The Chazzanus Revival
By Charlie Bernhaut of Cantors World

Why all the ‘buzz’ about cantorial music? Cantorial concerts are everywhere – and selling out too!! Look at Manhattan – three shuls, all on the upper East Side, now have world-class cantors: Fifth Ave. Synagogue - Cantor Joseph Malovany; Park East - Cantors Yitzchak Helfgot and Azi Schwartz; and the New York Synagogue - Cantors Netanel Herstik and Dudu Fisher. These shuls are responding to the fact that congregants recognize that quality chazzonus raises the spiritual level of the shul services. Rather than having a baal-tefilah rush through the davening in a perfunctory manner with no regard for the concept of ‘nusach’ (i.e. proper melodies for the particular service), more and more congregants have learned to appreciate and seek the participation of a trained, quality chazzan. Why the rush to run home or get to the Kiddush? Cantorial music, properly presented, is inspirational. It uplifts the spirit and transforms a service from a mundane experience to one that truly ‘touches the soul’.

Along with the revival of the role of the cantor is a greater appreciation for choir accompaniment. The combination of a cantor and choir, working together in ‘sync’, is a most beautiful enhancement of the religious experience. When studying the background of the great cantors of the past, invariably, we learn that they sang in a choir as a child. It was that early experience that grounded them in the appreciation for the cantorial art. They got ‘hooked’ as boys and it became part of their very being – their essence. When they matured, their singing truly emanated deep from within, from the soul. They were not simply ‘mouthing’ words – they understood the words and believed them. Hopefully, there will be a revival of youth choirs along with this revival of traditional chazzonus.

The role of Cantors World has been to raise an awareness of traditional chazzonus – its beauty, its ability to ‘touch the soul’. Cantor Benny Rogosnitzky and I recognized a ‘pent up’ demand for a return to a meaningful religious experience grounded in ‘true’ Jewish soul music. We also felt a responsibility to try to educate those who were never exposed to quality chazzonus. But, this is merely the first step in a process to hopefully get more shuls to bring chazzonus to their congregants. We can’t expect a shul that has never had a chazzan to suddenly hire a full-time chazzan, but, we can expect shuls to periodically bring chazzanim to their services to expose their congregants to this meaningful, beautiful and uplifting experience. As they say, l’at, l’at – slowly, slowly. There certainly is a financial issue for most congregations. And, realistically, there are rabbis who look upon chazzonus and chazzonim with disdain or disinterest. Much of this has to do with their own lack of exposure and appreciation for the role that a quality chazzon can play in raising the spiritual level of the service. However, we do see some rabbis who recognize the need for the chazzon and are openly supporting their hiring. Rather than seeing them as competitors, they are beginning to see them as enhancing their own stature.

Benny and I are proud of the role that we have played in bringing about this revival of interest in traditional chazzonus. We both do this on a volunteer basis, receiving no financial gain, but receiving much ‘nachas’ from the fruits of our labor. We hope to continue working towards our goals, but anticipate that other groups and organizations must and will ‘step up’ to do their share in promoting traditional chazzonus. I encourage readers to log on to our website, in order to get a flavor of what our organization has done and plans to do in the future. A one hour of chazzonus is regularly updated on our website and members are able to listen to all past programs at their leisure. Selections are drawn from my private collection of over 1,700 cantorial albums.

Cantors World has produced some interesting and exciting programs to bring about this revival. We present five annual programs: 1) Shabbos week-end – a full immersion of the cantorial experience with cantors and choir, held in the past at outstanding facilities in Princeton and Long Branch; 2) Sefirah concert at the Bialystoker Shul; 3) Pre-holiday concert at Merkin Hall; 4) Lectures to prepare chazzonim and baalay teiflos for holidays; and 5) Major Chanukah concert – in the past held at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center honoring Yossele Rosenblatt and Moshe Koussevitzky. Last year’s Koussevitzky concert was fed by satellite live to Beth El in Boro Park before a full house. That experiment was a huge success. Please note that this year’s Chanukah concert will be our most ambitious and rewarding event – we will be presenting an outstanding evening of chazzonus with full choir and orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall in Lincoln Center on Sunday, December 18th. Save the date!!

There is an advertising slogan that states: “Try it. You’ll like it!” Benny and I encourage readers to be open to the chazzonus experience. It is something that takes a little time to gain an appreciation for, but, once you’ve given it a chance, many of you will be ‘hooked’. And, when that happens, ‘welcome to the club’.