Today, I was going through some emails that had unfortunately passed their expiration date (seems to be a new trend with my inbox), and I came across this golden nugget from my colleague, Elias Roochvarg, that I just love. It's cute on the surface, but it really speaks to one of the core issues facing the modern cantorate. As the pendulum of synagogue music swings away from the traditional presentational mode towards congregational singing, many congregations are asking themselves if they even need a cantor anymore.
This sort of thinking presupposes that all cantors do is lead services (see my previous series of posts on What Cantors Do All Day yet to be completed), which is laughably untrue. And yet the myth continues. Why? Maybe it just seemed for too many years that all cantors wanted to do was listen to themselves sing.
Our real purpose is to help each one of our congregants and visitors to reach deep down to find and express their own inner voices.
To be sure, there have always been some of those, and there probably always will be. But, whatever the perception is, they have always been in the minority. The reality is that the great hazzanim have also always been the best teachers, the best at engaging our congregants in the multitude of ways that we are called to do so every single day of the year.
Yes, we are singers, and yes, we love to sing, but singing is only the beginning.
Our real purpose is to help each one of our congregants and visitors to reach deep down to find and express their own inner voices. We know that every Jewish soul has a voice, and our job, through everything we do both on and off the bima, has always been, and continues to be, to help you find your own voice.
Sometimes it will happen through congregational singing and sometimes it will happen while you're listening to Kol Nidre or some other favorite prayer that touches your heart in just the right way. Sometimes it will happen in a Bar Mitzvah lesson and sometimes it will happen at the graveside of a cherished friend or relative. Sometimes it will happen in a tot Shabbat class and sometimes it will happen in a pastoral counseling session when you think you've reached rock bottom. Sometimes it will happen at the Brit Milah of your child and sometimes it will happen at your wedding.
We will help you find your voice and connect to what really matters in your life, to God, to your family and to your community. That's what a great hazzan does.
I could say more, but I'll let Elias take it from here:
ON BEING A TEACHING CANTOR
By Cantor Elias Roochvarg
Our b’nei mitzvah lead almost the whole service on their big day. A congregational couple recently attended a family bar or bat mitzvah somewhere in Texas, where their niece or nephew did the Haftarah, the Maftir Torah reading & nothing else: The Cantor led all the prayers. The couple did not like it. They said to me on their return, “We’re so glad we have a TEACHING Cantor, and not a PERFORMING Cantor.”
At the time, I had misgivings about that designation, “What do they MEAN, not a performing Cantor!” But with the passage of time, I have become reconciled to it, and, in fact, now I’m proud of it. I wrote the following poem, to celebrate that designation.
Some cantors have voices like real Rolls Royces:
You hear just one note and you’re AWED.
When they sing a prayer, well, everyone there
Thinks they’re hearing directly from Gawd.
Some cantors have entrepreneurial skills.
They bring in six concerts a year:
From Klezmers to Rappers
And other toe-tappers,
In whatever style you want to hear.
Some cantors compose (There are a handful of those),
And others lead three or four choirs.
These skills they all ply, as they sincerely try
To fulfill their congregants’ desires.
And then there are those….like ME, I suppose,
Whose gifts are more modest in size.
We teach kids the trup,
And pray when they get up
On the bimah, they won’t paralyze.
We lead you in prayer, Torah readers prepare,
Do weddings and brisses and such,
Bar mitzvahs galore; each year a few more,
And the kids all come through in the clutch.
Visit the sick, console the bereaved,
So many more tasks in my mission!
And try to inspire a devotional fire
To more deeply embrace our tradition.
And so, though my voice is not a Rolls Royce,
Nor even a Mercedes or Hummer,
I love this profession and each bar mitzvah session.
To do anything else would be a bummer!