There are a lot of questions these days asking, just what it is that Jewish Cantors do? I say here Jewish Cantors, because one of the things I’ve learned this year is that other faiths, such as the Catholic faith, have Cantors, too.
As a child, I remember that the Cantor and Rabbi were an indispensable team at our synagogue. Although they both wore big black robes and tall hats when they led the services, they had different jobs on the bimah. The Rabbi told us things, gave impromptu teachings about the prayers we were about to sing, interjected jokes to liven the pace of the service, and of course, gave his sermon, and the important job of announcing page numbers.
The Cantor also wore a black robe and tall hat, but he seemed more mysterious. He rarely spoke, yet his voice almost effortlessly filled the sanctuary, as if out of nowhere, in a way that grabbed us from wherever our minds had wandered, into the flow and ecstasy of big, full, rich, fat notes. It was a strange contrast to me, those big ideas in words, and the big feelings in voice.
I especially looked forward hearing the Cantor at the High Holidays. And I admit, the average Jewish kid does not feel this way about going to High Holiday services…or Hebrew School…or Bar/Bat Mitzvah class. I did. So, now that you know, I can tell you that although during the Services, I may have wandered up the aisle and out into the lobby of the movie theater our congregation rented for the High Holiday crowd, I would keep my ears open for that voice back inside, the chanting that only happened at that special time of year. The sounds of the Cantor’s High Holiday Nusah.
What was it I heard that captivated me? It was the particularly warm rich sound of our Cantor’s voice. He had moments of grand climbing ascents and descents, but in a round full voice that almost floated through the air. I loved that sound, would come back into the theater and plunk down in any vacant seat and just listen. I would wonder if anyone else enjoyed or heard it as I did, in my core, in my cells, in my kishkes, resting there for another day and time.
These were the sounds of Holiness, they happened on the holiest days of the year. I looked forward to that every Fall; when school was starting, when we got new outfits to wear for the High Holidays–usually something woolen, which was never right, since this was the San Fernando Valley and it could often be in the 80’s and hot! We also got out of school, and could feel a specialness with our other Hebrew School friends, who were also uniquely out of school for those few days. And, I got to hang out in that air conditioned movie theater-turned-sanctuary; and be coddled with the visceral journey, from reassuring pleading to solace and redemption, the Cantor’s voice took us with him. It was a good trip.
It was good enough that when I grew up enough to make my own decisions a few years ago, I decided to play the instrument that I knew would make that sound with me, my oboe. I have no regrets other than having waited so long to do it. Moving along the trajectory from my holding the music in my core, to several years of lay prayer leadership, to playing the oboe, I’ve come face to face with the possibility of training my own voice to be as inviting and restorative as my Cantor’s had been.
I may or may not become a vocal virtuoso as he had been. I do know that our intentions when we speak and when we sing carry great power. I know that understanding silence does, too. I am learning the skills to balance in prayer leadership a wholeness and sensitivity of being, above and beyond virtuosic ability in singing. That comes with the confidence built from mastery of voice and training to fall into the prayer itself.
As a prayer leader, engaging with the words and intentions of the prayer comes through understanding the language it is written in, the poetry and pronunciation of the words as lyrics, the silences as well as the sounds, the halakhic and historic reasons for the prayer. Truly understanding them intellectually and technically brings them to life. Owning them, feeling the importance of them, and the genuine possibility of bringing others into sharing that experience, is what Cantors as prayer leaders, do.
This requires specialized training. I say this as an answer to my own questions, and those of others who wonder why we bother with all this training in Cantorial School. Why can’t anyone with a good voice be our Shaliach Tzibur, our Ba’al/a Tefillah, our cantor? From deep within the walls of the Seminary, I am learning how much depth there is to leading others into their prayer moments. There is a difference between a catchy tune and a prayer. We do need to enjoy services, or no one will come to them. We also need to have sacred space and time to come together and let our hair down, and share moments of joy and pain and gratitude together from our within places. Too many words, or too many melodies rob us of the richness and depth we can attain together in prayer. A Cantor knows where those places are; in addition to language and text study, we learn to find those holy places within ourselves, and we learn from the gifts offered by our mentors and coaches who show us how to make it a natural practice.
Returning to the quotation I began with, “If my prayer is fluent in my mouth…”, brings us to another aspect of prayer leadership, in the role of prayers for healing. The source of this quotation is an anecdote from Berakhot 34b. In the anecdote, the son of Rabbi Gamliel falls ill. He sends two scholars to R. Hanina ben Dosa to ask him to pray for his son. R. ben Dosa goes an upper chamber and prays for him, and sends the scholars back to R. Gamliel. Before they leave, they ask R. ben Dosa, if he is a prophet? His answer is:
“I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but I learned this from experience. If my prayer is fluent in my mouth, I know that it is accepted; but if not, I know that it is rejected.”
The two scholars note the time of the prayer, and upon returning to R. Gamliel, find out that that is the precise moment the son’s fever leaves, and he asks for water to drink.
