Chazonus v. Punk by Max Witriol

I’ll put my cards on the table – I was never a big fan of chazanus [cantorial singing].  It was basically something you put up with, accepting it as part of shul [synagogue] going – itself an activity I never participated in very willingly.  

But as  Rabbi Lerer [Rabbi at Barnet synagogue] is fond of quoting from Joni Mitchell: “ Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone”.   And now that chazonim [cantors] are all but extinct in London shuls, I’ve belatedly come to realise how important and undervalued they were.

Synagogue services have to a large extent gone the way of music in general.  As a reaction to the age of the big rock gods of the seventies, punk came along and said anyone can be in a band.  Rock music  was purveyed by self-indulgent and OLD musicians while punk proclaimed that three chords and loads of  youthful attitude was all you needed.

Shuls also took up the  “Breaking down the barriers” war cry and lay-members started to daven, [lead the service] bypassing the need to spend many long hard years studying nusach [melodic style of services] and voice production, melodies, pronunciation etc. Unsurprisingly, shuls were quite amenable to the idea of drastically reducing their wage bill by dispensing with the services of a paid officiant and replacing him with able volunteers.  The congregants weren’t too fussed either.  A lot of them, like me, were focused on reaching Adon Olam [a hymn sung at the close of the Sabbath service], which in turn signalled the kiddush [a small repast held after the prayer services] – and  a chazan often delayed that ultimate goal.  In any case shul was never the place to go for music – after all it never played any T. Rex or Slade. (Yes, I’m that old). But  now I can see the hugely detrimental effect this has had.

Whereas people of my generation can remember competent and decent services and all the grand pieces that chazanim effortlessly delivered, today there’s no importance given to trained and impressive voices being put to the service of God.  And it’s getting worse year by year, as a whole generation has grown up going to shul and hearing services that have no splendour, no grandeur and that can, frankly, be somewhat amateurish. Lay members do a very good job on a regular and voluntary basis, but there aren’t enough of them to go round and, understandably,  they’re not normally in the same league as a trained professional, even if they do have pleasant voices.  

But the real tragedy is that today’s congregants don’t know or expect any different. Yes, it is great and important to have audience involvement and good singable melodic tunes that everyone can join in with.  But that doesn’t mean to say you can’t also have someone with an excellent voice leading the sing-along and producing the notes your average Joe Rabinowitz can’t reach.

Unfortunately, the situation could soon get even worse.  The Chief Rabbi has proposed radically reforming the barmitzvah criteria by encouraging boys to lead a service,  i.e.  karaoke Judaism.  Now I realise there’s a reason why karaoke is popular.  It has stayed the course  and since initially bursting on the scene and being all the rage, it remains a standard and cheap alternative to having a band of talented musicians playing in a pub or party. It kills two birds with one stone. It engages larger numbers of people who aren’t very talented, and because anyone can do it there’s no shortage of people who are desperate to get on stage/ the bimah [platform in synagogue] and are more than happy to do so for nil remuneration.

But while some people might find it highly entertaining to see their drunken, tone-deaf  mates belting out  ‘Angels’ or ‘Mustang Sally’ or whatever , one has to question whether that’s the right road to go down for our shul services.  We now face the prospect of young boys being encouraged to lead our services, regardless of whether they have particularly pleasant voices or not.  As long as the boys get more involved, that is, apparently, all that matters – never mind that the congregation has to endure an ever-worsening quality of service.

As I said at the top of this article I wasn’t, and indeed still am not, a fan of chazanus.  I’ve never gone to a chazanus concert other than first night selichos services and don’t see myself doing so any time soon.  Nevertheless in a shul service that I’m attending anyway it would be nice to hear some very high quality singing even just a few times a year, and I think this would upgrade the status of a synagogue service in the eyes of  congregants.  For me it’s extremely embarrassing and rather a disgrace when there’s a big captive audience such as at a big barmitzvah – many of whom would not often come to shul – being treated to a shabby out-of-tune performance from someone who hasn’t got the self-awareness to realise he’s not up to the job.  

After twenty years of interactive Carlebach services I think it’s time the pendulum swung the other way.  Come back chazanim, all is forgiven.

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Part 76: Tuesday 24th April 1961, 6.25 pm

This entry is edited for brevity (as future ones will be) otherwise I have no hope of putting all Journal entries online in my lifetime. I hope my father would have accepted such a decision by his “literary executor”.

The “acute lumbago” has resolved itself into a pain in the left ankle, left buttock, back of left knee (in that order of severity). Is this a repetition, physiologically, of my “trouble” of April 1949, when I left Forest Emergency Training College? Then, I had begun to experience pain which I think at first occurred in knee of left leg, but then, I believe, moved to ankle and buttock, as now. Then I “flapped” for the first and what I hope will be the only time in my life. Although I realised even then that the pain was never unbearable, I felt that if it persisted it would stop my teaching.

