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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