The kosher rubber chicken is down the hatch, and 500 synagogue officers from around the country troop noisily into the convention hall at the Wyndham Resort in Weston for the after-dinner musical treat. All day they have attended brain-numbing seminars on topics like "Can church and state really be separate?" Now they're ready for some fun.
For many of the Jewish leaders, the performance to come will be remembered as the convention's highlight. They are about to be nourished by the music of 18 cantors performing a program of Hebrew and Yiddish songs. Two of them, David Feuer of Palm Beach and Jackie Mendelson of White Plains, New York, rank among the most distinguished cantorial singers in the country. Two of the cantors are women, a sign of big changes in traditional Jewish practices.
The cantors aren't here tonight just to sing. They also are lobbying for respect in a Jewish world where demand for their services is declining. More and more synagogues, particularly in the strictly observant Orthodox branch, are deciding to do without them.
For most of this century, cantors have been charismatic stars. Many possessed glorious voices -- and egos to match. Earlier in the century, many Jews couldn't afford to go to concerts, so they got their musical entertainment in the synagogue. But the cantor's role transcended that of entertainer. Singing and chanting prayers for the members of their synagogues, they were as important, or more important, than the rabbis. To them fell the task of stirring worshipers to emotional heights rarely achieved through sermons. If the rabbi was the intellect in Jewish life, the cantor was the heart and soul.
The tradition of the cantor, or chazan in Hebrew (the ch is guttural), as both prayer leader and folk troubadour dates back to the previous millennium. Tonight's crowd, mostly on the far side of 60 years old, includes members of the dwindling band of graying cantorial aficionados. They still remember the glory days when great cantors were also popular entertainers. In the 1950s and '60s, thousands of Jews packed big auditoriums to hear cantor-opera stars Richard Tucker and Jan Pierce chant High Holy Day services.
Tonight's smaller audience is no less appreciative. The temple leaders sway and sing as the cantors perform duets, trios, and chorales. Some of the music is joyful, some is comical, some is grave. One of the first songs is a Yiddish tune that's full of grief. Tears pour down the faces of some listeners. But mostly the concert takes on the boisterous feel of a vaudeville show.
Cantor-emcee Steven Stoehr of Northbrook, Illinois, introduces the pair of portly baritones, Feuer and Mendelson. He quips that they are "worth the weight." Mendelson tells a scatological joke about a famous Israeli cantor whose Hebrew nickname is Dudu. The audience roars. Then he and Feuer perform an operatic duet. They pretend to vie for the microphone and to outdo each other in old-style vocal pyrotechnics -- dueling like fighter pilots up in the aural stratosphere.
Belying their antics the cantors have come to the convention as political ambassadors. Their professional association, the Cantors Assembly, has brought its entire executive committee and South Florida membership here, 40 cantors strong, to convince tightfisted temple presidents how important chazanim are to synagogue life -- not only as the congregation's voice, who pray on behalf of those who can't pray for themselves, but as all-around religious teachers and clerical partners with rabbis. Their unspoken message: Cantors are just as important as rabbis.
It's a controversial message, and not just with rabbis, who have commandeered the starring role in synagogue life. In fact the tension between rabbis and cantors is legendary. Almost everyone on both sides can tell a story about the cantor who shut off the rabbi's microphone in the middle of a sermon or the rabbi who forbade the cantor to visit the sick in the hospital because that was the rabbi's job.
In the overly busy America of the '90s, that tension is exacerbated by congregants' demand for shorter services, which leaves less time for both songs and sermons. "There's much less receptivity today to the pulpit artist," says Dean Henry Rosenblum of the H.L. Miller Cantorial School at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. "When the cantor sings a piece, people say 'OK, just don't drag out the service too much.' They're watching the clock."
Throughout the United States, there are about 2400 synagogues, popularly known by the Yiddish term shuls, and another 1600 less formal congregations, often self-led. But there are only about 1000 full-time cantors. The ancient cantorial tradition is slowly dying. If it disappears, many fear that an essential part of Judaism will vanish with it.
Besides shorter attention spans, finances can also be blamed for the reduced demand for cantors. "When a congregation has limited finances and businesspeople are running it, cantors are seen as an expendable luxury," says Cantor Mitchell Martin of the Beth Torah Adath Yeshurun synagogue in North Miami Beach. "The public perception is that we're still just vocal artists. But we're not there to prove we can sing. We're there to inspire the congregation and bring the meaning of the prayers to light through music."
