The cantors spiriting a comeback

By Lawrence Joffe, July 3, 2008
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Chazanut are convening in London in a bid to safeguard the future of Jewish religious music.

Judaism has a long and glorious tradition of songful prayer going back centuries, to the time of the Temple itself. But that cantorial tradition may well be becoming an endangered practice.

So warns Naftali Herstik, world-renowned chazan at Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue. Comparatively poor earnings, he says, has led many to regard a cantorial music as “not a job for a Yiddishe boy, and that sends some great talents to look into professions with an income”.

Herstik also chides “the short-sightedness of Anglo-Jewry” which, he says, shunned traditional chazanut in favour of “Israeli or American trends for ‘happy-clappy’ services” — a phenomenon which has fractured mainstream Orthodox communities. There is a real danger, he believes, that past musical treasures may be lost. Nor is the problem only aesthetic. The chazan’s “prime role and duty” is to spiritually connect the congregation with the Divine, says Herstik.

According to Moshe Haschel, chazan at St John’s Wood Synagogue in London, nurturing cantorial talent requires the right ambience “to bring beauty back to the service and the community closer to the idea of chazanut”.

Towards that end, Tephilharmonic, set up last year as a chazans’ network, support group and promoter of cantorial knowledge, is hosting Britain’s third international Cantor’s Convention next week.

Featuring participants from Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Germany, Israel, the USA and many parts of Britain, the gathering will take place at the Central Synagogue in Central London. Hirsh Cashdan, a moving force behind the event, welcomes the fact that so many young men are participating this year.

“They are the seed-corn of the future,” he says, and their numbers certainly dwarf those of the first convention, held in 2006.

Co-organised by the Jewish Music Institute, the conference will include a session by Great Synagogue musical director, Raymond Goldstein, on commissioning arrangements; modern approaches to synagogue music; similarities and differences between East European and Western Ashkenazi nusach, and “harmony and discord” (scrutinising relations between cantor and concert-hall accompanist).

It will also ponder the dearth of chazanut teaching in Britain and whether singing is “mystery, magic or just hard physical work”.

Unusually three medics are presenting talks, including specialist Dr Eliott Benjamin on how to protect the voice, especially while fasting and singing over Yom Kippur — “one of the rigours of the job”, jokes Cashdan.

Immediately preceding the conference, a Finchley Synagogue concert will honour the late Rabbi Julian Klein, “a lover, devotee and performer of hazzanut all wrapped in one”, remembers Haschel; and a man who Herstik recalls as a “fine sensitive person and a wonderful and loyal friend”.

Tephilharmonic is co-ordinating a scholarship to study the cantorial craft, established in Klein’s name.

Chazanut may often be erroneously perceived as being “old-fashioned”, but Cashdan, who recalls joyful singing at home, thinks it still reaches “parts that other types of service cannot reach”.

In his view, a cantor is no mere performer nor should a synagogue be like a night at the opera with congregants passively listening in. Traditionally, the cantor and congregation responded to each another in partnership — except where a cantor “needs silence and adds his personal touch as he communes emotionally with God”.

Cashdan adds that chazanut is by no means frozen in time. A clever cantor adds new tunes where appropriate, “building layers of music on top of existing traditions with a sense of continuity”.

In fact, fresh pieces are often commissioned and one convention participant, composer Stephen Glass, will show how modern approaches invigorate jaded services. But thoughtless or tasteless innovations just for the sake of it can ruin the effect, warns Cashdan.

Outside the synagogue, adds Haschel, the cantor can “bring something of the shul to the concert-hall and move people to prayer”,
while Herstik insists that there is a “hairline breadth between the stage and prayer service that should never be crossed”.

All of which suggests nuances of interpretation that July’s convention will doubtless unearth. Thanks to Tephilharmonic and the conventions, asserts Haschel, “we are raising issues that have been pushed aside for too long, and now people are taking notice of us”.

The convention runs from Tuesday July 8 for three days. Visit www.tephilharmonic.org.uk

    Last updated: 9:53am, July 8 2008