When cantors were celebrities.
BY NATHANIEL POPPER
Friday, January 19, 2007 12:01 a.m. EST
In early December, a bearded Hasidic Jewish man stood before a sold out crowd at Lincoln Center and delivered a concert of melodies that are normally heard only within the confines of a synagogue. The star of the show, Yitzchak Meir Helfgot, is an Israeli who was recently given a lucrative contract by Manhattan's Park East Synagogue to serve as the chief cantor--a role that condenses the power of the church organ and the delicacy of the church choir into one male voice.
Mr. Helfgot's appearance at Lincoln Center recalled an earlier, mostly forgotten era of cantorial music, during the 1930s and '40s, when cantors were the celebrities of Jewish life. A new documentary film, "A Cantor's Tale," warmly portrays a time when Broadway producers would try to lure big-name cantors out of the pulpit and into the footlights.
Mr. Helfgot's concert and "A Cantor's Tale" are two signs of a resurgent interest in the star turn taken by hazzanus, as cantorial music is known. But they are also a sort of reminder to Jews of a grand tradition that has largely been left behind, replaced by a new, more democratic, but decidedly less glamorous approach to Jewish music.
At the center of that lost world were men like Yossele Rosenblatt, Moshe Koussevitzky and Mordecai Hershman, tenors who were household names in Jewish Brooklyn. Hershman, like the other great cantors, began his life in Eastern Europe as an orphan in a Russian shtetl. From the Great Synagogue in Vilna, he was lured to America by Temple Beth El, in Brooklyn, which built a new synagogue to fit the crowds that came to hear him.
At a time when most immigrants could not afford a ticket to Carnegie Hall, the performance of a great cantor at Shabbat services was the next best thing--in fact, often better. In congregations across America a talented cantor became the ultimate status symbol. And one of the first talking pictures, "The Jazz Singer," was about the moral anguish of a young man torn between a career in the pulpit and on Broadway.
Jack Mendelson, the subject of "A Cantor's Tale," grew up in the Brooklyn during that era, and in the movie he remembers the desire these superstars sparked in him: "They had a whole entourage following them and I wanted that." The fame enjoyed by these cantors was not a predictable development in Jewish history; indeed, the cantor was not even a part of ancient Jewish ritual. The role grew out of the Bible's demand for a shaliach tzibbur, or messenger of the congregation, who was to read the Torah and guide the congregation. Over time, this position was increasingly filled by someone with an appealing voice, and melodies were developed to draw out the meaning of the words.
Some melodies are said to be Mi-Sinai, or handed down from Sinai. But others come from more humble origins like German drinking songs. Cantorial music reached new heights in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries, when Mozart and Bach were producing their works for church services. Separately, Sephardic synagogues in the Middle East developed a musical tradition influenced by the surrounding Muslim world.
America inherited all these musical riches. The Orthodox synagogues had their solo cantors, who performed in synagogues where musical instruments were not allowed on the Sabbath. In the Reform and Conservative movements, wealthy synagogues fought to have high-brow talent--even Leonard Bernstein--compose new music for organ and choir.
The sheet music and recordings of these earlier stars still exist, but their allure has largely faded for most Jews, though not for the obvious reason that people attend synagogue less often. Among the Orthodox, cantors are not as sought after because most congregants today know the prayers as well as professional cantors do, and often prefer to lead the services themselves, even if their chanting is not quite melodious. Cantors have come to be seen by many Orthodox as a showy frill.
In the Reform and Conservative communities there has been a long turn toward more participatory musical forms, like the sing-alongs that so many children learned to love at Jewish summer camp. Mark Kligman, who is a musicologist at Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary, told me, "the democratization of the tradition has become du jour."
Now, though, Mr. Kligman and others say there is a backlash--a yearning for the bombastic tenors like Koussevitzky. Mr. Helfgot's concert was sponsored by a three-year-old organization called Cantor's World, which puts together a radio show and a number of events that spotlight young talents with big voices.
Mr. Mendelson, the star of "A Cantor's Tale," teaches the Reform cantors of tomorrow at Hebrew Union College. The movie shows the joy he derives from teaching, but he clearly misses the vocal riches he heard as a child in Brooklyn every Friday and Saturday. "Hazzanus isn't in the air anymore," Mr. Mendelson said. "When I was a kid I heard the waiter, I heard the cars blaring, I heard everybody in the street. [Today] they hear nothing."
Mr. Popper is a reporter for the Forward.