That may be so, but having a cantor is a luxury for which many congregations, particularly smaller ones, aren't willing to pay. Cantors in large cities earn from $65,000 to $90,000 straight out of the seminary. (Rabbis earn 20 to 50 percent more.) These salaries make even devoted congregants pause. And yet one solution the Cantors Assembly does not propose during the convention is lower salaries.
Another threat facing cantors is changing liturgical practice. Congregations that are part of the more secular Reform branch of Judaism have moved toward sing-along, folk-style tunes and away from traditional cantorial music. Members of Orthodox synagogues increasingly feel that they know all the prayers and chants themselves and don't need a cantor. And a growing number of Jews favor do-it-yourself prayer groups with neither a cantor nor a rabbi.
Speeding the death spiral is the fact that supply is declining even faster than demand. Despite the attractive pay, not many young people are entering the profession -- certainly not enough to replace the thinning ranks of aging cantors. Few young Jews in an increasingly secular world have both the religious calling and the musical skills. Not many are even aware of the cantorate as a career option. The resulting irony is that, in a shrinking market, cantorial graduates from the seminary are immediately snapped up at handsome salaries. "We can't put out cantors fast enough," says Stephen Stein, executive vice president of the Cantors Assembly in New York City.
Larger Conservative temples, the leaders of which make up the audience tonight, remain the strongest supporters of the tradition of using cantors. For them the cantors have planned an interactive finale. They lead the audience in a new version of "Adon Olam" (Lord of the World), the closing prayer at evening services for the Sabbath and holidays. Cantors Martin and Feuer collaborated on this arrangement as a way of showing the synagogue leaders how having a professional chazan can enrich their congregation's musical life.
"We want you to take this song home and learn it," Stoehr tells the audience. The cantors sing the first verse, then the audience heartily joins in on the unfamiliar but appealingly rhythmic tune. The audience leaps up in a standing ovation and insistently calls for an encore. "No one ever goes home humming the sermon," Stoehr pointedly reminds the synagogue leaders.
It's the Friday night Sabbath service at the sleek Temple Emanu-El of Palm Beach. Cantor Feuer, a bearish-looking bearded man in a dark blue suit with a wavy crown of graying hair, is standing behind a pulpit adorned with a bas-relief of a lute. Behind him is the holy ark, essentially a huge cabinet containing the Torah (Bible scroll). The ten-foot-high door of the ark is covered by an ornate abstract relief of the tree of life, a symbol of the Torah.
In a rich, warm baritone, Feuer begins singing "L'Cha Dodi," a lilting poem that compares the new Sabbath to a beautiful bride eagerly awaited by her groom, the Jewish people. It's set to a lovely melody, a waltz, which he composed. The congregation of about 100, mostly older people plus a few children and teenagers, enthusiastically joins Feuer on the refrain, accompanied by an organist wearing a floppy-brim straw hat who's sitting in the loft. Feuer scans the audience, nodding and pointing to several people throughout the sanctuary, cajoling them with his eyes.
On the next verse, an adolescent girl in the front row stands up and sings, in a delicate, clear voice, a stanza of the sacred poem. Feuer beams at her through his wire-rimmed glasses. A half-dozen other worshipers stand and sing a verse in turn. Thirteen years ago Feuer started this now-beloved tradition of audience solos. He was fresh off the boat from Rosario, Argentina's second-largest city. Even though he's a concert-quality soloist and some congregants would like him to solo more, he strives to get the congregation involved.
Speaking to the congregants as if they were all close friends, Feuer tells them that this night is the 32nd anniversary of his father Bernardo's death. His father died young, at age 57. Feuer confides that he'll sing the next prayer, "Haskevanu," to a melody composed by his father, who was the choir conductor at South America's largest Orthodox shul. His father, he recalls, wrote music painstakingly with a pen, while David composes effortlessly on a computer. "I speak to him all the time," Feuer says with a wistful smile. "I ask him how he was able to write music that way, and he asks me how I can write on the computer."
Then, in his glorious baritone, he soars into the Hebrew prayer, and the worshipers gaze at him raptly, the prayer books on their laps temporarily forgotten. "Help us, our Father, to lie down in peace, and awaken us to life again, our King." The sound swells from his throat as though without effort. His tempo is fluid and his enunciation precise.
