Home Opinions Ideas The slow death of the cantor

The slow death of the cantor

As synagogues evolve, the art of chazzanut is in danger of being lost WIKI COMMONS PHOTO

The Jewish New Year always sees our synagogues filled. The crowds meet all their old friends and wallow in the impassioned words of the rabbi. Afterward, the crowds vanish, and the synagogues stand largely empty till next year. And year by year, a growing void has been taking the place of a core part of synagogue tradition.

After 800 years of continuous development, the role of the synagogue cantor is disappearing, and with it the unique art of cantorial chant, known as chazzanut. It is under attack from all sides. Non-Orthodox synagogues are hiring cantors who have never known authentic traditional music. Meanwhile, among the Orthodox, untrained laymen are encouraged to lead services, supposedly because it is more “democratic” and encourages user-friendly sing-alongs rather than overblown solos – although the reality is that it saves money in harsh economic times, made harsher by declining membership in a secular age.

We live in an age of dumbing down, which is affecting all the performing arts. People are no longer willing to invest time and money in concentrated listening. Audiences for sophisticated art forms such as opera and symphonies are declining. The new chief conductor at the BBC Proms, arguably the world’s greatest classical music festival, has complained about arts funders who require new pieces to be very short. We now have five-minute operas, even one-minute concertos. Bite-sized music for people with short or no attention spans has replaced large-scale works that provide more rewards for the listener in proportion to the length of the piece. School administrators are cutting arts budgets.

Even our rabbis are telling us that synagogue services are “boring” – a comment that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Recently, the Montreal-raised, London, England-based Rabbi Naftali Brawer suggested that instead of a cantor leading synagogue services, we should have someone to “curate content-rich Jewish experiences” such as mindfulness sessions and Carlebach sing-alongs. (As it happens I have attended these kinds of activities – one Jewish mindfulness session was constantly interrupted by people eating, drinking, answering their phones and wandering in and out. As for Carlebach, how many people actually know his tunes well enough to sing along with them? Hint: there are now specialized itinerant Carlebach cantors who give teaching sessions.)

How significant is the unique art form of cantorial chant? It was in the musical DNA of every Jewish composer, from Meyerbeer and Offenbach to Mahler, Schoenberg, Weill and Bernstein. (It is reported that when Mahler was a little boy, he irritated the grown-ups in his local synagogue by insisting that they stopped talking during the cantor’s performance.) Every Jewish opera star grew up with chazzanut, from Leoni to Josef Schmidt and Jan Peerce, not to mention Friedrich Schorr, possibly the greatest Wotan of all time.

Synagogue chanting has been well described as “stylized folk song” – it has features of both folk song and classical art music, the simultaneous product of the masses and trained artists. It is constantly being refined and developed through selection by the community as a whole, giving us a body of melodies and modes that we call “traditional.”

Within synagogue chant there is a core repertoire of specific modes and motifs that identify each holiday and each ritual. This core, called nusach, operates like ragas in Indian music, or like the old church modes – each time of day and each holiday has its own distinctive sounds. Hundreds of years ago, any musical churchgoer would know what day it was and what the liturgy was celebrating just by hearing the music. This connection of music to time has now largely been lost in the church, but it still lingers in those synagogues that preserve nusach.

Some of the elements of the cantorial repertoire may be only a few years old, but alongside them are other elements that may be as much as 2,000 years old. The combined efforts of countless cantors and worshippers over the centuries have resulted in the polished, trusted end-product that we know today as our nusach. The poet James Merrill described this selection process in beautiful lines:  “a tone licked clean/ over the centuries by mild old tongues.”

Chazzanut is a form of music that everyone can participate in, and not a studied art form intended for passive listening, yet it is “stylized” in that certain features, such as the use of correct nusach – modes and motifs – remain fixed and are preserved by professionals. The cantor’s role is to be, in the words of Cantor Abraham Lubin, a past president of the Cantors Assembly, a “trustee of nusach.” The cantor has an important role: to summarize and direct the prayers of the congregation through his (or her) knowledge of the liturgy and through vocal mastery. We come together to share the moment in time and space – and this is precisely what the cantor can help us do, as he carries the thoughts and prayers that we cannot articulate for ourselves.

Throughout the centuries, cantors have provided inspiration and solace, especially in times of trouble. And through their improvisation, the cantors, like jazzmen, provide spontaneity and novelty. The cantor’s performance is best appreciated if the hearer knows what nusach to expect before the cantor starts to improvise around it. In this process, the age-old liturgy is refreshed at every performance.

Will authentic cantorial chant really die out completely? Perhaps not – we must hope that there will always be people who will keep it alive, just as there are people, out of touch with the 21st century, who still practise handwriting or care for wild plants. As Isaac Bashevis Singer said of Yiddish, please God, may it continue to die out for many years to come. So may it be for the role of the synagogue cantor. 

Charles Heller is the author of  What To Listen For in Jewish Music.

  • Joe Q.

    The preservation of nusach is indeed important, but does not necessarily require professional training. There are may talented ba’alei tefillah out there who preserve the various nuscha’ot through aural tradition rather than formal schooling.

