High Holy Days time for cantors to shine

Posted: Friday, September 10, 2004

It's an overwhelming annual challenge, both musically and spiritually. For Jewish cantors, the High Holy Days are a tense time.

''It is, first of all, an awesome responsibility to be a messenger of prayer,'' says one of the Reform branch's most prominent cantors, Jay Frailich of University Synagogue in Los Angeles. ''It is the one time of the year you have everybody there. The singing load is quadruple any other time.''

Next Wednesday evening at the start of Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, Frailich will be singing and chanting at two services, with morning and afternoon worship following the next day. For Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) he'll do another double in the evening, followed the next day by 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. services.

Yom Kippur also is tougher than Rosh Hashana because the fasting regimen means no voice-soothing liquids may be consumed.

''The pressure is enormous,'' says Scott Colbert, who administers the Atlanta-based organization for Reform cantors. ''The cantor begins preparing several months prior to the holy days, preparing spiritually as well as musically,'' examining the liturgies and also tending to vocal stamina and general physical fitness.

Colbert's counterpart in the Conservative branch, Stephen Stein of Akron, Ohio, thinks other vocal performers often have an easier time of it.

Unlike a cantor, a soloist in opera or musical theater gets offstage breaks between scenes, he says. If a cold or flu hits, understudies are ready to fill in ''or if you're a rock singer you can cancel the concert. We can't cancel the High Holy Days.''

And Barbara Ostfeld, placement director for Colbert's group and formerly a cantor in Buffalo, N.Y., says the emotional power of the holy days adds even more stress.

''You run your eyes over the congregation and you see much pain, much love, much loneliness and many tender moments and it always did tend to choke me up. You need to allow those feelings to be expressed in your singing, yet not be so moved by them that your singing is impaired,'' she said.

In 1975, Ostfeld became the first woman formally invested as a cantor. Women have outnumbered the men training to be cantors in the Conservative branch the past eight years and among Reform Jews they're fast nearing majority status. (Orthodoxy does not have female cantors.)

Their job description is broadening. Today's full-time cantors are expected to perform most tasks that rabbis do except preaching and they occasionally do that as well.

Most need to be increasingly adept with folk, pop and soft rock as well as the more florid traditional styles, and to play guitar or other instruments.

On the High Holy Days, however, many Jews insist on the comfort of the old familiar melodies. ''One could chant the Kol Nidre with a more modern tune if one wanted to change jobs soon thereafter,'' jests Henry Rosenblum, dean of the Conservative branch's Cantorial School.

Frailich, however, programs some contemporary music even on the holy days. For Rosh Hashana, his choir is performing a new setting of Exodus 25:8 (''let them make me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them'') by Michael Isaacson and, at the Yom Kippur afternoon service, another Isaacson work memorializing the late film composers Elmer Bernstein, Jerry Goldsmith and David Raksin.

Today's congregants want to ''pray with music that is accessible, both intellectually and emotionally, and I would put an emphasis on the emotional,'' Frailich says. Most congregations think the cantor's ability to inspire congregational singing is as important as vocal artistry, a marked shift since the so-called golden age when cantorial stars were the focus.

''Years ago, it was a means perhaps even of entertainment for the old East European Jew,'' says Cantor Bernard Beer, who heads Orthodoxy's School of Jewish Music.

Israel Goldstein, director of Reform's School of Sacred Music, says when he graduated there in 1959, students tended to be men in their 30s who enrolled after failing to establish full-time operatic careers. Today's students are younger, he says, and synagogue service was their first choice for a career.

Traditionally, cantors trained as apprentices to older colleagues. But after World War II, each of U.S. Judaism's three major branches established cantorial schools in New York City.

The demanding Reform and Conservative schools require bachelors' degrees, Hebrew fluency and vocal talent for admission and they recently added a fifth year to the curriculum to encompass the widening demands upon cantors.

Both schools are small, with only a few dozen students, though enrollments have been increasing. Five years ago, President Eric Yoffie of the Union for Reform Judaism decried a ''serious shortage of Jewish professionals,'' including cantors, but Ostfeld says the past three years Reform has had more candidates than job openings. Stein says supply and demand are roughly in balance for Conservatives.

''It's a fascinating, multifaceted career and it never gets old,'' Ostfeld responds.

Students at Reform's music school agree.

William Tiep, who started as a folk singer, was drawn by the cantor's ''ability to affect peoples' lives through music.'' Operatic soprano Hayley Kobilinsky says she realized ''I could combine everything I loved most, everything important in my life'' in a singing career that served the Jewish community.

David Berger, who hopes to become a cantor in Israel, says the cantor's exciting challenge is ''to turn text into life.'' By means of the music, he says, ''the text is alive and different all the time, though the words remain the same.''

On the Net:

School of Sacred Music (Reform): http://www.huc.edu/academics/cantorial/index.shtml

School of Jewish Music (Orthodox): http://www.yu.edu/belz

Cantorial School (Conservative): http://www.jtsa.edu/cantorial

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