Arthur Schon, the temple's ritual chairman, listens with a dreamy smile. Schon and his wife Jean were vacationing from New York four years ago when they first heard Feuer sing at a service -- and instantly decided to move to Palm Beach. "My wife and I fell in love with his dovening [praying]," says Schon, a retired dentist. As a child Schon sang with a choir that accompanied the famous cantor-opera stars Tucker and Pierce. "Tucker and Pierce were better voices but not better doveners. David reaches into you and does something special in each moment, which makes the prayer electric. He may not even know he's doing it."
Unlike most cantors his age or younger, the 54-year-old Feuer learned his craft by studying with master chazanim. Throughout Jewish history the tradition of sacred song has been passed down from master to student, until seminary training took over in the United States following World War II. From age four through his teens, Feuer sang in his father's choir in Rosario, a city with a thriving Jewish community of Eastern European immigrants. After his bar mitzvah at age 13, Feuer's father arranged for the famous New York cantor Moshe Koussevitzky to do a concert tour of South America. Awed by the great tenor's singing, the boy began dreaming of becoming a chazan.
Feuer's father, who was famous throughout South America's Jewish community, trained many other young men to become cantors. But instead of tutoring his son in that profession, he told David one night that he wanted him to inherit his position as choir conductor. "I thought to myself, God forbid," Feuer recalls. That same night his father died suddenly. To put food on the table for his mother and sister, the 22-year-old reluctantly took over his father's duties, directing the choir for five years. "I had no choice, because I had no other profession," he says.
Frustrated, he began searching for something else. In Buenos Aires he met an American rabbi, Marshall Meyer, who had moved to Argentina and was much impressed by Feuer's singing. Meyer urged him to study cantorial music and opera, which was just the impetus the young man needed. He sought out every master cantor he could find and studied the ancient, complex system of chants and melodies for biblical readings and hymns, known as "chazanut."
It was a daunting task. One component of the cantorial art is cantillation, a system made up of 28 intricate musical patterns. It's the world's oldest method for writing music. These patterns are sung differently for different parts of the Bible. A second component is called nusach ha'tfilah. It prescribes distinct musical keys and chord patterns for each type of service, so that knowledgeable congregants can instantly recognize from the melodies alone whether it's a weekday or Sabbath service, a morning or an evening service, Yom Kippur or Hanukkah. Sabbath music, for instance, sounds joyful, while Yom Kippur melodies are solemn and regal.
Feuer had embarked on a musical and spiritual path too complex to be crisply explained. For instance the nusach incorporates musical influences from all the parts of the world where Jews lived after being exiled from their homeland in Israel. In addition to knowing the subtle musical nuances, the cantor must deeply understand the meaning and significance of the Hebrew words, so he can imbue each prayer with the proper feeling. And if he wants to be considered a true master, he must be able to improvise on the standard melodies, much like a jazz scat singer. The cantor's swirls of improvised melody express the deep emotions stirred in him by the words of the prayer. They amplify the prayer's impact on the congregation.
After Feuer had steeped himself in chazanut for five years, Rabbi Meyer asked him to serve as temporary cantor at his shul for Yom Kippur services and to sing the long, intricate opening prayer, "Kol Nidre." This was the cantorial equivalent of an actor being asked to play Hamlet. He won acclaim for his performance. His musical journey then took him to Uruguay, where he was offered a permanent cantorial job. During this period he married and had two daughters.
In 1985 he decided, like many South American Jews, to come to the United States with his family. In addition to the greater political stability here, the United States was fast becoming the world's last bastion of topnotch cantorial singing. Feuer, however, didn't speak English well enough to prepare students for their bar and bat mitzvahs. So he couldn't land a job. The family packed up and prepared to return to Argentina. Just before departing, Feuer thought to call his old friend Rabbi Meyer, who was back in the U.S. The rabbi promptly phoned three synagogues on his behalf, and Feuer received three job offers.
The position he accepted was at Temple Emanu-El in Palm Beach, because it was a small shul composed mostly of snowbirds. He figured he would have plenty of time to practice English before people returned for the winter. He thought he'd move on to a bigger temple when he became fluent. Instead he discovered a permanent home. The Palm Beach congregation was receptive to the new music he brought, including his own compositions. Just as crucial was the presence of a talented rabbi, Leonid Feldman, who gave him and the congregation plenty of time to sing. So he stayed. He has served in Palm Beach for 13 years now. During his tenure the congregation has grown from 250 members to 800. Cantors come from all over the world to hear Feuer.