    As for chazzanut, it’s one thing to treat it as a performing art in the concert hall, but quite another to do so in shul. Chazzanut can be lovely and inspiring when it enhances and uplifts davenning; when it “gets in the way”, it might have the opposite effect. Every person and every community has different needs.

    • Mordechai Bulua

      As a ba’al tefillah myself, I totally agree with you. I keep to the nusach as much as possible and only use niggunim (songs) for the piyutim when there is no nusach. I try to use song that the people know, so that they can join in with me. Davening is not a “spectator sport” , neither is it a “cantorial performance” and especially on the High Holy Days, where we can enable the worshippers to sing along, we try to do so.

  • It’s worthwhile to consider the historical origins of chazzanut in North America. Why it was once so popular answers why it has fallen out of favor. In NYC starting in the late 1880s, and surely in other places, immigrant Jews “treated [chazanim] with more veneration than they had in Europe.” This is from Jonathan Sarna’s intro to People Walk on Their Heads, pp. 12-14. He goes on to say, “What the chazan represented, I think, was the ultimate synthesis of the Old World and the New — a synthesis most immigrants sought to achieve but few succeeded….[The chazanim’s] arrival inaugurated another phase of traditional immigrant Judaism’s outward turn: the shift from participation to performance.” (It’s worth reading the whole section.)

    Anyway, if Sarna is right that “the rise of the chazanim” stemmed from causes including “the quest for role-models and the move to performance-oriented ritual,” it’s worth noting that (1) the symbolic role played by chazanim no longer applies and (2) performance-oriented ritual is the opposite of what people want. It has nothing to do with dumbing down. If anything, people don’t want to sit dumbly while someone, however talented, davens *at* them. They want to wise up enough to be able to sing *with* him or her.

    If we start at the basic principle that we want to keep traditional prayer melodies alive in a time when the trends have shifted back from performance to participation — then that doesn’t require a chazan. It never has — even in the past shuls with chazanim also had lay baalei tefillah share the load, and plenty of our ancestors’ shuls only had lay baalei tefillah. If the chazanim were once the ultimate synthesis of old and new, then how can our davening, similarly, balance old nusach with modern tunes?

    Here is one place that educates lay prayer leaders on how to do this:


    Congregational needs shift with the times. We’re firmly in an era where participation is valued over performance, and misrepresenting the causes as lack of money or lack of appreciation won’t help preserve the core values of what Jewish prayer should be.

    • I can only echo this many times. aAn occasional stirring solo is OK but generally what people crave deeply is communal singing. Creating a space where people feel free to join in enthusiastically is a different skill set than being a good solo performer.Ask people what their most meaningful davening/prayer experience was and many will recall summer camp or a casual family seder where everyone sang.

    • Borukh

      Just to clarify, Jonathan Sarna translated and provided an introduction to Rabbi Moses Weinberger’s book, “Ha-Yehudim ṿe’ha-Yahadut be-Nu Yorḳ”, written in Hebrew and published in New York in 1887. A re-issue was published in 1992/93. Sarna, a marvelous scholar of American Jewry and Judaism, considers it “The best single source for [an understanding of] Orthodox Jewish life among early East European immigrants to New York.” Weinberger (1854-1940} was an Orthodox Hungarian rabbi who came to New York in 1880 newly ordained and only 26 years old. The book reflects his own experiences encountering American Judaism and Jewish practices that were shocking to him, and which he felt reflected a world where “People Walk on Their Heads” – the title of the English translation. It must also be noted that the great chazanim of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (eg. Rosenblatt, Kwartin, Sirota – whose remarkable voices and cantorial art can still be heard in early recordings) represented a pinacle of their tradition. No doubt (as noted by another contributor in this discussion) there has been a shift in modern shuls to much more congregational singing rather than the older style of chazan and choir.

  • davidpgoldman

    We Jews have a high art with unique halakhic content, and it is a chillul HaShem to neglect it.

  • HazzanTzivia

    Those on this thread who refer to cantorial singing as “solo performance”, and “singing at” the congregation are, with all due respect, missing the point. It’s a horrible shame if that’s the only personal experience you’ve had with cantors. A good chazzan should be a shaliach tzibbur, a leader of prayer, able to skillfully blend “solo” and “participatory” moments in the service. For a congregation used to hearing the traditional motifs associated with each time of day and season, chazzanut is an interactive, call-and-response experience. By the way, chazzanim, such as myself, who have gone through a 5-year seminary program (same length of study as rabbis) are now routinely being taught to do the same with other, “participatory” styles of Jewish music, including folk and rock-style, with guitars. And yet, there is nothing wrong with a “solo” passage of music by the shaliach tzibbur, as long as it’s not the only tool in the kit.The history of Jewish music is so very rich, and IMHO just as valid as the “Torah” the rabbi shares in the drash. And does anyone ever think it’s okay to read the sermon out loud along with the rabbi? In addition, it’s been my experience that many people, including Jews, are not aware that a professional cantor is an ordained clergy member just as a rabbi is, able to officiate at weddings and funerals and Bnai Mitzvot. Many are also trained to do pastoral care. The sad truth is that congregations tend to hire an assistant rabbi before considering a cantor, not understanding what we have to offer.