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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2012
Number 77
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Cantorial Challenges

An essay by Frances T. Goldman

The Making of a Reform Jewish Cantor/Musical Authority, Cultural Investment by Judah M. Cohen. Bloomington: Indiana University Press

An ethnomusicologist and professor of Jewish Culture at Indiana University, Judah Cohen has taken an insider’s look at the arcane process by which cantors are educated and invested/ordained to become musical authorities and spiritual leaders in the Reform movement of Judaism. The book is a result of three years of field work he did both in Israel and at the School of Sacred Music in New York from 1999 2002. The study was approved as his PhD dissertation from Harvard.

The Making of a Reform Jewish Cantor is a scholarly work which should be read with the voluminous notes accompanying each chapter as well as with a CD included to exemplify points along the way through classroom discussion and musical examples. This makes it rewarding but a slow and time-consuming process. The many quotes he includes from students and faculty at the School help to make us, the outsiders, feel more in touch with the inner feelings of the class members and their teachers and illuminate some of the methods and styles by which the students assimilate the large body of material both intellectual and practical.

The organization of the book has an effective arc framed between two different ceremonies of investiture (2000 and 2001). It then moves through an historical perspective followed by a detailed examination of the student cantor from initial application process to final projects and exams which after four years gain him/her the status to be called “cantor” with all the rights, privileges and responsibilities therein.

Perhaps the most concise definition of a “cantor” stated in the book is a quote taken from a publicity brochure for the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion School of Sacred Music, c. 1999: “For 2,000 years, the cantor has served as the Jewish people’s prayer leader before God, as composer of liturgical poetry and song, and as educator and communal leader. Today, the cantor is part of a professional synagogue team working to enhance Jewish life. As a calling and a career, the cantorate continues ‘to wed the worlds of spirit and art’ the mission for which the School of Sacred Music prepares its students.” Judah Cohen utilizes this description as he studies with and about the cantorial students he encounters on a daily basis for the duration of his field work at HUC-JIR both in Israel and in New York City.

If one stretches the definition of a cantor into an historical perspective, it could be said that the institution started with the Levite musicians of the early temple. We surmise from archaeological evidence of musical instruments, from the instructions given to the singer or musician in some of the Psalms and from later Mishnaic writings that there were accomplished musical presenters of the very early temple liturgy. We also know that the bible was intoned and by the 8th century those patterns or tropes were finally compiled and written down. By the Middle Ages, we have evidence that there was a precentor or hazzan in the synagogue. Commentary suggests that this individual have a pleasing voice, a clean, well-groomed appearance and have the highest moral integrity. He would have been expected to lead the worshippers in prayer, chant from the scrolls and also teach children. The piyyutim or religious liturgical poetry written during the Golden Age in Spain came down in both written and oral form and required sophisticated musicianship both to compose and interpret. By the late Middle Ages we have tunes which were institutionalized for certain holidays and liturgical needs, some of which are now referred to as “Missinai” melodies, as though they came down from Sinai. During the 19th century, Jewish musical scholar/composers and/or cantors such as Naumbourg, Sulzer and Baer began to compile the voluminous oral tradition of the synagogue based on “nusachot,” the particular modal, musical phrases which identify the individual liturgies by time of day, weekday or Shabbat and the holidays. Thus, a modern cantor has an awesome responsibility: to study, digest and utilize the many elements of a long-standing musical tradition and to meld them with modern musical practice and style in order to engage with and provide spiritual sustenance for his/her congregational family. We discover in this book how a Reform cantor may accomplish this lofty goal as s/he attains Jewish musical authority and becomes a member of the Reform Jewish clergy.

In order to provide full disclosure, it must be said that this reviewer, though a qualified Reform cantor, is considered to some extent an “outsider” as a certified cantor. That is what makes this book tantalizing for me. It also means that although I gained great insight from Cohen’s detailed and esoteric analysis of the path to investiture/ordination and authority, my main concern is for the health of the cantorate in 2012 and the people who are its practitioners. Cohen disclosed the other Reform path to the cantorate called “Certification” in his notes pp. 2308240, #7. I am in this category and was certified by the American Conference of Cantors in 1994 after about ten years of independent study, first becoming an Associate Member of the Reform cantorate, then passing exams at the School of Sacred Music administered by the American Conference of Cantors in New York in June of 1994 after which I was formally welcomed into the membership of that body. The cantorial certification program was suspended in 2006 but is to be reinstated in January, 2013 under the administration of the newly named Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music with coordination by Cantor Ellen Dreskin. Dr. Bruce Ruben, the Director of the School, described their plans for a new certification program which includes more stringent educational and musical requirements and a requirement to spend a summer in Jerusalem. Students enrolled will then embark upon an independent program which will include three-week intensives at the School and distance learning courses which would take advantage of new web-based and video learning tools. Certified cantors make up a relatively small group within the organization.