"We have a very good relationship, which I think is pretty unusual," says Rabbi Feldman. "There's usually a lot of tension between rabbis and cantors because many cantors are frustrated opera singers who want to show off the beauty of their voice. The rabbi wants to be teaching Torah, not having people listen to a concert."
Even though Feldman and Feuer say they get along well, there are still traces of rivalry. "He has an ego, no question about it," Feldman says of Feuer. "He knows he has a gorgeous voice. But he has his opportunities to show off. In each service he has a solo, and I sit down, just like he sits down when I give the sermon. And once a year he has a cantorial concert."
"Each of us has his own ego," Feuer responds. "He likes to shine, too. There's nothing wrong with that. But the job of each of us is so particular. He teaches the meaning of prayers, I interpret the prayers through music. We respect each other's department. If a rabbi is singing with me when I am singing, he's competing with me, and that is wrong." Does that happen with Rabbi Feldman? "No, thank God, he doesn't have a good voice," he jokes.
Still, says ritual chairman Schon, some competition is inevitable. "Rabbi Feldman isn't chopped liver," Schon says. "He's just as much a star in his own right. It's tough when you have two stars sharing the stage."
Since the rabbi is the unquestioned leader of a congregation, the cantor is at the rabbi's mercy for microphone time. Dean Rosenblum, of H.L. Miller Cantorial School, says the chazan's second-fiddle role is a major reason why it's increasingly difficult to recruit men into the field. Three-quarters of the 31 students studying to be cantors at his school are women, as are two-thirds of the 40 students at the Reform movement's seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, also in New York.
A problem with this feminizing trend, however, is that many congregations still aren't ready to accept women leading them in prayer. And those that do often are unwilling to accommodate female cantors who have babies and need more time off.
In the Orthodox movement, only two or three cantorial graduates are entering the field each year, but the problems are different, says Cantor Bernard Beer, director of the Belz School of Jewish Music at Yeshiva University in New York City.
Unlike in the Conservative and Reform branches, the number of religiously active Orthodox young people is growing rapidly. But in the last decade, Orthodox congregations have increasingly rejected the use of cantors, preferring to have semiskilled laymen lead the chanting. One reason is that they are more strictly interpreting religious rules barring the repetition of words in prayer, which is common in cantorial singing. There's also pressure to spend less time on prayer services and more on studying the Torah. "They aren't looking for the aesthetics anymore," laments Beer, who is worried about the survival of chazanut. "They don't appreciate the skills of a cantor."
Earlier this month at the Wyndham Resort conference, about 40 members of the Cantors Assembly met to scratch their heads over the existential crisis facing their profession. But first they rose from their seats in the cramped meeting room and chanted a prayer commemorating four of their recently deceased colleagues.
Mostly male and mostly over age 65, all wearing yarmulkes, they took turns, each singing a verse of the prayer. Their mournful voices rose and fell in haunting arabesques, often breaking into tightly controlled phrases resembling chokes and sobs. While everyone chanted his or her solo in the same musical mode, their sharply contrasting melodic interpretations displayed the range of improvisational possibilities.
The prayer over, they went around the room kvetching about the decline of their musical tradition. "Nusach ha'tfilah is on the way out," said one old-timer, who asked everyone for donations to complete a five-volume collection of traditional music that is in the works. "I usually don't go around schnorring [begging], but all checks will be accepted."
Punctuated with numerous sighs of "oy oy," the cantors discussed various strategies for turning the dire situation around. Stein says he's hired a public relations firm to increase awareness of the cantors' role and improve their image. Strategies range from the silly (delivering teddy bears to hospitalized Jewish children) to the sensible (teaching lay people how to lead services) to the sublime (commissioning music for a brand-new Sabbath morning service from top Jewish composers). Stein instructs the cantors to go forth and schmooze like crazy at the conference. "Make like a politician," he advises. "Smile, shake hands, and talk about the cantorate."
But Dean Rosenblum urges them to concentrate on persuading musically talented young people to become cantors. "Get them into the seminary," he warns, "or we'll be the last generation doing this."
A cantor's importance to the shul does not begin and end with his singing. He must also keep synagogue music fresh and interesting to younger congregations. One way he does that is by teaching new tunes to the old familiar prayers. Another is writing new melodies based on the nusach patterns. "If you sing the same melody for "Haskevanu" every Friday night, many of the congregants will say, 'Hey, beautiful "Hashkevanu," but how about something different?'" says Feuer. "After all, you don't wear the same shirt every single day, do you?"