What happened here? the power of a prayer that was fluent: natural, spontaneous, intentional. Where does this come from? not, as R. ben Dosa says, from any innate giftedness, not from raw talent, not something inherited in his DNA: it comes from a place of familiarity, of a spontaneity and trust. Prayer can be a practice that becomes so familiar that we mold and bend with it, much like a dancer who upon entering her studio, feels her body know it is once again time to engage, how my routine of soaking the reeds and putting together the joints of my instrument awaken my anticipation of the mix of pleasure and work that lay ahead in that day’s practice, it is what our most valued and revered artists have capitalized on, hours and hours of engagement. Intentional passionate engagement, until mastery, whether it’s a violin, piano, voice, photography, writing, figure skating, or yes–prayer.
Yes, as author Geoff Colvin tells us, talent is overrated. Yes, one can have a great voice but this alone does not make a great prayer leader, whether it is community prayer, or personal prayers in a healing relationship. Voice, education, training, dedication, mentoring, and practice are behind Cantors whose prayers are fluent in their mouth.
Cantors are a precious line of prayer professionals: From their mouth, to Gd’s ears.
I’m learning a lot right now, during the semester break from the Seminary.
The first part of the learning came in the form of סבלנות. The Hebrew word savlanut means “patience”. I had always respected the concept of patience as a virtue. I owned it, though, when I drew it from a basket of words, on my first evening, of my first venture, into formal davenning (prayer) leadership training. I was at the DLTI at the Isabella Freedman retreat center. “סבלנות”, yes, I struggle with patience: sometimes I have too much, and I get left in the dust, and sometimes, too little and, well, impatience is not a virtue!
Over the semester break, the gift and the lesson came in the form of resigning myself to just stay in bed and rest, and let all other plans go. Holidays with friends and all. Then, I was alone with just me, and my very active imagination. Like Ya’akov in the night, having stepped away from his amassed household, I began to truly wrestle, and name the things that are a blessing for me, and those which are not. I listened to my favorite oboe recordings, Joseph Robinson’s albums, and fell back into the swoon that brought me to the instrument: I listened to Cantor Gerald Cohen’s album of his music, Generations, and looked ahead with anticipation and resolve to playing some of the pieces on oboe, myself. I started writing, and this blog came about after realizing how much I miss writing and publishing. I finally finished editing the manuscript for a second anthology of personal narratives from my writing students. Not surprisingly, in my wrestling, Music and Writing came out on top; and my fearful and shy selves were named and recognized as needing to be moderated and fazed out.
I looked forward to stepping out, and the first activity in the queue was the Nusah and Nigun Intensive at the Mechon Hadar. Nusah and nigun are two forms of Jewish music. Nusah is the structure from which cantors riff and modulate to lead prayers, and nigunim are songs in various modes, with or without words. Both forms have soul stirring, captivating rhythms, cadences, modulations from traditional minor to major modal themes. The music was taught without musical instruments of any kind, all singing, and using the body as percussion instrument; hands clapping, knee-slapping-toe-tapping as drums. We even had a session on table top drumming. How resonate is your dining room table? or a hollow wall, chair back, door? did you know they make great percussion instruments, with the correct hand and finger-drumming techniques?
The Intensive also had a text study component. And there, in our study of the origin of the Amidah, the heart of the Jewish prayer service, we ran into Lot’s Wife. The thread is: the word עמידה, amidah, means standing. The prayer is said standing. Why? According to the sources we read, in the story of Abraham’s bargaining with Gd to save Sodom and Gomorrah, we learn to stand in prayer from Abraham’s example: After all the bargaining, Gd destroys Sodom and Gomorrah. We don’t know if it is because there just weren’t even ten innocent people, or because Gd had intended to destroy the cities no matter what, for their outrages to Gd. In the end, as we know, Lot’s Wife turned back, perhaps worried about the daughters and family left behind; regardless, she turned to salt. I reflected with my hevruta, my study partner, that this could be compared to the impossible situation that Holocaust Jews may have faced, being pulled away from family and herded onto trains and into camps. Should one stay back, look back, or keep moving ahead? Sometimes, we have to make these decisions, perhaps this story shows us with metaphor what could happen.
What struck me though, was the next verse. In the very next morning, Abraham gets up and goes and looks down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and sees the smoke rising like the smoke of a kiln. Why did Lot’s Wife look and become salt, and not Abraham? Perhaps it was because Abraham had returned to a place where he previously stood and found communion with Gd, at the same appointed time: for Abraham, his looking across the same plain was a regular act of prayer and communion, as opposed to the fear and doubt of Lot’s wife’s gazing back toward home.
Now, how are the text and music related? through nusah. As Jews, we pray several times a day, we have secular days and holy days, and we have seasonal prayers. Nusah is the spiritual, musical cue for time and place, that tells us what season we are in, whether it is a regular weekday or a holy day or Shabbat, and what time of day it is. All that, without words! This is brilliant, and this is what we know about Abraham: he had a regular prayer habit with Gd.
