The job of the hazzan–-much more than the traditional "messenger to God"–-is deeply embedded in cultural, social, and religious symbolism, negotiated between the congregation and its chosen voices. Drawing on archival sources, interviews with cantors, and photographs, Slobin traces the development of the American cantorate from the nebulous beginnings of the hazzan as a recognizable figure through the heyday of the superstar sacred singer in the early twentieth century to a diverse portrait of today's cantorate, which now includes women as well as men.I haven't made it past Slobin's introduction so I don't have anything all that interesting to share yet. There was one bit in the intro that I really resonated with, though. In a section called "A Note to Ethonomusicologists" Slobin explained, a bit apologetically, that he had conducted 'in-group' ethnomusicology (meaning that he was a member of the group, Jews, that he was studying). He didn't apologize for doing this since he wasn't a cantor and knew little about cantors at the start of the project. He just noted that "1) the author expresses insider sensibilities and addresses the groups concerns as well as those of scholarship, and 2) non-Jews take less interest in the work as they tend to think of Jewish matters as being special-interest of esoteric. The two factors are interdependent, since despite ones best intentions the insider author tends to either take things for granted or overexplain." (emphasis mine).
I love that statement because it highlights one of my principal challenges blogging about Jewish music. I'm not particularly concerned with scholarship, but I recognize and embrace the fact that some of my readers will know a lot less (or nothing) about Judaism than I do and that some will know an awful lot more. I'm constantly walking the line between taking things for granted and over-explaining. It's nice to hear that I'm not alone in worrying about this.
Any way, I'll report it as I read the book and pass along some good bits and /or my reactions.
On a related note, I wanted to share a new resource I found called "The Virtual Cantor", a site dedicated to "promote the proliferation of Nusach and to make a Nusach readily accessible to those who have a desire to learn and a desire to deepen their Judaism." (Nusach is the style & melodies of Jewish prayer services.) The site has downloadable .mp3 files of Shabbat services and home prayers, High Holiday, and festival services, the Purim Haggadot reading, as well as life cycle events such as weddings and funerals. If you, like me, are either rusty or just learning, this is a great source for self study.