That's why he and Cantor Martin collaborated on a new arrangement for the 12th-century Iberian hymn "Adon Olam," the closing prayer at evening services for Sabbath and holidays. This was the finale performed by the Cantors Assembly for the synagogue leaders at the Wyndham Resort earlier this month. The most common tune for this hymn, with its familiar march tempo, was adapted from an old folk song in the 19th Century. Feuer and Martin liked a melody written for another purpose by Cantor Charles Osborne of Boston and wrote the new arrangement in Feuer's study at Temple Emanu-El.
Most Jews have no idea where the stirring melodies of the synagogue service originate or how much they have changed. They assume that Jews the world over have always sung the prayers the same way. One fundamentalist school of thought holds that the melodies were brought down from Mount Sinai. Actually, ancient melodies and chants have blended over the centuries with the folk music of the countries where Jews lived, resulting in three distinct musical traditions -- Eastern European, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern.
Since most American Jews immigrated from Eastern Europe, synagogue music here comes largely from 19th-century German and Eastern European cantor-composers, particularly Louis Lewandowski and Salomon Sulzer. Concerts of these composers' music are still performed around the world today. Their synagogue music, in turn, has deeply influenced American popular music, through the work of Jewish composers like George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein. In recent decades cantors and composers have experimented with everything from rock 'n' roll to atonal to baroque to folk music. The fourth, exemplified by the music of New York composer Debbie Friedman and the late singer-songwriter Shlomo Carlebach, remains popular in some congregations, particularly Reform shuls, though it is scorned by many cantors.
"It's the Camp Ramah syndrome," says Martin, explaining that Baby Boomers went away to Jewish summer camp in the '60s and '70s and returned wanting services to sound like campfire folksinging. "We want to get people involved, but the synagogue has to have a certain level of dignity." He boasts that within the constraints of traditional cantorial music, he brings great musical variation to the temple services. "I've never done the exact same service note for note," he says. "I've got ten different melodies for every prayer."
He is eager to introduce the new music for Sabbath morning services that is being commissioned by the Cantors Assembly. One hundred leading Jewish composers and cantors, including popular songwriters like Stephen Sondheim and Marvin Hamlisch, are being asked to write music with parts for a cantor and a children's choir. The assembly then will help synagogues around the country establish such choirs to perform the new service. The fervent hope is to present cantorial music to children who have never heard of it and to instill a love for chazanut in a new generation of Jews. It wouldn't hurt, from the Cantors Assembly's point of view, if the new musical service also heightened public awareness of the role of the cantor.
Feuer is campaigning to have his father's music included in that new Sabbath service, so Bernardo Feuer would finally be recognized as one of the best modern Jewish composers. Feuer wishes to follow in his father's footsteps, awakening in young Jews the desire to become cantors and training them in chazanut.
"A former student of mine told me that my teaching of the melodies and prayers inspired him to become a better Jew, and he ended up becoming an Orthodox rabbi," he says. Behind him, on the wall of his office, is a photo of himself as a skinny teenager performing with his father. "I'm very proud of that. That's the best prize I could have in life."
Feuer is so highly regarded that other cantors come to him for voice lessons. Every Tuesday morning Martin, an accomplished singer himself, drives all the way from North Miami Beach for coaching. In return Martin, a computer maven, shows Feuer digital tricks, such as the magic of new music-writing software, which, when hooked up to an electric keyboard, plays a song in whatever tempo or style Feuer clicks on.
The two cantors, who both look like they need to reduce their intake of potato latkes, make an interesting pair. Feuer has the gravity of a scholar and the pride of an opera singer. Martin, age 46, is a fast-talking kibitzer, quick with the wisecrack, who's a little more humble about his singing talents. While Feuer comes from the older cantorial tradition of learning through apprenticeship, Martin straddles the old and new worlds. He apprenticed with the great cantor David Koussevitzky, but unlike Feuer, he also received formal cantorial training at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
"David has an exceptional voice," says Martin, who's originally from Toronto. "That's why I'm studying with him." He plans to attend Feuer's big concert next March when Feuer will be paired with famed Israeli cantor Dudu Fisher, one of the original stars of Les Misérables on Broadway. "For you, I'll give up the $70 fee I get from teaching Hebrew high school that night," Martin teases Feuer. "You can reimburse me."
