In My Mind's I

One of Judaism’s wonders, I think, is its circularity, its seamless transition from one year to the next.
This always hits home for me at Selichot, when the musical mode of the High Holy Days is introduced for the first time. I wait from the end of Yom Kippur for that moment when familiar old prayers take on a startling newness; and always, there it is, waiting for me again.
This year was extra special because of the chazzan who rendered the new season’s first Chatzi Kaddish at our shul. He’s not a tall man, even wearing his high cantorial hat. But when he sings, he’s a giant! I’ve heard him often before, always in a much larger venue, singing from a remote pulpit or an actual stage. But here he was in a more intimate setting, and I was down in front, close enough to the bimah to watch him as well as listen. It was a wonderful experience. His is the old-fashioned chazzanut whose unparalleled resonance, although thought passé by some, still resonates with many of us.
When I was growing up, we had a chazzan who also sang like that. He was the physical embodiment of what a huge voice was supposed to emerge from: imposing height, and a chest as big around as any wrestler’s. He was, however, of the somewhat nasal school. This may have been his chosen style, or — as I thought about his singing many years later, when I’d learned a bit more about human anatomy and its built-in problems — he may have had a deviated septum. The shape of his nose made this latter a real possibility.
The nasality, however, wasn’t the main difference between that chazzan of old and the one I heard on Selichot this year. It was attitude. When the man after whom I once thought all cantors must be modeled put on his tall hat (what is the real name for a chazzan’s headdress, anyway?) and began to sing, he became regal. He was proud; you could see it on his face. His worshipful subjects were paying him rapt attention. The High Holy Days were his best of the year, his theater. And even though the audience didn’t applaud, he knew that everyone appreciated his performances. He was awesome, and sure of it.
This year, the voice was even more powerful. The man providing it was smaller in stature, but bigger in character. I could see it in his face. I was sitting close enough to watch the movement of his lips, the fluttering of his eyelids, the intake of his neck as he drew breath, and I was sure that he was not performing for us Jews in the pews. Somehow, he left his body behind and became all prayer. He was a conduit for us, sending everything he had upward, directly to God Almighty. He was doing what cantors are supposed to do: not playing to the house in front of him, but representing all those in that house before the Lord. He was awesome. I’m not sure he was even aware of it.
Karl Emil Franzos (1848-1904) wrote many stories about the Jews of Eastern Europe. One of them, “The Savior of Barnow,” tells of a cantor, small of stature but large of voice, whose remarkable rendition of Kol Nidre once saved a fugitive from the Russian army and the entire congregation that had hidden him. Franzos ends his tale by asking his readers to let this story “teach you to think twice before saying who is great and who is small, who is weak and who is mighty.” This year, I thought about that at Selichot.
So we begin a new year, and I begin it with a new picture. I hate being photographed, because a long-ago operation necessitated scraping a tumor off my facial nerve, causing long-lasting Bell’s palsy. I was lucky to have good results after six months of intensive therapy, considering the circumstances. My face looks normal enough when it’s in motion (although I, and those who knew me then, recognize this is a different face than I used to have), but the camera always stops the motion and emphasizes the surgery’s residuals. Photographer Holly Kuper wanted to take on my challenge and talked me into sitting for her. I’d still prefer my old face, but her photo makes me about as good as I will ever look, and I thank her. May she, and the cantor, and all of us move smoothly into 5769!

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