Friday, October 3, 2008

The Decline of the Cantorate, or The Cowardly Lion Sings to God

I went into Rosh Hashana this year with a lot on my mind. I had read (or listened to?) an online lecture on Rosh Hashana that suggested a good way to approach the day was to imagine it as a prototype for the year to follow. I should use it as a chance to set a new tone or trajectory and to examine stray thoughts to see what they indicated I would think about. And while that lead to some serious thought about serious things, it also, no surprise, lead me to thinking about Jewish music.

Specifically, I caught myself paying attention to how people related to the prayer leaders. Before I go further I should explain that on the first day of Rosh Hashana I took my gang to an afternoon family service at the nearby Chabad House. It was a small, intimate, service that was very much appreciated by my wife and myself (though it was frustrating to have to sit separately). The service was led by (I think) the son-in-law of the local Chabad rabbi, in from New York for the occasion. On the second day of Rosh Hashana I went by myself to my Conservative synagogue. The service was led by our Rabbi and new assistant Rabbi with support from our regular high holidays cantor. This service drew a far larger crowd but at the same time felt more remote.

There are moments when I can connect to a cantor. I really can, sometimes, get caught up in the powerful voice. Every synagogue I've been to on Rosh Hashana has had a cantor, so it's something I'm comfortable with. And I understand the pageantry associated with Rosh Hashana. It's a day for relating to God as King, so having the best, most trained voice in the room fill up the room with prayer is fitting.

But I'm not so sure it really works. My wife has, with good humor and only a slight criticism, calls our cantor the Cowardly Lion. She's referring to a certain emotional quaver in his voice that she has a hard time not giggling at. While I don't (usually) hear the lion, it is clear to me that the cantor is not singing to me, but for me. It's a strange, disassociating, feeling. It feels egotistical to say I want to be sung to, but if I'm being sung for, do I really need to be there? Can't you send me a postcard when it's done? Hi, Sang Avenu Malkenu. It went well. Hit high F. Wish you were here. sincerely, The Cowardly Lion.

The son-in-law of the Chabbad rabbi does not have cantors voice. Because it was a shortened services, there was lots of muttered discussion about what section to do next and what page in the machzor it's on. But the davening felt much more sincere and inclusive. Even when we weren't davening our selves, we felt as if were being led not performed to.

It's a strange thing. In Conservative synagogues and Orthodox shuls, the cantor used to be the center point of prayer. That's been changing for the last hundred years, with the role of the cantor diminishing. While there are excellent cantors out there (including, I'm sure, our own Cowardly Lion), who do their best to revitalize the cantorate, I wonder how much longer they'll hold on. And my idle speculation is nothing new. This has been an open question for a while and has been written about extensively. The following two articles, one on the Conservative cantorate and the other on the Orthodox cantorate are just two recent ones.

Singing the blues? Economy, declining memberships putting the pinch on cantors by Sue Fishkoff (Jewish News Weekly)

Last huzzah for chazzans?: Orthodox cantors face diminishing opportunities
by Sue Fishkoff (Jewish News Weekly)


YK said...

You make a great point, but I did a post a while ago with the exact opposite argument.

Because of your argument, the little "shtiblach's" mushroomed in the past decades, because people wanted a more cosy service. But at the present stage, most shtiblach's today have become too informal, more like a dinner at your friends house. Of course, some of them are great but as a whole, the concept of a "Great Synagogue" got lost and many people don't even know how to properly behave in the shuls.

One example, in the Jm Great Synagogue the congregates cannot leave the services before Adon Olam (shabbat night). If someone must, he should leave from a side door. And no one talks when the cantor sings. That's the traditional synagogue etiquette that is almost a rarity today.

Regarding the cantor himself, by definition he is the representative of the community - hence the word shaliach tzibbur, emissary of the community. But there's indeed a very fine line between davening to you or for you, as you correctly pointed out. I guess that depends in the personality of the Chazan himself, how he approaches the services. If he is having a snack before Musaf in Yom Kipur, he is showing that he is indeed davening to you and not for you. That's my opinion.

good post


Jack said...

Hi YK. I just read your post and, while we come at if from different directions, I don't think our argument's are really in opposition. If I understood yours, you're concerned that the cosy neighborhood shtiblach's don't ask very much of us. We don't have to behave well, know much, or be on time. If less formal = more spiritual, that's ok, but less formal = less commitment, that's not. I'm totally on board with that.

I think where I was going was more grand = more spiritual (through cantor as focal point for group spirituality), that's ok, but more grand = less connection (cantor as performer for disconnected audience) is bad.

The bottom line is that it takes work for a shul or synagogue to create an environment that encourages spiritual engagement in the community. Size of shul and style of prayer leading are both tools that can be used toward that end but are not ends in and of themselves.

YK said...

I agree.

But in the last years, a davening revolution has filled this gap between chazzanut and shtiblach - the carlebach minyanim. It specifically addresses the issues you have raised and in that setting all the congregation sings together throughout the services.

So the chazan in a carlebach shul is only a "facilitator", he the one who starts the songs but everyone joins him. I personally love this style and you can find carlebach minyanim everywhere in Israel. I posted a video last week from the carlebach minyan in Safed.



Jack said...

Right. And in many Reform temples (and some Conservative synagogues) have adopted a "songleader" who serves the same purpose as the Carlebach shul facilitator. I haven't been to a songleader temple or a Carlebach shul so I can't comment on whether I'd connect with either style. Knowing me I'd probably connect much better with the Carlebach approach.

But I wonder if either are necessary. Both start with the implied position that traditional nusach is an obstacle to a deep spiritual connection, an obstacle to be overcome by developing a new musical language for Jewish communal prayer.

While they make a compelling argument, I'm still not convinced that they're right. I feel that traditional nusach and even traditional chazzanut can be very effective if done with the right spirit. That spirit must (I think) be about connection and not performance (even performance to God) and emphasize the essence of each prayer. While nusach is supposed to do this, I've found that the variations in nusach (as I've experienced them) are so subtle that they're easily lost.

As one piece of evidence, the Chabad service I attended this week was effective (for me) not because of the melodies (which were very traditional) but because of the way the prayers were introduced and led.