It is the hardest task a cantor can perform in front of a congregation. It calls for a marathoner’s stamina and preparation, an artist’s creativity and humility, lots of humility.
“You’re carrying an immense burden on your shoulders,” Cantor Sherwood Goffin says gravely. “It’s the responsibility for everything the community hopes for and prayers for the coming year.”
The marathon in question is, of course, the liturgy and music for the Days of Awe.
Cantor Goffin, a past president of the Cantorial Council of America, has been chazan at Lincoln Square Synagogue since its founding in 1965 and a faculty member at the Belz School of Jewish Music at Yeshiva University since 1987. He knows this experience intimately.
“This is my 54th year, but I still spend the entire month before working on it,” he notes cheerfully.
Cantor Sandy Horowitz, by contrast, is a relative novice.
Having completed the program at the Academy of Jewish Religion earlier this year, she is preparing for her first High Holy Days as the ordained cantor of Congregation Adas Emuno, a Reform synagogue in Leonia, N.J. Joining the cantorate was a mid-career choice for her, but Cantor Horowitz was already a gifted musician, and had sung in her synagogue choir for 20 years. (Full disclosure: I am also a member of that choir and have known Cantor Horowitz for over two decades.)
Despite having performed as a student cantor “at four different congregations in seven years,” she says, she feels intensely the burden Cantor Goffin describes.
“It’s a job, but it’s also a sacred responsibility,” Cantor Horowitz says. “There’s more at stake spiritually. You must work at getting it right, but [that’s] not just the musical notes. There’s the ineffable piece of it, the sacredness of it, which gets very complicated. [That struggle] is going on in any service, but all the more so for the High Holy Days.”
As difficult as preparations for the Days of Awe may be for the cantorate, at least they provide a distraction from the ongoing problems of the profession: a decreasing job pool and coping with the changing tastes of worshippers that have reduced the opportunities for showpiece recitatives.
For Cantor Rebecca Garfein, the senior cantor at Congregation Rodeph Sholom since 1999, the High Holy Days marathon is a challenge she embraces eagerly.
“I always find [the Days of Awe] very inspirational, I look forward to them” she enthuses. “I find the process of preparing the music and sharing the music and having a dialogue with the congregation and God terribly moving.”
Last year’s services at the Upper West Side synagogue, she admits, were more difficult than usual.
“My husband was diagnosed with leukemia last July, so this was a particularly trying year,” she explains. “He has returned to health and I feel so grateful to God and my congregation and fellow clergy, particularly Senior Rabbi [Robert N.] Levine, for their care and support. If in some small way I can give back the gratefulness that I feel, that is something I will feel full about.”
Obviously, then, the events of the past year, good or bad, will weigh as heavily on a cantor or rabbi as they do on a congregant. But that weight is multiplied by the thousands of years of Jewish ritual, Jewish history that surround these services, and the greater complexity and sheer length of the liturgy and music.
“The musical liturgy is much more complicated and at a much higher level,” Cantor Goffin says. “A person who can daven on Shabbes [well enough to lead prayer] can’t daven at the level required for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. Just in terms of intensity and complexity, it’s a different world for a chazan.”
Cantor Goffin takes a practical approach.
“You have to be well-honed vocally,” he says. “I always say that it’s a mistake for cantors who reach the age of 40 or 50 to think they’ve ‘learned it.’ You still need a teacher or [vocal] coach. Look at Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic; they still travel with coaches to tournaments. Everyone needs to have someone watching him to make sure he doesn’t make errors. The vocal cords are two tiny muscles and they’re very prone to damage and injury. I study regularly and still go to a voice teacher.”
Just like the tennis champions, a cantor must warm up properly which, Cantor Goffin asserts, means devoting the month before to warming up. As Neville Cardus, the great British cricket writer and music critic, observed, “[D]isciplined technique is three-parts of any artistic or masterful achievement.”
Cantor Goffin says, “You have to work on your physical shape, go to the gym and your vocal instructor. When you walk into the shul you have to be in tip-top form.”
The preceding month, Elul, is also traditionally dedicated to exercise of a more spiritual nature, to the relentless self-examination that is the heart of teshuvah, the return to God. For a cantor, Cantor Horowitz suggests, that exercise is as essential as any physical or musical preparation.
“[During the services] a good part of my brain is going to be preoccupied with page cues, connecting to the rabbi and the accompanist, to the technical things that ensure a flow of music and prayer,” she explains. “If I haven’t done the spiritual work ahead of time, it’s not going to happen. It’s a funny role: the cantor’s job is to be an intercessor between God and the congregation but the cantor is also a congregant. I don’t have luxury of examining my soul for the first time on Rosh HaShanah.”
On a purely technical level, the emotional intensity of these services can actually interfere with the cantor’s ability to communicate with the congregation and the Creator.
“The voice is so connected to your emotions,” Cantor Garfein points out, “You can use the emotions but you have to be mindful that they don’t impede on what you are trying to express. It’s a very fine line that we walk as cantors, to express the music and the text without becoming so emotional that you’re not physically able to convey what you need to.”
Inevitably there will be momentary slips, she concedes.
“Sometimes you can’t hold back,” Cantor Garfein says. “When you have that covenantal relationship [with the congregation] they will forgive you. You have to be in that space, sensing what the congregation feels or may need, in an ongoing conversation with them and God and your clergy partners. If you can be in the moment, if you are genuine and sincere, that is what will come through.”