The Great Age of Cantorial Art in America


From the curator

I was once in Chicago . . . . A young man said, “I’d like you to come by so I can play something for you.” . . . he put on Josef Rosenblatt, and I started crying like a baby.

—Ornette Coleman

I once read that when the Upper West Side Jewish Community Center in Manhattan established its Makor night club in the 1990s—the raison d'être of which was to bring young, disaffected Jews closer to the organized Jewish community, and each other—its adventurous (mostly Jewish) music programming schedule attracted non-Jews in near equal numbers. Good for business and PR; less so for reducing intermarriage and attrition rates. But it speaks to one of few things that the divergent voices in the world of Jewish music seem to agree on: the ability of Jewish music to resonate beyond the confines of its community.

Whether it’s related to Judaism’s tension between the universal and the particular, or simply to art’s capacity to uncover the universal in the human experience, Jewish music’s ability to profoundly move non-Jews serves as a poignant rejoinder to Curt Sachs’s oft-cited (and deconstructed) definition of Jewish music as “that music which is performed by Jews, for Jews, and as Jews.” That Ornette Coleman, a non-Jewish, African-American jazz musician who grew up in Ft. Worth, Texas in the 1940s should be moved to tears by a recording of a Ukrainian-born Jewish hazzan born a half century earlier attests to this, and at the same time speaks to the unique power of the cantor’s art, or hazzanut.

As the title suggests, Golden Voices in the Golden Land is concerned with a particular era in this centuries-old tradition—in particular, an era marked by rapid and significant change among the American immigrant Jewish population and their children. If the American Yiddish theater repertoire explored in the previous volume looked primarily to the present and helped immigrant Jewish families adapt to life in the “new” world, the great age of cantorial art in America helped remind them of what they had valued and achieved in the old one. In that sense, this volume explores how a venerated religious musical tradition undergoes and facilitates change while maintaining strong links to history and identity.

Neil W. Levin’s extensive introduction to this volume provides a history of the development of hazzanut, from its beginnings as an orally transmitted tradition to its development as a cultivated art form. From the outset, hazzanim were part of the k’lei kodesh—the partnership of those responsible for the religious functions of the community. Later, the cantor’s role as the sheliaḥ tzibbur, or messenger of the congregation, became solidified, and a musical tradition was born. Levin shows how the art of hazzanut underwent a period of development in America that left an indelible stamp of the American Jewish experience, primarily through the incorporation of theatrical tropes from the stages of Second Avenue, and through presentation of the art form in non-religious contexts. According to Levin, it was a process through which “they often reshaped, adjusted, and even expanded their approaches to hazzanut, . . . a response to new socioeconomic and cultural factors and socioreligious situations.”

The recordings in this volume feature the work of some of the most famous figures of America’s gilded age of cantorial art, reinterpreted by the golden voices of today. Moshe Kousevitsky, Joshua Lind, Pierre Pinchik, Moshe Ganchoff, Adolph Katchko and the great Yossele Rosenblatt meet Benzion Miller, Alberto Mizrahi, Simon Spiro, Robert Bloch, and others. Volume highlights include Miller’s interpretation of Moishe Oysher’s Amar Rabbi El’azar, with its vocal acrobatics and Near Eastern tinge; Ganchoff’s Hasha na even sh’siya, interpreted here by Mizrahi and Schola Hebraeica in the eastern European khor shul style; the late Cantor Robert Bloch’s rendition of Rosenblatt’s Uvnuḥo yomar; and Simon Spiro’s moving performance on Rahamana d’anei by Zavel Zilberts. There are countless others; and those who know hazzanut will no doubt have their favorites.

All told, Golden Voices in the Golden Land presents a body of work that not only celebrates and preserves one of Jewish culture’s most revered musical legacies, but as the venerable Hazzan Alberto Mizrahi asserts, affirms the existence of the Jewish people.

—Jeff Janeczko, Curator

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