When Cantor Seymour Rockoff of Kesher Israel Synagogue in Harrisburg, Pa., died last month, it was truly the end of an era. Rockoff had been the last chazzan standing in any of the five synagogues in my community, most of which had boasted full-time cantors for decades. Cantor Sherwood Goffin of Lincoln Square Synagogue eulogized his colleague as being equally at home belting out prayers in shul and performing in the Catskills; he noted that Cantor Rockoff’s own musical compositions ranged from an anthem of the Soviet Jewry movement, “Am Yisrael Chai” (“The People of Israel Lives”), to Allan Sherman-style parodies of classic songs, such as “Cold Chopped Liver” (sung to the tune of Jerome Kern’s “Ol’ Man River”) and “Boro Park” (sung to the tune of John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “New York, New York.”)
Where have all the cantors gone? For more than a century, the chazzan was viewed as the prime transmitter of Jewish tradition — think of Cantor Moishe Oysher in the 1937 Yiddish film, “Dem Khazns Zundl” (The Cantor’s Son), or entertainer Al Jolson in the landmark 1927 talking film, “The Jazz Singer.” During the Golden Age of Cantorial Music between the two world wars, tenors Jan Peerce and Richard Tucker could be heard, in the course of the same weekend, at both the synagogue and at the Metropolitan Opera.
Yet now the market for cantors, especially traditional ones, is evaporating in many parts of the country. Cantor Goffin, who is a faculty member and outreach coordinator at the Philip and Sarah Belz School of Music at Yeshiva University, told me that while 20 years ago YU was ordaining four or five cantors a year, now they ordain just one every four or five years. “Our mantra, even at the High Holy Days, is that we have no jobs,” he lamented.
Cantor Nancy Abramson, who served for 14 years at Park Avenue Synagogue, now directs the H.L. Miller Cantorial School at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She pointed out that the “Jewish world is shrinking, so the clergy is too.” The rise of folk music in the 1960s, she said, led to Jewish singer/songwriters like Shlomo Carlebach and Debbie Friedman, whose tunes made synagogue services more participatory, making a cantor seem less necessary to cash-strapped congregations.
Even as they have incorporated more popular melodies into services, cantors still seem to congregants, according to Cantor Nathan Lam of Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles, as “too frontal,” as if performing a concert. But Lam, who has helped to prepare Patti LuPone, Linda Ronstadt, Rod Stewart, Barbra Streisand and many other stars for their film and TV roles, believes that synagogues are losing membership because “people come less when they hear their neighbors leading services.”
Rather than having the rabbi give a sermon, Lam asked, “Why not hand it out in printed form for everyone to read?” After all, “It’s the delivery that matters.” For example, when Samuel Vigoda, the last of the Golden Age cantors, sang the end of the Unetanah Tokef (the High Holy Days hymn about “who will live and who will die” in the coming year), he “used a descending scale, like a coffin being lowered into the ground.”
But as lay people have learned to lead services and chant Torah, some believe, cantors are less necessary. Mark Slobin, a professor of music at Wesleyan University and the author of “Chosen Voices: The Story of the American Cantorate” (University of Illinois Press, 1989), told me that despite the Jewish value of hiddur mitzvah (beautifying the commandments), the chazzan is now often seen as a “luxury or ornamental item” that is dispensable, except, perhaps, during the High Holy Days when congregants expect a more “charged and special experience.”
Cantor Richard Cohn, who most recently served Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, is the new director of the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College. He reported that virtually all of his school’s recent graduates have been placed, largely through “broadening and deepening the compass” of cantorial skills. Since the rise of Jewish camps in the mid-20th century, he noted, leading camp-style singing has become a focus of Reform cantors’ education, although congregants are used to singing without cantors in camp and other informal Jewish settings.
Cantor Goffin concluded Cantor Rockoff’s funeral by chanting the Eitz Chayim prayer, a highlight of Sabbath morning services, sung when the Torah is returned to the ark. It was a fitting farewell not just to Cantor Rockoff, but to cantorial music in the community. Can shuls survive without cantors — or will we soon be reciting the Unetanah Tokef for some of our synagogues as well as for ourselves?
Ted Merwin teaches religion at Dickinson College (Carlisle, Pa). He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the forthcoming book, “Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of the Jewish Deli.”