors, the largest body of hazzanim in the world, celebrate their 50th anniversary here with a five-day convention and festival of what the cantors call “Jewish soul music.
Events and performances, in such varied venues as Central Park, Carnegie Hall, Ellis Island and the storied Eldridge Street Synagogue, are intended to spotlight “New York’s great history with the cantorate,” said Cantor Joseph Gole of Los Angeles, the festival’s co-chair. “It’s the place where the Cantors Assembly was founded, and home to the Cantors Institute” at the Jewish Theological Seminary,” he said.He explained that the Cantors Assembly was first organized here in 1947, by a minyan of 10 cantors seeking to preserve the legacy of professional liturgical music after “the whole vast reserve of European cantors was wiped out by the Nazis.
But next week’s showcase is also aimed at stirring up what is now a diminishing interest in the American cantorate. According to a Cantors Assembly statement, “We are vitally concerned with the shortage of young people entering the cantorate. Without a new generation to follow us, the Jewish community will be in danger of losing a precious and religious cultural heritage. There is a real possibility that the synagogue service as we know it and love it could deteriorate in the hands of unskilled and untrained prayer leaders.
Cantor Gole pointed out that “fewer people go to concerts or vocal recitals anymore; people have moved away from that. Yet this is an art form that is part of our tradition.“There was once a great tradition of cantors in New York at the turn of the century,” the cantor said, “when Jews on the Lower East Side or in Brooklyn would run from synagogue to synagogue to hear the great hazzans. Over time, more and more people grew unfamiliar with the siddur and knowing how to daven. How many congregations today can you walk into where people can truly daven? They don’t have the background or education. They never learned, but those who couldn’t daven might be able to sing along.“For many,” said Cantor Gole, “it was a wonderful thing for people’s pride in tefillot [prayer] when they heard it interpreted through a cantor’s voice. It is an art to take the same prayers said daily or on Shabbat and bring new life to the words. In Carnegie Hall people are going to hear Raza D’Shabbos,” the Zohar’s Aramaic meditation within the Friday night prayers, set to music by Pierre Pinchik and performed by Cantor Faith Steinsnyder-Gurney. “It will send chills up and down your spine. It’s breathtakingly beautiful,” said Cantor Gole.
Cantor Nathan Lam, another co-chair, hopes the events will “make people aware of a new professional definition, beyond the image of the star cantor who’s a pulpit performer. And that doesn’t have to be a negative term — not just a concert artist, but a pastor, teacher, scholar, a leader of choirs, someone assisting the rabbi in clergy duties.
The cantor, said Hazzan Gole, has become the one “who spends a great deal of time with the family through the bar/bat mitzvah experience.” But in the heart of the matter, it is through “an esthetic elevation of the service” that hazzans remain “the soul of the Jewish people, and we are dedicated to perpetuating the cantor as an active officiant in synagogue worship,” he said.The scope of the Cantors Assembly has expanded since its founding, welcoming female members and utilizing rock and folk music alongside classical cantorial music. And if New York cantors once looked up their big cousins in Europe, now a world cantorate comes to New York, with Cantors Assembly members leading worship throughout the Americas, Israel, Europe, Australia, even Turkey.But this convention will primarily “reflect the hazzanut that has formed an integral part of the American Jewish experience,” said Cantor Henry Rosenblum, president of the group.
The events, including lectures, workshops, study sessions and a traditional weekday Maariv at Park Avenue Synagogue to be taped for broadcast by ABC, will kick off with a free outdoor concert, Sunday afternoon, June 7, in Central Park’s East Meadow. The concert, honoring Israel’s anniversary, will feature not only New York Cantor Sol Zim and 1,800 children from local Jewish schools singing in united chorus, but also such non-cantors as Pete Seeger, Israel’s Yaffa Yarkoni, Mike Burstyn and Yehoram Gaon — “the Frank Sinatra of Israel,” says co-chair Cantor Chayim Frenkel.
Monday evening, June 8, at Carnegie Hall, 22 cantors, accompanied by a choir and orchestra directed by Matthew Lazar, will present cantorial classics drawn from centuries of liturgy. Among the New York-area cantors performing will be Aaron Bensoussan, Farid Dardashti, Raphael Frieder, Dov Keren, David Lefkowitz, Fredda Mendelson, Jacob Mendelson, Howard Nevison and Sol Zim.They will perform works by, among others, Yossele Rosenblatt, perhaps the most beloved cantor of the early 20th century; Leo Low, choirmaster at a Warsaw synagogue in the early 1900s; and Louis Lewandowski, chief choral master in 19th century Berlin, whose free-flowing cantabiles remain frequent favorites in synagogue and concert.
On Tuesday, June 9, after a morning at Ellis Island further exploring the differing cantorial traditions brought here by immigrants, the cantors will move on to Fifth Avenue’s Temple Emanu-El for performances of Jewish liturgy composed by Aaron Copland, Kurt Weill, Leonard Bernstein, and others rarely, if ever, linked to prayers meant to be sung not in a tux but a tallis.