Thursday, March 24, 2011

He Dreads Going to Shul

Daniel Schwartz has written a very intelligent and insightful article lamenting the loss of Chazanus – the cantorial chanting of the liturgy - in the Orthodox world. He’s right about that. Chazanus has all but been conceded to the Conservative movement. One would be hard pressed to find any Orthodox Shul where a trained Chazan (cantor) leads the service. He goes on to explain what Chazanus is supposed to do for prayer and why we should re-invigorate that tradition.

I must confess, however, I do not miss it. Not because I don’t value the ‘high church’ interpretative value of singing the liturgy. I do. But I don’t seek it or need it to inspire me. Furthermore I don’t like when it is botched. Which is most often the case whenever it’s tried.

Nor do I like the tedium that often accompanies Chazzanus even if it’s done well. In his attempt to invest it with meaning - a liturgical piece will be sung by a cantor for what seems like forever. Instead of inspiring me to more fully understand the meaning of the prayer, I will be looking at my watch wondering when it will all finally end.

In fact I often feel trapped on those rare occasions when I am Davening in a Shul with a Chazzan - even a half way decent one. Which like I said is rare. More often than not, these people have no clue about what they are doing musically or otherwise. They do not have anywhere near the talent of the great Chazanim of yesteryear – like the Koussevitzky brothers, Pinchik or Rosenblatt. Yes there are exceptions today that come close, but they are rare.

In my own case - I see prayer as communication with God. The most important thing about that is to know the meaning of the words and to clearly intend their meaning when pronouncing them in prayer. Any musical interlude for me by way of a Chazan who drags out his portion of the prayer is a distraction I do not appreciate.

It’s not that I mind the occasional Carlebach or Ben David Nigun applied to a specific prayer. I’m OK with it, although I don’t seek it out. But to me a Shul is about Davening, not cantorial music.

Even the great Chazanim of today do not appeal to me. Chicago recently hosted some Chazanim at a modern Orthodox Shul. My friends begged me to come. I was not interested in the slightest. It ended up taking an hour longer to finish the service than any other shul in town. I am however told by those who were there that it was well attended and that they were inspired by it.

Yes, their interpretation of prayer can be an inspiring emotional experience for some. But how many truly came to enjoy the concert? For most of the world – it is a show - a form of opera. Opera too is an inspiring and emotional thing for a listener to experience. Personally, I have no patience to wait for the cantor to finish his piece. When I find myself in these circumstances I usually can’t wait for the performance to be over.

I say all of this as the son of someone who comes from a long line of cantors. My father was a professional cantor all of his life. And my oldest brother was a cantor for many years. Perhaps this is a form of rebellion for me I don’t know. But I doubt it. I think I am probably more of a victim of the Yeshiva education I received that eschewed Chazanus.

The truth is that I loved my father’s Davening. He was unique – with unique cantorial pieces handed down generationally from his father. I still hear him in my mind every Rosh HaShanna and Yom Kippur during Nesneh Tokef - perhaps the most inspiring piece of liturgy on those days. I usually hear him singing it in my mind while mentally drowning out the Chazan. My father’s cantorial interpretation of the liturgy has never been duplicated. Listening to him on the high holidays was uniquely inspiring. But for me he was the exception.

Unlike me, my father loved Chazanus. He equated it with Torah. He had all the records (the scratchy old 78s) of the great Chazanim of yesteryear. And he loved to hear a good Chazan. But like me he could not stand incompetence – which was more often the case than not. Listening to an incompetent Chazan is worse than listening to chalk squeak on a blackboard. Whenever an incompetent Chazan ascended to the Amud he would walk away angry that the Shul would ask anyone like that to Daven for the Amud.

With but a few exceptions the art of Chazanus has indeed been lost to Orthodoxy. The Conservative Movement has picked up the gauntlet on this and has advanced its cause. I tend to believe that for the vast majority of the Conservative congregants it is a show. During the 3 days a year that most of them attend the synogouge – the 2 days of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur - how many of them truly hear the message of the prayer as interpreted by their cantor? It is nothing more than an operatic concert of sorts – with little understanding of the Teshuva it is supposed to evoke in us.

I must confess that one time several years ago on my way back from visiting someone in the hospital on Erev Rosh Hashanah I turned on the radio to a station that plays classical music. They were playing a recording of a cantor singing one of the liturgical pieces heard on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipur. I don’t remember the particular piece. But I do remember being extremely inspired by it. I could not get over it.

I had never heard anything like it before. Part of what made it so inspiring for me was the female choir that accompanied him. I remember thinking how angelic it all sounded - and thinking afterwards what a great loss it is that Kol Isha (among other reasons) prevents that experience from happening in an Orthodox Shul.

But that was a rare occurrence which will never be repeated for me on an actual day of Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kipur since I would never attend a service that has a female choir.

So I am back to davening without cantors. This is what I choose and what is most inspiring to me now. Less is more. The less ‘draying’ there is – the more I can concentrate on the words of the prayer.

The Yeshivos have indeed destroyed Chazanus. Perhaps intentionally because of the fact that many cantors of the past were not religious. Perhaps because they feel that ‘the show’ detracts from the actual purpose of prayer –communicating with God. Perhaps out of ignorance of its glorious religious past that predates the modern era. Or maybe because they see it as now belonging to the Conservative movement with which they want no association. I don’t know.

But it is a loss for people like Daniel Schwartz. And to my father who lamented its loss long before his death almost 20 years ago. He realized then that Chazanus was co-opted by the Conservative movement and it bothered him. But for me – well let’s just say that I’m not saying Kaddish over it.