The Music Men

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."

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Harris Meyer