by Dr. Marvin Marcus

Allow me in indulge in some reminiscing, which has become a serious preoccupation as I negotiate my eighth decade as a member of the human tribe. I’d like to reflect on how my Jewish identity— and my overall sense of self— are connected with sacred music.
My story goes back to the 1940s. I grew up in a Jewish household in Baltimore, in an almost exclusively Jewish neighborhood, in a community surrounded by relatives, friends, and acquaintances. We lived in a big old house on Forest Park Avenue, the first floor of which was occupied by my maternal grandparents. As family headquarters, the house was a scene of constant comings and goings. Among the older folks, Yiddish vied with English as the lingua franca.
My dad, a younger son of a prominent (or so we were told) rabbi, was raised in Lithuania and came through Ellis Island in 1920, thanks to well-heeled relatives who arranged for the family to emigrate. Eager to abandon his shtetl roots, Dad studied pharmacy and opened a corner drugstore in West Baltimore. As ‘Doc Marcus,’ he tended to his local flock for decades, dispensing medicine, advice, and a helping hand. My brothers and I took turns serving as soda jerk, stock boy, and prescription deliverer. But none of us had any interest in pursuing a pharmaceutical career, given the encroaching competition of the chain drugstore. Marcus Pharmacy was one of the last of its breed, and Dad essentially lost his bearings when he finally retired.
My mom was raised, incongruously, in rural North Carolina— one of six children of the Mazurs, the only Jewish family in town. Her father was in the hosiery and dry goods business, and the family managed to keep kosher and lead Jewish lives. My mom and her siblings all spoke— whether English or Yiddish— with a thick southern accent. To this day, the accent is music to my ears.
The two families ended up in Baltimore, on account of better job prospects. My childhood was, in retrospect, idyllic— and intensely Jewish. And here is where the sacred music comes in. Our world revolved around the local neighborhood, whose anchor was the shul, Beth Tfiloh— an ornate edifice on Garrison Boulevard. Incidentally, it has gone on to rank as the largest modern orthodox congregation in North America.
Services were presided over by our rabbi, Samuel Rosenblatt. He was a brilliant orator and a formidable intellect, with a faculty appointment in Semitic Studies at Johns Hopkins University. More to the point, Rabbi Rosenblatt happened to be the son of arguably the greatest cantor of the early 20th century— Yossele Rosenblatt. As kids, though, all that we knew of Jewish liturgy was thanks to our own hazzan, Max Kotlowitz. It was Cantor Kotlowitz who taught us hazzanut— how to daven, to lead services, and to invest it all with a spirit of kavanah— intensity and devotion. He was a product of East-European liturgical training, and as I think back on growing up in the Beth Tfiloh community, as a veteran of the youth choir, I can recall the Cantor’s majestic, plaintive, soulful voice.
Nostalgia is a powerful stimulant, conjuring a reality that perhaps never really existed. In point of fact, when I left home for college in 1961, I was more than happy to place my Jewish training and identity on indefinite hold. There were other things on my mind, and other things to do. The ensuing quarter century witnessed a wild ride as a college student, a three-year stint as social worker, seven years of community college teaching, and a lot of foreign travel. I adopted a hippie persona and regularly donned my backpack and headed off to weird— and ever-weirder— destinations.
One such destination was Japan, which promised to be interestingly exotic. And it was, in no uncertain terms! Kyoto, 1975. I was enrolled in a summer program that surveyed East Asian cultural history. So was Ginger. We fell for one another, and with Japan. A year later we were married, and that same year we began studying Japanese. A decade later I had a doctorate in Japanese literature, which I was able to parlay into a faculty position at Washington University. Thirty-four years later, I continue to ply my trade. Ginger went on to become a language pedagogue and is a leading authority on Japanese language teaching. We have two sons, Danny and Steve, who have dealt with their ‘identity challenges’ in interesting and productive ways.

But I digress. Getting back to hazzanut and my affinity for sacred music— thankfully, my many years spent ‘off the Jewish grid’ ended with our affiliation, as newcomers to St Louis, with a Reconstructionist Havurah group with which we readily bonded. We then joined Brith Sholom (BSKI), which in turn became Kol Rinah. Thanks to my Kotlowitzian training at Beth Tfiloh, I found myself taking the role of shaliach tsibur— a lay congregant who conducts services. I still do, and this mode of ‘sacred performance’ is immensely gratifying.

Although I cannot claim to anything beyond a rudimentary understanding of the long and fascinating history of hazzanut, allow me to point out that the formal role of hazzan as leader of public prayer services gradually emerged in the post-temple era, in Babylonia. This was a male-only institution— until recently— and with the diaspora there emerged local and regional variants of liturgical modes and melodies. The chief traditions are those of the Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities. Hazzanut, as understood from an American perspective, is largely tied to the century-long rise of the role of cantor (1850-1950), which was itself a byproduct of the emigration of rabbis and hazzanim from Europe to the U.S. My paternal grandfather was among their number.

As of the early 20th century, cantorial training and the hazzan’s clerical role became increasingly professionalized. The hazzan emerged as ‘deputy rabbi,’ in charge of davening, religious education, bar mitzvah preparation (bat mitzvah training was a relatively recent ‘innovation’), and so forth. Cantors in the Conservative movement receive ordination through the JTS Cantorial School. And as of 1947, they had their own professional organization— the Cantors Assembly.

The so-called ‘Golden Age’ of Hazzanut spanned the early- and mid-20th century, in Europe and the U.S. The cantorial elite achieved celebrity status; some were acknowledged as operatic-level virtuosos, and their recordings were widely available. Among the pioneering hazzanim are notables such as Yossele Rosenblatt, Gershon Sirota, and Moshe Koussevitzky. Several— Richard Tucker and Jan Peerce, for example— went on to major operatic careers.

As the 20th century progressed, though, hazzanut moved away from the traditional East-European style. Moreover, there was a gradual decline in demand for full-time cantorial services. Instead, rabbis who could take on the cantorial role were sought after, as were non-ordained cantorial soloists. Within the Conservative clerical ranks, women were admitted to JTS for cantorial training as of 1980, and they have assumed an increasingly prominent position.

In lieu of the ‘classical’ East-European hazzanut, there emerged new, and ‘new age,’ modes of religious songwriting and performance. The guitar would become ubiquitous, with the aim of encouraging communal participation and a joyful ruach. Notable figures in this reinvention of Jewish prayer and a resurgence of spirit and spiritualism include the much-beloved Shlomo Carlbach, Debbie Friedman (best known for her moving Mishebeirach healing prayer), and Rick Recht— a ‘Bruce Springsteen’ presence on the Jewish musical scene.

In closing, I should mention my personal connection with religious liturgy across the spectrum— be it Gregorian chant; the majestic masses, cantatas, and requiems; gospel music; Buddhist sutras; and so forth. There is an ineffable quality to religious chant— irrespective of the meaning of the texts being chanted— that moves me very deeply. And while I personally regret the decline— one might say demise— of the hazzanut tradition in which I was raised, I fully recognize the inevitability of change and the need for innovation, without which our religious institutions will become irrelevant and unsustainable.
What, in the final analysis, do we require of a kehila k’dosha— a sacred communal space that invites us to enter and to partake of holiness? My answer is simple: We need to sing, and to sing together— joyfully and soulfully.

In the spirit of Kol Rinah,
Marvin Marcus 

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