Though my personal path to the professional cantorate (“to wed the worlds of spirit and art”) was long and grueling, it was accomplished to some degree in a vacuum without the intellectual and social interface which exists at a seminary. As I read Cohen’s book, I was struck by how much I had missed by not being able to matriculate as a student at the School of Sacred Music. I felt I had benefited from the certification program and was grateful that it existed, but I believe that those who are “insiders” have a special bond and have shared a unique educational and spiritual process which may not be possible to replicate on the “outside.”

One of the many fascinating insights into the culture of the School of Sacred Music was Dr. Cohen’s examination of the application process for one to enter the cantorial program. Although there were many types of applicants with many different backgrounds and reasons for pursuing the cantorate as a profession, Dr. Cohen discovered that over half of the students he interviewed “came to the cantorate as a final and fulfilling career choice,” (p. 54) thus going to cantorial school gave people an opportunity to fulfill their spiritual lives and to have the opportunity to sing. Many of these students had degrees in music and had trained as professional singers. They now saw the cantorate as a better path to musical, personal and spiritual fulfillment than they would find in opera, musical theater or other performance or academic positions. They saw “the cantorate as a kind of professional singing career; at the same time, the music seemed to become a vessel for some students to explore their Jewish identities in new and inspiring ways.” (p. 55) This certainly describes my own motivation to enter the Reform Certification program.
On page 6, Dr. Cohen states his purpose in writing this book: “I aim to take a deeper look into the creation of musical authority by scrutinizing the process by which one such figure, The Reform Jewish cantor, gains identity and prestige.” Thus, the core of Cohen’s book is his close examination of the academic and artistic process by which male and female cantorial students in the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music achieve musical authority and then slowly begin to wed their knowledge and expertise with ideas about their own spirituality and meeting the religious and spiritual needs of future congregants. He takes us into the classroom, into workshops dealing with the different streams of cantorial tradition, into the world of private vocal coaching, and most fascinating to this outsider, into the preparations for “the Practicum,” a very specialized and detailed exercise in research and performance led by the student cantor for the entire faculty and student body. This is the culmination of each student’s experience at the school. Dr. Cohen writes with an insider’s point of view as he served as both a student and a teacher while researching his book. As mentioned earlier, he includes interviews with students and faculty on many facets of their experiences in cantorial school. Some quotes are not particularly illuminating or enjoyable to read because they are very colloquial and halting. On the other hand, many express deep emotion, commitment and pride towards their studies and performance even though other quotes hint at confusion, doubt and even disagreement with a particular teaching method or model. The CD also includes a few snippets of classroom teaching and discussion which may be illuminating only to someone who is familiar with the subject matter. From today’s vantage point in 2012, it is also very noticeable that in the past there was not nearly enough cooperation and crossover between the rabbinic and cantorial tracks, something now being addressed in the administration of Dr. Bruce Ruben at the School.