Both men stress that every singer needs a coach. Feuer has one, too. "Each of us has to fight to become a little better," he says. "It's like being a professional tennis player. Even if you are number one, you need someone to tell you that you made a bad move."
With Feuer playing accompaniment on a baby grand piano, Martin booms out a haunting Hebrew song, "Al Kol Ayleh," which he will perform that night at a candlelight vigil in Miami for Jewish women who are victims of domestic abuse. "Through the pain and through the pleasure,/Through the peaceful and the wild,/Are the tiny fragile treasures,/God protect that child," he sings in his pleasant lyric baritone.
"Let's stop here, it's too heavy," says Feuer, a stern perfectionist who constantly reminds his students, both adults and children, to focus on the meaning of the words. "This is a love song. So talk in a normal conversational tone, don't be boring." Martin tries again. "OK, much better. But it's like you're pushing horses. It's about love. Be sweet." After 45 minutes of tough coaching, Martin must leave. "Sing all the vowels like O, that's your best sound," Feuer advises as they part. "Think all the time in that sound, O."
That night, Martin stands before 200 people, mostly women, sitting on folding chairs in a grassy field. He's flanked by two crude cardboard cutouts representing women killed by abusive partners. A brief description of who they were and how they died is printed on the mannequins' chests. The notes of an electric keyboard ring out, and the crowd falls silent. Martin's voice floats over the field.
Martin sings the song he rehearsed. Remembering his coach's advice, he sings it softly and sweetly, like a love song.
Unlike old-time cantors, who did almost nothing except chant prayers and prepare their music, Martin and Feuer spend much of their time on pastoral and educational work like the candlelight vigil. Today's cantors visit the sick, sing at weddings and funerals, and preside at ritual circumcisions. This often leads to 14-hour days. Feuer's and Martin's beepers and cell phones chirp constantly.
While he's not the concert artist that Feuer is, Martin expresses pride in being an all-around minister to his congregation. Not only does he teach 70 children who are preparing for their bar and bat mitzvahs, but he also holds classes for adults wanting to learn more about Judaism. "People don't come to synagogue, because they're embarrassed that they don't know the melodies and prayers," he explains. "I teach them the basics to make them feel comfortable. Then maybe they'll come."
One of the teaching duties he particularly enjoys is leading a senior choir, the Zimriah Choral Society, which started 24 years ago with 60 members and is now down to less than a dozen because of death and decrepitude. The group is currently rehearsing for a performance at a Jewish nursing home in Palm Garden. Sitting behind the ivories of an old, off-key baby grand in the library at a Jewish community center, Martin leads them through their repertoire.
"We've got to wow them with this one, or we'll lose them," he warns the singers, trying to get them to swing more on the opening number. He plinks out the intro to the swing classic "Sentimental Journey." "Ida, make with the hands," he calls out to 83-year-old Ida Iskowitz, who is wearing a psychedelic yellow, orange, and purple blouse and a thick wad of rubber bands around her wrist.
"What do you want, I'm Jewish," she replies with a shrug, then leads the group of six women and three men by gesturing broadly and singing in a foghorn voice, "Gonna take a sentimental journey ." George Rosenthal takes a break from munching on pistachio nuts, stands up, and abruptly shouts, "All aboard, let's go!"
"All right, it's noon, and my beeper's going crazy. I gotta go," Martin tells the group after 90 minutes of musical high jinks. On his way out, he chuckles. "David [Feuer] wouldn't do something like this. But I don't mind getting down and dirty. I've become a celebrity with the old ladies here."
"Cantor Martin is marvelous," gushes Molly Deckerman, a member of the choir. "All these years I didn't even know I had a voice."
The adolescents he teaches, not surprisingly, are less openly enthusiastic. On a recent weekday afternoon, two girls and two boys stand on the bema (stage) in front of the huge sanctuary at Martin's synagogue to practice their bar and bat mitzvah prayer chants. Their giggliness and adolescent garb -- oversize athletic shoes, baggy shorts, and billowy sweatshirts -- clash with the solemn mood of the sanctuary, which features a bas-relief commemorating the Holocaust.
Martin has been the chazan at Beth Torah Adath Yeshurun since 1994. He says he was nervous about taking over that pulpit because it had been held for many years by the renowned cantor Tzvee Aroni, who had been his teacher in Toronto and who died in 1990. "He had a magnificent voice," Martin recalls fondly. "But he was of the old school, and he did minimal teaching and pastoral work. The congregation changed. They aren't there anymore to hear a concert artist."
