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For Cantors, Season Of Their Discontent

For Cantors, Season Of Their Discontent

Glimmers of hope amid loss of nusach tradition and cantorial positions.

George Robinson covers film and music for The Jewish Week.

Cantor Sherwood Goffin
Cantor Sherwood Goffin

Like musical Johnny Appleseeds, Cantors Bernard Beer and Sherwood Goffin have spent the last two years traveling the Modern Orthodox countryside — from the Five Towns of Long Island to Bergen County to Highland Park, N.J., and beyond — trying to replant the seeds of an art form that is fast disappearing from American synagogues.

At one recent stop, Cantor Beer, head of Yeshiva University’s Philip and Sarah Belz School of Jewish Music, is holding his audience spellbound as he imparts an ancient musical tradition, one that is meant to form a bridge to a higher spiritual realm. His subject is nusach, the style and melody of the religious service. In this case he is discussing the Friday-night Ashkenazic worship service, and his audience — cantorial students, cantors and lay synagogue members interested in leading services — listen intently as Cantor Beer walks them through a seemingly meandering path that is actually a straightforward guide to the nuanced motifs.

He is about to explain the transition to the “V’shamru” prayer (“And they shall keep the Sabbath”) when he states one of the underlying principles behind the dense network of musical traditions underpinning Jewish prayer — the movement from one part of the service to another, often complete with a thrilling sense of tension and release.

“It’s very important [to provide a] lead-in — this is the musical signal that leads into the special nusach that is coming up,” he says with undisguised passion. “It should excite you. If it’s done properly, with a proper intonation, with proper expression, it should excite a person, even more than the nigunim [melodies] that we hear, because it’s a change, a change that’s going to tell you that you are going into a new nusach.”

If there is one word that defines the state of cantorial, or liturgical, music on the eve of the Jewish New Year, it is change — and not for the better, according to many. The number of cantors in American synagogues has plummeted in recent years, the interest in cantorial singing has been flagging for many years and even congregants in Modern Orthodox shuls want shorter, let’s-get-in-and-out services not conducive to what a chazan has to offer. All of this has led to what cantors see as a rupture in a centuries-old liturgical tradition.

And it has lent a certain sense of urgency to Cantors Beer and Goffin’s journeys across America to replant the musical seeds of nusach, in the seminars they have been leading from coast to coast. The two veteran cantors are hoping those seeds might bear fruit for a new generation of would-be worship service leaders.

“Some [of those service leaders] are beginning to realize they need to set standards,” said Goffin, a colleague of Beer’s at the Belz School and the longtime cantor at Lincoln Square Synagogue on the Upper West Side. “They’re calling the Belz School to have seminars on how to restore proper synagogue worship.”

Goffin and Beer are facing long odds in what may be a quixotic musical journey. After all, how many Jews sitting in a synagogue recognize the phenomena that Beer was describing in his seminar — the delicate but powerful musical transition leading from one prayer to the next? According to cantors from across the denominational spectrum, the numbers who would recognize or appreciate it are dwindling. From Orthodox chazanim like Beer and Goffin to Cantor Bruce Ruben, director of the School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform movement’s cantorial school, there is a single voice expressing concern for the future of nusach in Jewish public prayer.

That concern is linked, in no small part, to a significant loss of jobs for cantors, particularly among Modern Orthodox and Conservative congregations.
“Forty or 50 years ago, there were almost 30 Orthodox cantors working full time in Brooklyn,” says Cantor Goffin. “Today there are three.”

The problem is part economics, at a time when some synagogues determine that congregants can lead the services, and part cultural — laymen are more educated today and familiar with the service yet have less patience for or interest in the pace and formality of cantor-led worship.

It’s a matter of taste, whether one prefers the kind of participatory singing that is popular in many synagogues or the slower-paced performance style of professional cantors.

One of the first casualties of institutional downsizing at the Jewish Theological Seminary was its H. L. Miller Cantorial School, which was significantly reduced in size and clout earlier this year.

“It’s rough out there,” the normally ebullient Cantor Jack Mendelson says, noting that a prominent Conservative synagogue in Philadelphia is not planning to replace its cantor, who is retiring.

“It’s just one job, but it’s daunting. We’re all kind of depressed in the American cantorate.”

One culprit is the economic downturn, which is still making itself felt in the Jewish community. But Cantor Goffin says that in the Modern Orthodox world, the problem predates those factors and is deeply rooted.

“Most Orthodox congregations today are populated by yeshiva graduates who are used to a yeshiva-type service,” he explains. “They weren’t brought up with cantors, didn’t experience them in that world and don’t want them. As the cantors retire, their jobs are left unfilled.”