The routine Health Service diagnosis, flat foot – and treatment – special shoe, massage exercises – did not seem to help, and eventually I consulted an orthopedist privately. He gave me the whole works…

The whole thing set me back a hundred quid or so, but it enabled me – perhaps – to get the LCC’s MO’s certificate to the effect that I was to teach primary…

Ten years later, I found primary school teaching was getting me down, and I managed to make my getaway to Barnsbury, where I now feel I could cope if I were fit…

Dr Ballot diagnosed slipped disc. He told me to come in a fortnight’s time, when I should be symptom free…I am worried not so much by the continued pain…as by the fear that by neglecting the thing I am endangering complete recovery.

Part 75: Thursday 13th April 1961, 12.15 pm

Sam’s [brother] birthday today – 55. Eheu. A tragic story. An intelligent, studious boy, many sided – violin, chess, art, debating – has been donkey-ving tieing up parcels of bags since he left school. The family breadwinner when he was seventeen. Loves children; childless. I only hope he is spared to see joy from P. and M. who, as far as I am concerned, are as much his as mine ( to obviate misunderstanding I should perhaps explain that all I mean is that S. has as much right, if not more, to the joys of fatherhood as I have).

We took the kids – 38 of them – to Blois and Paris and brought them back alive. A feeling of satisfaction that in spite of all obstacles the operation was successfully accomplished. Blois is a pleasant city. The château country overrated. The picture I had formed was of châteaux nestling by the river bank. In point of fact the castle of Blois is set in the heart of the city traffic, though admittedly once inside the grounds you can then get out and have a view of the river. Accommodation in Blois was excellent, in the girls’ lycée; plentiful showers, wash basins, toilets, cupboards. I volunteered – bona fide altruistically – for the bed in the dormitory at Blois, a curtained-off affair from which I had the feeling I ought to emerge in a Pickwickian night-cap. My altruism paid off – it is pleasant to find virtue is sometimes rewarded here below – when we got to Charenton- Écoles, the dingy suburb of Paris in which we were accommodated, my moral claim to the only separate masters’ room available could not be contested. The Institution Jeanne d’Arc at which we stayed is a private girls’ boarding school, a decrepit place. We ate in the basement. Food was inadequate. It is possible that in term time conditions are better; obviously every inch of space is utilised to cash in on the holiday trade.

Our journey was, in point of fact, organised by the Comité d’Accueil de L’Education Nationale –  as M. Chevalier, our guide, and M. Scaeffer, the Charenton directeur, pointed out, General Tours had merely acted as a channel for correspondence. I did have all the C. d’Acc. prices, and it is clear that the travel agencies make £1 to £2 on each boy or girl. If I could act as my own travel agency, I could easily make enough, with a party of 30-40 boys, to take E. and the kids (our kids) with me buckshee, but I can hardly see any head wearing this.

I received half-a-dozen copies of God’s Wilderness, £3-3-0 net. I can’t summon up any enthusiasm over it – Beno Rothenberg found the remains of a Canaanite “high place” (so what?), Yohanan Aharoni writes about the route of the Exodus and the site of Mount Sinai (conjectural), many of the photographs appear to be of no special significance. The Times printed one of a Beduin girl, but what is there so special about a Beduin girl?) The letterpress is printed on a not particularly pleasing brownish paper. However, I did my translating faithfully and Clark did a very skilful editorial job (though only printing one map of Sinai; the second Sinai map in the original, showing most of the places mentioned in the text, was not reproduced in the English version).

Thames & Hudson say they will need me for translating further texts by Beno Rothenberg – I suppose I must hope they will produce at least 50,000 words in English so that I can get the money.

Eichmann is being tried in Jerusalem with, inter alia, the murder of millions of Jews. I’m afraid all I can think of is possible translating work I might have been, be able to get out of it. Richard [Gabriel Richard Stern, a good friend who helped with Polish and Russian words in Mumme Loohshen] was duly married yesterday. A Russian orbited round the world yesterday. Writing this at my study desk, with pleasant view of pine trees, trees in blossom. E out shopping with P, an occasional plaintive cry from Max. Acute lumbago on Tuesday, still aches and pains, but birds twittering – Cohen, on the staff at school, is not perturbed at the idea of the world’s destruction, but I must say it seems a pity.