There is another caveat which I feel is important to note when commenting upon this fine book. It is now over a decade since Judah M. Cohen did his fieldwork. Not that the basic educational program has yet changed dramatically, but I believe that the trends in the Reform movement are changing the cantorate and will inevitably change the curriculum. Dr. Cohen alludes to these changes in his text and notes. For example in 2002, a requirement was added that all cantorial students would have to show instrumental competency in guitar; in 2004 a course was added exploring congregational dynamics. (pp. 227) These additions reflect two very important aspects of change within the Reform movement: the not-so-new but even more general use of folk/pop style, participatory music in synagogue worship; and the blurring of the lines between rabbinic and cantorial responsibilities and duties as co-clergy. Related to the changing musical styles prevailing in our synagogues, we must mention last year’s somewhat controversial renaming of the cantorial school after the late Debbie Friedman, believed by many to have become the musical/spiritual guru of our movement over the last thirty years though she was not a cantor. The kind of music Debbie and many others of her generation composed and the large influence of the Reform camping movement upon generations of Reform Jewish youth, including cantors and rabbis, have had a profound influence on synagogue liturgy. The success of music by Jeff Klepper, Dan Freelander, Craig Taubman, Danny Mesang, Dan Nichols and Lisa Levine, along with many more, is irrefutable and has proceeded at a rapid pace. There are more and more cantors and rabbis who play guitar and choose primarily camp or folk tunes when leading prayer. Many congregations now have at least one service a month which includes popular instrumental accompaniment. The classical Reform composers of synagogue music based upon traditional modes such as Solomon Sulzer, Louis Lewandowski, Isadore Freed and Lazar Weiner as well as those serious composers of modern liturgy, Ben Steinberg, Charles Davidson, Simon Sargon, Benjie-Ellen Schiller and Stephen Richards, again to name only a handful, are being heard less and less overall as a more accessible solo and choral sound and style prevails. I now ask: will the HUC-JIR five-year cantorial program prepare our 21st century Reform cantors for a synagogue culture where less and less of the rich musical heritage and legacy which they spend so many years absorbing is appreciated by either their younger rabbinic colleagues or today’s diverse congregations?

The other serious issue which I mentioned above and which may not have been as obvious when this book was written is the very real blurring of the lines today between rabbinic and cantorial authority. Both are ordained as clergy and often share liturgical, educational and pastoral duties within their congregations. Is there a disparity in pay and respect between rabbis and cantors? Noting that over half of the entering classes at the school is made up on women, is there a pay disparity between male and female cantors?

Has the recent economic downturn negatively affected more cantors than rabbis? Are more congregations electing to hire cantorial soloists, soloists or song leaders rather than hiring a cantor? Would congregations rather hire an additional rabbi than hire a professional cantor? The anecdotal evidence would suggest that there are some trends surfacing which may not be favorable to the cantorate. Many collegues do find that their professional expertise is utterly respected and they are able to utilize their talent, intellect, personal and spiritual gifts to enhance synagogue life to its fullest. Their education at the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music is relevant because they have the opportunity to teach about Judaism and spirituality and model Jewish values through their musical and cantorial artistry. Others seem to feel under siege by the demands of some rabbis and congregations to be relevant and on the cutting edge of today’s participatory, pop style musical liturgy while largely ignoring everything one has been taught of the cantorial art in five years at the School. Still others now feel that it is time to award full rabbinic ordination to cantorial graduates as well.

Change is certainly inevitable and often quite reinvigorating. The question is: are we now preparing 21st century Reform cantors for jobs which no longer reflect the curriculum being taught? Are cantors willing and able to blend styles from our rich heritage into a beautiful tapestry comprising old and new? And if we are seeking to transform ourselves from musician/scholar to spiritual leader as rabbi/cantor will there be a place for us on the pulpit? The new paradigms in worship and present economic realities demand new solutions both in educational structure and congregational relations. Dr. Bruce Ruben of the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music does not feel that the cantorate is threatened but that we must satisfy our new demands with creativity. The school continues their commitment to providing a relevant educational experience, deepening the students’ spirituality and providing the opportunity to create more competitive Jewish professionals with a range of new course requirements and mentoring.

Dr. Cohen’s work is an important history of a venerable institution, the first cantorial school in the United States, now known as Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. It is a detailed and fascinating study of the path to “ordination,” the new designation awarded cantors at their graduation ceremony. It demonstrates how an individual may transform him/herself from aspiring student into an ordained cantor with musical authority and spiritual leadership abilities. It underscores the deep commitment of our cantors and the scope of education required to become one. It should be required reading for all cantors in all denominations (including cantors and music ministers in Christian denominations). I also highly recommend it to anyone engaged in Reform worship or congregational life, whether clergy, leadership or congregant. One of the operational words of Cohen’s exploration is “transformation.” Transformation is, indeed, required and will always be required, not only to accomplish a single goal, but for everyone who is a part of the Reform movement of Judaism. We must listen to the deepest yearnings our hearts, reach out to one another across generation gaps, experiment with both old and bold, new ways to tap into the ineffable spirit of the divine. In doing so, we will continue to reinvigorate ourselves and our faith.


Frances T. Goldman is Cantor Emerita, Congregation Beth Ahabah, and Chaplain, Beth Sholom Lifecare Community, Richmond, VA

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