Israel Alter was one of the great virtuoso cantors of his generation and one of the most erudite exponents of artistic hazzanut on a classical level. Born in Lemberg (L’vov, then in Galicia, part of the Hapsburg or Austro-Hungarian Empire; now L’viv, in Ukraine), he served as hazzan of the Kluge Tempel in Vienna for a number of years and then accepted an appointment as Oberkantor of the principal orthodox synagogue in Hannover. After the assumption of power by the National Socialists, he emigrated to South Africa, where he held a major cantorial post until his immigration to the United States in the 1960s. Meanwhile, his concert appearances and recordings elicited glowing praise for his brilliant dramatic tenor voice and for the dignity he brought to cantorial expression. In New York, Cantor Alter taught at the newly established School of Sacred Music of the Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion. Both there and privately, he became a mentor to a number of the emerging generation of serious cantors. His solo cantorial recitatives, which he wrote for pulpit rendition and as pedagogic vehicles for the younger generation of cantors who were not always adept at improvisation, are among his most important contributions to the legacy of hazzanut.
Alter was particularly interested in the matter of word repetition in cantorial delivery—a subject that still generates debate—to which he devoted much thought in fashioning his compositions and in his own improvisatory singing from the pulpit. Opposed to superficial showmanship or any aspect of cantorial rendition that did not serve both the act of prayer and the meaning of the liturgy, he also rejected simplistic, doctrinaire prohibitions against word repetition on supposed religious grounds. “Whether you repeat or not depends on how you repeat,” he once explained. “It must not be merely for the sake of the music, nor for the sake of repeating without a purpose. A repeated word must be invested with some fresh nuance, some different shade of meaning, some emphasis—just as an orator would do.”
In his later years he became revered for his knowledge of cantorial history and its stylistic and interpretive traditions, as well as for the information he possessed from his former acquaintance with and recollections about so many famous cantorial personalities who were no longer alive. “Boys,” he used to say to younger cantors at annual conventions, with no trace of arrogance or self-importance, “if there’s any information you want, you’d better ask me now—before it’s too late.”