Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Traditional tradition vs happy clappy music. Or something like that.

My week for looking at and listening to cantors continues. (Check my previous posts on Cantors Leib Glantz and Erik Contzius.) I was just catching up on the JewSchool blog when I caught a set of posts about cantorial music. Go figure. Zeitgeist. Its in the air. Something like that.

It seems that the New Jersey Jewish News published an article on the state of cantorial music which first got a quick comment on JewSchool, which then got a long thoughtful essay on JewSchool. I'm going to briefly (BRIEFLY!) summarize the call and response here and add one or two of my own thoughts, but I mainly want to provide the links to the articles.

Ok. Here are the money quotes from each article

NJJN article "Sing to the Lord a new song" by Johanna Ginsberg :
  • "As congregations seek to engage more unaffiliated Jews, many see music as the key. But to the chagrin of some cantors, the lure is not traditional liturgical music but more contemporary American styles and melodies — sometimes derisively referred to as “happy clappy” music."
  • "The problem cantors are facing is actually twofold: traditional chanting styles being supplanted by the sounds of contemporary American music, and cantorial solos giving way to congregational participation. “This is the issue confronting the Conservative movement right now,” said Cantor Henry Rosenblum, dean of the H.L. Miller Cantorial School at the Jewish Theological Seminary. “In the last 20 years, there has been an anticlerical move. You see this in the increase in the minyanim with no cantors and no rabbis. People say, ‘As long as we have tunes we can sing, we’ll be fine,’” Rosenblum said."
  • Musical outreach poses a dilemma, she said. If contemporary music does indeed get “more people in the door,” is that worth “raising a generation of people ignorant of the depth of the traditional service?” asked [Cantor Erica Lippitz of Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange]. Her biggest concern, she said, is the “profound illiteracy of the American-Jewish community.”
The argument here is that we've moved away from operatic cantors because we're all anti-clerical and illiterate. The article also notes
  • Cantor Jacob Ben-Zion “Jack” Mendelson of Temple Israel Center in White Plains, NY (and the subject of the 2004 documentary film A Cantor’s Tale), thinks so. At the Conservative movement’s Cantors Assembly convention — held this month at the Hudson Valley Resort and Spa in Kerhonkson, NY — he led a session designed to show how to fuse the new and the old.
  • Cantors aren’t adapting alone; the educational institutions behind them are also changing. As Rosenblum said, “Today, we have to teach students to be as eclectic as possible. They must do Carlebach, Debbie Friedman, Joe Black, and Craig Taubman —you have to make it all part of their repertoire. If it were all traditional hazanut, we’d lose people. Those who find a niche are the ones who say, ‘I’m flexible. You want vanilla today? I’ve got the best vanilla around.’”

So, cantors need to adapt, but adapting means being "vanilla."

JewSchool post #1 "Can you marry Yossele Rosenblatt and Debbie Friedman?" by Reb Yudel.
  • This is pretty much old news, but one interesting tidbit describes the efforts of Cantor Jacob Ben-Zion “Jack” Mendelson of Temple Israel Center in White
    Plains, NY (and the subject of the 2004 documentary film A Cantor’s Tale) to merge the old and the new
  • As a community, we at Jewschool are more likely to daven to Automatic For the People than to old-style nusach. Or are we? Surely there’s something worth rediscovering and renewing in the traditional melodies, isn’t there?
Reb Yudal main contribution was noting that there are attempts find hybrids and that we shouldn't loose the traditional melodies, even as we're drawn to new forms of liturgy. (By the way, he gets hero points from me for pointing me to someone who actually composed a Shabbat liturgy around one of my favorite albums. I don't know that I'd want to do it every Friday, but it makes me happy to know someone tried.

Ok, finally,

JewSchool Post #2. "Traditional Traditions" by BZ.
  • The problem with the article, as I see it, is that even though it appears to present two views/values in tension, it presents them within a single frame, and accepts this frame (promoted by the cantorial profession) uncritically. The frame goes something like this: the ideal form of Jewish congregational prayer includes cantorial music, in a cantorial style, led by cantors. If all of us were wise and all of us were learned in Torah, then all of us would prefer this style of prayer. But because the present generation is so removed from Judaism and Jewish tradition, they prefer different styles (God have pity on their souls - they don’t know any better). And therefore, out of self-preservation, it’s sometimes necessary to adapt. But this adaptation is a necessary evil, it’s a concession to harsh reality, it’s bedi’avad, it’s kiruv for the tinokot shenishbu, it’s eit la’asot lashem, it’s “engag[ing] more unaffiliated Jews”, it’s marketing to get “more people in the door”. So the tension described in the article is between how much you stand up for the ideals and how much you adapt to our less-than-ideal world.
  • But this frame simply isn’t accurate. There are Jewishly educated and Jewishly uneducated people who prefer a cantorial style in their prayer, and there are Jewishly educated and Jewishly uneducated people who prefer a non-cantorial style in their prayer. And I’m not just saying that the way I would say that there are educated and uneducated Reform Jews and educated and uneducated Orthodox Jews (which is 100% true, but everyone knows which way the correlation goes). In the case at hand, the preferences cut perpendicular to denominational lines, and there isn’t even a conventional-wisdom stereotype (let alone more solid data) about which preference is correlated with more education. I don’t know whether there’s a correlation one way or the other, but the article presents no evidence that there is, beyond cantors’ assertions.
Ok. Just go read BZ's post. There is too much good stuff for me to quote it all or summarize it well. The point, this is way more complicated than wise cantor, illiterate community.

I started writing a thoughtful response to all this and realized I'm late for work. rats. I do have a couple of thoughts and will try to write them up later. They all sum up to the idea that communities change for good reasons and traditions die for good reasons. Blaming people for being "anticlearical" and "illiterate" with out looking at the why these changes happened is pointless.

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