Changing times for our cantors

New York Jewish Week recently used the death of Seymour Rockoff to proclaim “truly the end of an era” in an article headed “Where Have All The Cantors Gone?”
Its author, Ted Merwin of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, eulogized Rockoff as “the last chazzan standing in any of the five synagogues in my community, most of which had boasted full-time cantors for decades.”
I grew up with a cantor of the Rockoff type: a big voice under a big hat, charged with carrying the prayers of all his congregants straight up to Heaven. That was the cantorial style that Ashkenazi Jews from Europe brought with them to America.
But oh! How times have changed!
For me, the ultimate performance of that sacred task is embodied in The Savior of Barnow by Polish storyteller Karl Franzos. Here on Kol Nidre night, an ordinary cantor raises his very best voice to the skies, and with it saves the life of his congregation when it was threatened by German might. But what is probably your first thought on reading this would be wrong: Franzos died in 1904, long before the Holocaust; he was writing of a cruel overlord who terrorized Polish-Jewish peasantry at the end of the 19th century, typical treatment that sent so many Jews seeking new homes in America.
For many years, I belonged to one of this country’s few true Holocaust survivor congregations, founded by a group of German refugees who recreated their own old minhag in this new, welcoming place. The young rabbi they engaged here eschewed some of the formal old ways, which made for an odd sight as services began, when walking down the center aisle together toward the bima were the modern American spiritual leader in a suit, tallit and kippah and the old-country cantor in regal kittel and sky-high hat.
But here’s what has happened since that earlier era: The strong male voices have been replaced in large measure by those of the females who make up half or more of today’s cantorial students.
When women began attending American schools of sacred music, they came primarily from backgrounds of operatic training; at the same time, the younger males studying with them were drawn largely from the ranks of guitar players with folksy voices. Those men were not like the cantors of old, and — most certainly — neither were their soprano counterparts.
The ultimate game-changer turned out to be a young woman with a guitar, a pleasant voice, and an uncanny talent for turning ancient prayers into modern poetry and setting them to easy-to-follow tunes that everyone could sing. Debbie Friedman introduced to American Judaism an accessible approach to liturgical music: All the “Jews in the Pews” could now join in song rather than being “entertained” by high-hatted men with big voices.
And so it is that Richard Cohn leaves Temple Emanu-El here in Dallas to lead the Reform movement’s Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, while newly minted women cantors — no longer operatic divas — are taking his local place.
In our geographic area today there are both male and female cantors and male and female rabbis who lead their own congregations in song, while Itzahak Zhrebker of Shearith Israel continues to prove beyond doubt that Jewish Week’s proclamation of old chazzanut‘s death was highly exaggerated.
I still wonder what happened to the director of the Jewish day camp where I had my first group leadership experience so long ago. He taught us how to lead singing as well as two sacred rules: Always individualize, and never lay a hand on any child.
But he arrived on our last day with a length of rope, and tethered our biggest summer troublemaker to a tree! “I’m through with social work,” he told us. “I’m going to New York to become a cantor!”
And he did. That was 1950; I now realize retrospectively that Bertram Allen was riding the new wave of our cantorial future!

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