The system of nusah melodies has become so universal, that at one time, it was possible to walk into a synagogue service and know exactly where on the calendar and the clock one was, by the musical cantillation modes.
Unfortunately, with the Holocaust, and its disruption to, and destruction of, the stabilized fabric of life for Jews of pre-War Eastern Europe, much of this music was lost, or worse, abandoned. The people disappeared, and so did their traditions. Post-war Judaism attempted to adopt Modernism, assimilate, and adopt new customs from other faiths. There has been an effort in recent times to catalog and preserve nusah, such as in this Nusah and Nigun study program. This is also at the heart of Cantorial training. Years spent learning and capturing the souls of the nusah and prayer modes for the weekday service, the High Holidays, for Shabbat, for Festivals, and for services for the different times of the day. In this way, we as Jews can once again feel the cycles and rhythms of our lives through prayer. I feel privileged to be learning them, the lore of my Jewish heritage.
Thoughts at Hannukah 2011
Hannukah occurs at the time of year when the nights are the longest, creating a seasonal time of retreat to observe and review what has transpired over the past months, and what we may rededicate ourselves toward fulfilling as the increasing light brings renewed opportunities. During this past week of winter solstice, two events caught my attention; a vignette from a book about skinheads and Hannukah in Montana, and a brief but valuable conversation I had with another customer while waiting in the Christmas lineup at the local Post Office.
I read the story about the skinheads in a book I had just received in the mail from Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, “Listening For the Oboe”, written by one of the congregation’s spiritual leaders, Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum. Of course, the title of the book alone was immediately compelling to me: as most people know, I am an avid oboist; and, further, I do believe that nothing is a coincidence. A book by a Rabbi with oboes as the theme? I put everything aside and began to read, looking for mentions of the oboe in the d’rashot, or sermons, that make up each chapter.
I still hadn’t found mention of the oboes yet, when my attention became arrested by a vignette about Montana, in the chapter, ‘The Holocaust Speaks to Us’. Here, Rabbi Kleinbaum recounts that during Hanukkah in 1993, in a town in Montana, skinheads acted up and threw bricks at Jewish homes. As a defense, some suggested they not follow the Jewish custom and display their kindled Hannukah Menorahs in their windows, in order to be closeted and protect themselves. However, at the local First Congregational Church, one of the senior ministers had a different idea: he suggested to his congregants that they also kindle Hannukiot and display them in their windows. Now the number of possibly Jewish homes grew from 48 in the town of 83,000, to so many, that the police chief reported that it became impossible for the skinheads to harass and intimidate what became thousands of households.
The other Hannukah story that sticks with me is the conversation I had yesterday while waiting in line at my local Post Office. The customer behind me began to loudly speak out about how terrible it was that a disabled customer in a motorized scooter could not reach the cashier to pay, and how it would have been so easy for ‘the first person in line’ (not the woman complaining, apparently) to help by handing money for her over the high counter. I commented that the Post Office was not set up for people with disabilities, and that the clerk could simply have stepped around the counter to help, rather than passively watch while the woman in the scooter struggled to turn herself around to a different angle.
The woman in line coped with this frustrating scene by deciding, “I just don’t want to go there, I get so angry about things like this. A friend of mine had a hip replacement, and although she is mostly recovered, she has to use crutches. It’s changed her whole life; she never expected to have a disability and now she sees how hard it is and what people go through. Until you have a disability yourself, you just don’t think about it. Oh, well, I guess I shouldn’t get mad about things like this poor woman up there, there’s nothing you can do about it, anyway. Just don’t get mad, I guess.” I suggested to her was that getting mad was a good thing. I told her about a friend of mine with disabilities who is angry, too, not about how hard it is to function because of his disabilities, but because of the needless barriers, such as what we were seeing with customer at the counter, and that the woman’s friend with the hip replacement was finding in her new life. My friend takes his anger and actively advocates to make policy changes happen, with the intention that people with disabilities can do everyday things we all take for granted.
Then the bell rang, and it was my turn at the counter. The woman in line behind me smiled and looked thoughtful. Will she decide to stuff her anger, to keep her anger inside to herself, or will she take a step a step toward activating that anger into a dedication toward finding a solution?
The two scenarios this week, the calls to action, stick with me, like the riffs of a beautiful nusah, a traditional Jewish melodic with blends of sounds and feelings that vibrate with moods and intensities that go beyond words. The oboe, too, has penetrating sounds that, when played well, appear as if from Heaven and drive straight at your heart and soul: When skinheads pellet my home or a neighbor’s and ignite my anger, will I respond by withdrawing my Light, or with a show of solidarity that says “No”? and when I see that the Post Office is set up only for able bodied people, will I stuff my anger and expect someone ‘else’ to do something, feel sorry for ‘others’ who have disabilities, or will I take an action, write a letter, or advocate to make changes?
Hannukah is a time of rededication stemming from self-review: did I have a missed opportunity to respond to a threat to myself or others, and can I creatively activate my righteous anger or indignation toward a solution?
Hannukah Sameah, and May this Season be one of Rededication to the Path of Dignity and Acts of Lovingkindness.