Goffin is blunt. “The people in these synagogues know how to run a service, at least they think they know what it’s supposed to sound like,” he says. “There are some very good people in the synagogues. And intuitively they know how the prayer is supposed to sound. The problem is that some people think they’re terrific and they’re really awful, and sometimes the people who assign service leaders don’t know whether it’s being done properly or not. Quality and standards are starting to deteriorate.”

He points to another factor that works against cantors on the bima in these Modern Orthodox congregations.

“They want short services,” he says. “Now they’re even limiting congregational singing. They all are looking at the clock. They’re used to the Israeli-style service. They want to be in and out fast. They’re trying to impose that on congregations, limiting congregational singing and cantorial recitative.”
As the nusach tradition fades, what’s being lost in the rush, Cantor Goffin and others say, is incalculable.

“It’s the loss of something precious, of one of the more impressive creations of Jewish culture, of the Jewish way of being,” says Boaz Tarsi, associate professor of music at the H.L. Miller Cantorial School.

“[Nusach] is very effective in creating a specific kind of liturgical experience. It does it by articulating different parts of the service; it creates a sense of direction, moving forward at different paces, a sense of tension and release, an ebb and flow. And the music itself has a meaning that is autonomous [beyond the texts], that can only be expressed in musical terms. Take all the autonomous meanings that music creates, add it to words, and you get a whole other set of dimensions of meaning, a dimension in time.”

The result is a unique experience, in no small part due to how the musical elements are performed by the cantor, and responded to by the congregation.
HUC’s Cantor Ruben, invoking Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, says, “[Nusach] is part of the architecture of holy time, if you think of it in Heschelian terms. The architecture is created by that nusach.”

In essence, then, nusach — properly done, as Cantor Beer might add — gives Jewish worship a unique spine, an armature of musical tension-and-release that can hold congregants in awe. Or it would, they say, if the entire structure weren’t suffering from neglect, like an aging bridge that is our only link to a higher spiritual sphere.

And with fewer cantors being hired across the country, the logical figures that could maintain that bridge are in increasingly short supply.
But not all cantors feel as downbeat as Cantors Goffin, Mendelson and Tarsi. Cantor Ramon Tasat, president of Shalshelet: The Foundation for New Jewish Liturgical Music, is actually rather optimistic.

“I don’t believe that this is the end of chazanut in America,” Tasat says. “But I do believe that the role of chazan has changed and will continue evolving in many ways. I think we are going to have to be prepared to have many other tools at our disposal, not only the merit of communicating prayer through services.”

Ironically, it is the Reform movement’s cantorial school that is focusing most intently on nusach.

Citing the HUC-JIR connections of noted experts on nusach such as Adolph Katchko and Israel Alter, Cantor Ruben says, “Our students get the Katchko and Alter compilations of nusach for the entire [liturgical] year, as well as the work of Noach Shall, who is also on our faculty. From there we go on to do a great deal of traditional chazonos [cantorial recitative]. A good half of the time that they’re learning liturgical music they’re learning nusach. It’s a crucial part of our curriculum, and we take it very seriously.”

Cantorial students at HUC-JIR have an additional musical burden, though, as Cantor Ruben notes: “How do you integrate that nusach into Reform context, with other repertoires, from the 19th-century composers, like Lewandowski, the Eastern European style, folk material, the music of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s for choir and congregation, and all the Reform movement’s composers?

“We are trying to do everything, integrating traditional nusach and 200 years of Reform liturgical music as well.”

Meanwhile in the Modern Orthodox community, Cantors Beer and Goffin are continuing to take their show on the road, offering seminars all over the country, trying to keep the Ashkenazi liturgical tradition alive.

“We just did four consecutive Wednesdays in the Five Towns for lay people,” Goffin says, a few more musical seeds spread over the ground. “We went over the rules and the modes in great detail.

“We’ve done four-day seminars in Westchester, at Yale and Princeton, in Bergen County, Edison County, Highland Park. We get people who are interested in leading services to get up to snuff, to conform to the musical rules.”

Saving the liturgical tradition in four-day musical bites may be a long shot, but Cantor Goffin says, “It may turn around. I’m hoping.”

Cantor Ruben is a little more optimistic about the future of both the cantorate and nusach, although his optimism is “guarded,” he quickly adds.

“It’s within human nature to want to create meaningful worship,” he says. “Jews are going to need a cantor if that’s going to happen. And the nusach is part of making that happen.”

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