Part 74: Sunday 19th March 1961, 9.45 pm

Many, many years ago I read Freud’s Traumdeutung. I don’t remember much of it, except that he said that if you dreamt about water you would wake up to find you had been wetting the bed. I believe I checked the truth of this empirically —  or, at any rate, the water-dream went with an urge to empty one’s bladder —  but I couldn’t see in this sort of thing the signs of one of the master-minds of modern times. Anyway, I have frequently wanted to set down my dreams, I have an average of three a night, but have never been able to remember them.  One of the things I was impressed by was Freud’s setting down, at night, his dreams as he had them.

Anyway, here is the blurred memory of one of last night’s dreams: I inserted an advertisement for a schoolmaster to occupy some such post as I might conceivably occupy myself: say, French with an allowance of £90. The idea was to see what sort of “field” the advertisement would attract, the potential competition. Afterwards, I realised – I couldn’t advertise, I wasn’t the employer. Repercussions were not long in following. I was had up on the carpet, and I remember saying I had two children. Later on I dreamt kids were reading out their marks in a test I had given them, and they all seemed to have marks of 11 or 14 or so. The “Interpretation”? — and I don’t remember Freud’s being more profound — I dream about my job.

Took the kids to Dinmore House [in Hackney, where Edith Witriol’s mother, Esther, and brother, Alf, lived]  to-day. A tough operation, six buses mounted. Kids now sleeping soundly, one relaxing in dining-room (in which we have placed one of the three-piece suite easy chairs and the tubular easy chair – the convector heater is more warming (note the incipient Spoonerism [i.e. letter m in more written like a w]) than the “Magi-glow” in the living-room). A good deal on the old plate. Richard’s [Gabriel Richard Stern, a good friend who helped with Polish and Russian words in Mumme Loohshen] chassena [wedding] next Sunday, at which I am to act as best man/M.C, the school journey, Edith had a phone call from Thames & Hudson, and they were supposed to be publishing the Sinai book Marchwards anyway. [God’s Wilderness: Discoveries in Sinai by Beno Rothenberg]

But will now try to get half-hour’s quiet before turning in.

Part 73: Thursday 16th March 1961, approx 9.10 pm

Nearly two months since my last entry. Now that I am sitting down determined to get another entry off, wonder what to put down. Raises whole question of point of diary at all. Let me try to think what has happened.

We celebrated Philip’s second birthday. Even now he goes to a drawer in which some of the birthday cards he received are kept and says: Two. Whenever he sees a road name-plate he points to the letters and says Ay, Dee; like his dad, he is no pedant, and ay-dee’s any letter. Occasionally, I think, he can sort out a genuine A and a genuine O. The weather has been exceptionally fine the past few weeks and I have taken him sometimes, on coming home from school, for “walky” or “wun”, at the beginning of, or during, which he demands “keller” = “carry”. Two examples of metathesis noted: efelant and villa (liver). Maxy has had cold, doctor in twice. E. also had gold (?Freudian explanation), sticking gallantly to her post. Lily [brother Sam’s wife] has had very bad pains, at long last has had x-rays taken, hope everything will be alright. Sam a few weeks ago in flat spin because of absence of Pinakhe, Mrs Piena, his septuagenarian book-keeper.

More meo I had succeeded in losing the payments register of the school journey to France I am organising. My fellow macher, Lloyd, chose as epigraph for our booklet: “Fair stood the wind for France.” So far it has stood anything but fair. The original three comprised Lloyd, myself and a youngster called Welch, but McGowan (the District Inspector) ruled that we must have a permanent member of staff with the boys. Leece, the P.E. man, who has been giving me lifts for the last term or so, volunteered to come in. Fahn, voil, [?] –  a few days ago he develops some chest trouble and it is extremely problematical whether he will be able to come after all. I shall be away for Pesach [Passover]; I had miscalculated the dates. But I think I had no option but to go. I am supposed to be a teacher of French. It is nearly nine years since I was in France. I hope to get a free trip out of it, and to register with Davies (the head) as a live wire. Fantastic that at my time of life I have to think in terms of “getting into the boss’s good books” – not that I count on anything. And anyway, it’s given me some scope for machmanship.

Read “The something-or-other Saga” by Auberon Waugh (what a memory!), he the son of Evelyn or Alec Waugh. Devastating satire on R.C. public school, astonishing sophistication and range (hospital scenes technically convincing, conveying impression that author must have been houseman).

Someone wrote recently in The Observer that he had no sympathy with married teacher colleagues who complained of poverty. They always overlooked one thing, he said: they chose to marry, and he didn’t see why he should subsidise their marital bliss any more than he already did through taxation. I wrote a weak reply, which however was published on 12/3/61 – the Observer had plugged occupational family allowances for teachers and my letter was short. I said many young teachers wanted to marry but could not because they could not afford to bring up a family on their schoolmasters’ salary. But the whole point of the first letter was that nobody was asking them to start a family.