REFLECTIONS ON GIVING VOICE TO ONE’S JEWISH IDENTITY
by Dr. Marvin Marcus
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,