It’s not over until the last chazan sings

Guitars in an Orthodox Friday night service service? It is not out of the question for a London cantor who wants to improve shul music

By Simon Rocker, June 9, 2013
Photo: Vicky Alhadeff

Photo: Vicky Alhadeff

It’s a summer evening and the congregation is getting ready for the Kabbalat Shabbat service, the welcoming of the Sabbath, on Friday. Someone taps out a beat on a tabla drum, a guitarist tunes his strings, another person takes a flute from a case.

Using musical instruments has long been a feature of Progressive services. But could this be a scene one day in an Orthodox synagogue here, too? It will if Steven Leas, cantor of the Central (United) Synagogue in London, has his way.

While Orthodox synagogues prohibit instrumentation on Shabbat, Shabbat does not actually start until Mizmor Shir, the Psalm for the Shabbat Day, he points out. So there is no reason not to allow instruments for the Kabbalat Shabbat service, especially since many UK congregations in summer daven well before the onset of Shabbat.

“I’ve seen it done in religious communities in America and Israel”, he said, and the United Synagogue’s youth organisation, Tribe, also thinks it “a great idea”. He has no doubt it will eventually catch on.

The South African-born cantor — a term he prefers to chazan — is leading a campaign to reinvigorate shul music as an executive member of the European Cantors Association. And part of that is to preserve what some fear is the dying art of chazanut.

Not a single full-time chazan remains in the United Synagogue and two of its rabbis who are recognised chazans, Lionel Rosenfeld, and Geoffrey Shisler, are due to retire over the next year or so.

Like his other eight US colleagues, Cantor Leas is part-time, although he also been able to sustain a musical career outside the synagogue. Whereas a full-time chazan was once the norm as a second minister in Anglo-Orthodox synagogues, now the US prefers to hire a youth rabbi.

He wants cantors to go to Jewish schools and youth camps to teach tunes to the young. “This isn’t just some old relic, it has got legs,” he said. “We are trying to change the perception that chazanut is only for the old, not for the new.”

While modern congregations may favour tunes to join in with rather operatic-performances, that does not spell the end of chazanut. A good chazan will respond to the tastes of his community and not expect them to “wait for an hour of acrobatics before you get the melody”, he explained.

“I’ve gone to a service where I’ve seen another chazan sing four or five pieces of proper big chazanut on a Shabbos morning,” he said. “To me, that’s crazy. I sing one piece of chazanut on a Shabbos morning. And the rest is ‘join in if you know the tune’.”

It’s wrong to think that the young cannot appreciate traditional chazanut, he believes. Central Synagogue often has students on a Friday night and when he does a piece of chazanut, “they come to me afterwards and say that was amazing”.

The ECA wants to improve training and set standards for cantors. There is concern that those leading services have only partial knowledge of nusach — the traditional style of melody which is appropriate to particular prayers.

Rabbi Shisler, of the New West End Synagogue, who is the composer of two books of synagogue music, spent three-years training as a chazan at the old Jews’ College. “My biggest regret is there is nowhere in this country for people to learn to study chazanut,” he said. “In days gone by, the wardens knew the melodies and would not tolerate a chazan who didn’t know the right melody. But now the laymen and most of the rabbis don’t know.”

When he asks some of those who sing in synagogue where they trained, “they say ‘We picked it up’. I say, ‘People pick up measles too.’

”Cantor Leas said: “We’ve had a lost generation almost. Let’s not worry about that, but about the next generation of kids, so in 30 to 40 years, we’ve got people who appreciate it. I admit that’s ambitious, but we’ve got to try it.”

The ECA, which holds its international convention in London this month, will be putting on a concert of cantorial music on Wednesday week at Central Synagogue as part of its promotional efforts.

“As cantors, we are able to do what the rabbis can’t necessarily do,” said Cantor Leas. “We can touch people’s souls.”


Steven Leas will be singing with two guest cantors, Sol Zim from the USA and Israel’s Yechezkel Klang, at a concert at London’s Central Synagogue on Wednesday evening, June 19.

Also taking part will be choristers from four choirs as well as a children’s choir.

Tickets are available from £17.50 from 0207-580 1355.

Last updated: 2:45pm, June 9 2013