Cantorial artistry is a long way from the minds of the fidgety 12- and 13-year-olds on the bema, who must learn to chant a portion of the Torah, the haphtarah (the prophetic writings), and at least part of regular prayer service, much like a cantor would. First they must learn the musical notation system of lines and squiggles. Martin also is a stickler for proper pronunciation and good deportment. He takes nothing for granted.
"OK, let's go. Sing," Martin calls out. "What are the rules with your feet, please? Together, except when you walk. Knees together when sitting. Sing." Elliott Lief, a tall gangly boy with a brushcut hairstyle and braces on his teeth, begins singing hesitantly. "Is that bayt or bayeet?" Martin asks. "Want to bet half your bar mitzvah gifts? Thank you. What? Nope. Kodshecha. Getting closer. Thank you. Do it again. Open your mouth. Va Yisroel. Where are your feet? Hooray. What's Kiddush mean? OK! Start again. Your mother in the back is tearing her kishkes out listening to you. It doesn't say that. Your mother is shaking her head no. Thank you. Getting closer. I want one phrase done perfectly. ALL RIGHT!"
With his next student, who's much better rehearsed, Martin has a chance to demonstrate the unique contribution of the chazan. After quiet, dark-eyed Danielle Tamir runs smoothly through her haphtarah, Martin teaches her a traditional Hanukkah melody for a prayer she will chant at her bat mitzvah, which falls during the eight-day holiday. "That's one of the differences that a professionally trained chazan can make in a congregation," he says. "Danielle might learn only one way of doing these words, whereas I vary the melodies and can bring in influences that are appropriate to the Jewish calendar."
He praises Danielle in front of her beaming mother. "You did a great job, but you're rushing," he observes gently. "Take your time. If you hurry, you'll finish one minute sooner. Then the rabbi will talk longer, or I'll sing longer, and personally, I'd rather hear you."
Not everyone is thrilled with the new direction the cantorial profession and cantorial music have taken. Outside the shul, in the parking lot, Martin runs into an old-time chazan, 77-year-old Henry Butensky, a short, fit-looking man with a Bronx accent who just finished working out at the gym. "I was building up my muscles so that I can protect myself from the goyim [non-Jews]," he jokes with Martin in Yiddish.
Butensky, whose father was a cantor and who learned through apprenticeship, retired last year after serving in the same pulpit in Livingston, New Jersey, for 40 years. "Cantors my age, we can't get over it," he says. "When I was a kid, I used to run to see all the great cantors. I was a cantor groupie. People like me still think of the cantor as a solo performer who is supposed to tear the heartstrings. But those days are gone. Now it's the rabbi who holds the congregation."
Butensky now works only Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, which can pay as much as $15,000 for ten days of work. Some older cantors continue to sing long after their voices are shot, but he doesn't intend to be one of them: "I always said that when the day comes that I can't hit a note that is one of my good notes, I won't sing anymore."
When over-the-hill cantors won't step down voluntarily, however, easing them out can be touchy. And the process of recruiting a new cantor is difficult and expensive, says Bill Forster, the selection committee chairman at Congregation B'nai Torah in Boca Raton, who helped choose a new cantor last year.
"A lot of cantors have n'shama [soul] and doven well, but they can't sing," says Forster, who like Butensky considers himself one of the dwindling number of cantor "groupies" who revere great cantorial singing. "Others with musical backgrounds sing beautifully, but they don't know what they're singing. The guy we hired, he's a mensch [a good person] and he has a big voice, but we're working with him on dovening. Since he's praying for us, I want to be sure he's feeling it."
No one complains that Cantor Feuer lacks n'shama. At Temple Emanu-El's Sabbath service one recent Friday night, he has more time than usual to solo. Rabbi Feldman is away at a synagogue retreat, so there won't be a lengthy sermon.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Feuer holds up a glass to sing the Kiddush, the blessing of the Sabbath wine, and delivers a thrilling series of swoops and trills, most of which he improvises. After the service, at a reception with coffee and cake, congregants stream up to Feuer and gush about his singing. "You should be at the Metropolitan Opera," says one man, who introduces his wife as a retired opera singer.
"Thank you," Feuer replies, "but I'm happy being a chazan."
Contact Harris Meyer at his e-mail address: