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Cantor's Corner - The Jewish Music Program

Music stirs the soul.  I can’t explain exactly how, but it does.  There’s something about setting texts to melodies that transforms them.  It’s as if the song takes the words and spins them around and around until the words and the music are one.  And amazingly enough, one doesn’t even need words to experience this effect.  A simple “yai-dai-dai” or “ai-ai-ai” can weave the same spell---sometimes an even greater one.  And when it comes to setting a prayerful mood, or expressing one’s greatest urges towards spiritual oneness, there’s nothing like music.

Being a Cantor in today’s synagogue involves more than singing with operatic talent and deep passion to inspire one’s congregants. If that were the case, with my pleasant but less than opera-quality voice, I would not be a good choice for Cantor.  From my experience, although most congregants today do appreciate an occasional venture into hazzanut and vocal fireworks, they seek a more balanced approach to their synagogue music, an approach that engages them and calls for their active participation.  As I often say, there are many ways for a person to “participate” in music, and one of these involves listening and not singing.  As anyone who has attended a Yom Kippur evening service can attest, listening to the Cantor chant the Kol Nidre three times, each one rising higher and higher, is truly a participatory event.  But congregants today want to sing, and the liturgical melodies that I write are generally designed for unison or call-and-response singing with the Cantor.  When I lead congregational singing, my intention, the direction of my heart--my kavannah-- provides the framework for my congregants to establish their own

Before becoming a Cantor, I had only written one piece of liturgical music in my life: a setting for Avinu Shebashamayim, the Prayer for Israel that appears in the Conservative Siddur Sim Shalom.  It was a melody that had actually bounced around in my head on the flight back from Israel one summer.  I jotted down some notation for the melody on the plane, and when I got home, I realized that the melody fit the prayer exceptionally well.  The choir director in my former synagogue wrote a lovely four-part harmony for my melody, and I understand that the choir still sings it even though I am long gone.

One of the joys of our Reconstructionist siddur, Kol Haneshama, is the variety of different readings, texts, and other pieces of liturgy that I’ve encountered for the first time.  And many of these additions or insertions have never been set to music, to the best of my knowledge.  I often refer to these texts as “orphan liturgy,” because they have not had the opportunity to experience how wonderful it is to be embraced and sung by a congregation.  And when liturgy is sung to a melody that inhabits and enhances that text, it gains special power---whether it be expressing praise or gratitude or wonder, or any combination.

In the past year, I have written musical settings for several of these pieces of “orphan liturgy.”  One of these settings is particularly close to my heart.  I call it the “Shacharit Kavannah.” This text, on page 151 of our Siddur, addresses the union of HaKadosh Baruch Hu with the Shechinah—often referred to as the masculine and feminine sides of the Eternal One.  And in this affirmation, each of us states that we stand here, ready in body and mind, for the sake of that Union, to take upon ourselves the following Mitzvah:  V’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha---“You shall love your fellow human being as yourself.”  And only by this affirmation are we given the right to open our mouths in prayer.  It is a striking, stunning moment in the service.  As Arthur Green explains in his commentary, “Only by accepting upon ourselves the obligation to love others as ourselves are we allowed to enter the human community of prayer.”  So instead of merely standing and beginning to recite the morning blessings, we must first take stock of ourselves.  Before we bless the Creator for all the things for which we are grateful, we must assert our acceptance of the need to take these blessings to the human level, where we have the power to extend their reach.  And we need to focus the mind and the intention on this assertion before we can continue with the morning blessings.

The word kavannah is usually thought of as an individual quality.  As an individual, no matter how strong my kavannah might be, there is no way to guarantee that yours is just as strong as mine at a given moment.  The reverse is also true.  If you are truly “in the moment,” you cannot be sure that I am, too.  But that is truly why we need to use music to connect us.  We all know how easy it is for some small disturbance to break our mood and our concentration, regardless of where we are.  But when the desired kavannah is carried and reinforced by music---be it music that is sung together, or music that is done in a call-and-response manner, or music that is sung by the Cantor alone---it is less likely to be easily interrupted.  It is as if our combined attention to the music strengthens the kavannah and protects against disturbances.

I have found over the years that kavannah is often more about melody than about text or liturgy.  When the music captures the mood and the meaning of the moment, it can establish and maintain the requisite kavannah whether or not everyone understands the words being sung.  The converse is rarely true; the words alone—the keva-- will not often find their kavannah if they do not have a musical vehicle to carry them.  But when the melody and the text are well-integrated, they provide the perfect vehicle: a blending of keva and kavannah that elevate the body and the soul.

I am pleased and honored to share music and kavannah with our congregation—on Shabbat, on Festivals and holidays, and at the High Holy Days, and whenever the occasion calls for us to connect with each other through song.

Wed, February 8 2023 17 Shevat 5783