Elli Kranzler’s not a cantor, and he’ll be the first to tell you. He’s a 57-year-old psychiatrist, who’s been moonlighting since his teens as a “shliach tzibur,” a leader of prayer, representative of the congregation, but more like a man plucked from out of the pews. He doesn’t have a cantor’s voice, one that thunders. His untrained voice filters through a room like, well, moonlight. If cantors’ voices are traditionally like tubas, his is more of a mandolin, more Art Garfunkel than the operatic model that still dominates the trade.
“My goal is not to be heard,” he says. “My goal is to sing harmony with the shul.”
When leading services, he doesn’t wear a tie. Oh, he’ll wear one when he’s Dr. Kranzler,
but in shul he abides by a classic chasidic maxim: A man should wear a gartle, a sash of a belt when davening, to symbolically separate the lower, more animal-like parts of the body from the head and the heart. But, says Reb Elli (as he’s know in shul), a tie is simply a gartel “separating the head from the heart, and that’s not what you want when davening.”
His annual pre-Slichos concert, this coming Saturday night (9 p.m.), at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, leading into the Slichos midnight service, has become a seasonal touchstone for many across the city, with the audience as likely to be from Brooklyn as from his Bronx neighborhood.
Once he, though, went to Brooklyn for the holidays. He moved from New York to Baltimore when he was 4, but returned with his family through the 1950s and ‘60s to be with his grandparents in Williamsburg, in a shul where the davening “was deep and passionate, an engaged effort by the whole community.”
The shul was upstairs, a Lee Avenue walk-up above an A&P grocery. The shul was “chasidish,” Reb Elli recalls, but was it Stolin? Vizhnitz? It was a place for survivors, sitting not in neat pews but on wooden benches around tables. “The shliach tzibur was a guy named Reb Yisroel Rosenbaum, a businessman who worked for Barton’s. He had five, six sons who’d crowd around, singing with him. His first family was wiped out in the war.”
Reb Elli’s father would start humming a few seconds before Reb Yisroel, in anticipation of the next familiar tune. Reb Yisroel “davened from the heart, with tearful, joyful passion,” but when he led services “it wasn’t about him, it was about the davening,” and after davening, he “crumpled into a heap of sweat and exhaustion inside his tallis and kittel.”
Reb Elli says that when he and his brother, Reb Chaim (a shliach tzibur for the Drisha minyan on the Upper West Side) started leading davening, while still in their teens, “that was the image of what a baal tefillah [the leader of prayer] was supposed to be.”
Reb Shlomo Carlebach, this generation’s ideal baal tefillah, mentored the young Kranzler.
“My father learnt with Reb Shlomo in Yeshiva Torah Vodaas so, years later, when he came to Baltimore, he’d stay in our home,” singing in the living room, following concerts, until three or four in the morning.
“Shlomo was a baal tefillah par excellence, he really respected and embraced nusach [the proper liturgical melodies and form] but he played with it,” says Reb Elli. “He was a model for me, the idea of nusach as a jazz motif.”
Some rabbis may write sermons about Darfur or global warming, but Reb Elli’s orientation is toward “a personal, spiritual space. Being a psychiatrist, my personal [inclination] is to be internal.”
So, while leading services, he can sense a congregation’s Attention Deficit Disorder?
“On a given day, yeah,” says Reb Elli. “We are a culture of many needs and pulls. One of those needs on a Shabbos morning is to talk to each other. We’re all engaged in differing weekday pursuits that can be lonely or pressured. In shul, engaging God is one goal; our other goal is connecting with each other.”
Perhaps his not wearing a tie is a reflection of how roll-up-your-sleeves physical the leading of services can be. Reb Elli compares it to several sports, a boxing ring or a marathon, “I ran several marathons that taught me the power of committing, building endurance, breaking through personal limits.”
Foot-stomping dancers sometimes circle him, and then, perhaps, his space feels like a goalie’s crease, a private, “very intense space. When the people crowd around, singing along, I’m being carried. On Yom Kippur, I can’t think about how hot or tired or thirsty I am, it is almost an out-of-body spiritual experience.”
And so the physical endurance becomes a spiritual one. Before ascending to the bima, “I try to find a private space for meditation and yoga,” says Reb Elli, “thinking about nothing but davening. My main meditation is Elohai Neshama,” from the dawn prayer, “My God, the soul you placed into me is pure … You breathed it into me … eventually you’ll take it from me and restore it to me in the Time to Come…”
He explains, “When we breathe in, it is a kind of re-experiencing that Godly breath. And when you breathe out, we’re making the world a holier place because you’re giving of your Godly breath.” And, of course, singing is very much about breathing.
It’s a delicate balance for those leading services, choosing niggunim (spiritual melodies) from the familiar and the new. Like many leading services during the Days of Awe, he’s drawn to Carlebach and Modzhitz.
The Modzhitzer rebbe, Shaul Taub, who died in 1947, was perhaps the most prolific composer of chasidic music, ranging from the ethereal to jaunty Sousa-like marches.
“When we used to clean the books for Pesach,” remembers Reb Elli, the phonograph would be on and “we’d take turns picking albums. My father would play Modzhitz. I’d play Shlomo. There was this back and forth: Would it be Ben-Zion Shenker,” the leading voice of Modzhitz, “who was really moving us, or Shlomo?”
“I was very much influenced by the chasidic niggunim. We’d go to Satmar on Simchas Torah; Vizhnitz, Stolin, Kloyzenberg, we went to all of those Williamsburg communities where there was tremendous davening and joy. But then Shlomo, who was steeped in that tradition, took it to another place, simplifying chasidic tradition into its core truths. Modzhitz was more complex, more nuanced. Shlomo conveyed Torah three ways: he’d teach it, he’d tell a story about it, then he’d sing it with a melody that was a Rashi [commentary] on the words.”
After Yom Kippur’s shofar, Reb Elli feels “a sense of exhilaration and trust. We made the effort. What we accomplished — we’ll find during the year.”
And if it is our last year, is the accomplishment any less? Perhaps it is all the more, a Days of Awe for our own end of days.
“That’s why these davenings mean so much to us,” says Reb Elli, “if we can only hold on to these feelings.”