Cantors and Borderlands

My current research project on the education of Cantors has drawn my attention to an obscure corner in contemporary Jewish culture. Apparently, Cantorial music, which was almost completely dominated by the “mainstream” liberal Jewish denominations in the post-WWII era, has been taken up of late by Chassidic Jews. In a recent interview I conducted with Cantor Yanky Lemmer, a star of the contemporary ultra-Orthodox Jewish music world, Yanky had this to say about the wave of interest in Cantorial music among members of his community:

“There is a very interesting phenomenon right now that Chassidim are more interested in chazzanus than any other sect.  So I’m not exactly sure [when that started], but probably with the, sort of, with the demise of Yiddish culture. Plus the explosion of access to media, there had to be something for Chasidim to grab onto. It couldn’t be whatever was left of Yiddish culture because a lot of it is secular or profanity, in a Chassid’s view…They had to hang onto something. They couldn’t hang on to classical music because, oh it’s goyish. So we went to chazzanus.” (interview August 9, 2015)

Yanky brings up many images here relating to his life and artistry that I hope to explore elsewhere, including: the role of technology in spreading knowledge about “traditional” culture; the characterization of Jewish interaction with Euroclassical music as taking place in the past; the statement that Yiddish culture is dead, when the speaker’s first language is Yiddish and he is actively raising his children in a bi-lingual Yiddish environment; etc.

My interest was particularly piqued by Yanky’s linking of chazzanus [Cantorial art music] and the modern secular Yiddish culture of the pre-World War Two period. This association struck me as being astute. Like the Yiddish authors who sought inspiration from European literature, Cantorial music bears a chain of influence from Euroclassical music. The creative impulse in Cantorial music is heavily shaped by an appeal to the attainment of the sublime in art, a conceptual domain born out of 19th century German Romantic aesthetics. Cantors of the of the late 19th and early 20th centuries were constantly negotiating their dual roles as ritual leaders and as vocal artists of stage and recording. According to Yanky, pre-World War Two Cantorial music offers a point of entry into creative musical endeavors that might otherwise have been too controversial for him and some of his peers in the Chassidic community. Seemingly, the dialogue between secular Euroclassical music and Jewish synagogue chant that has its origins in the 19th century is still active in the current day.

I bore the phenomenon of the young Chassidic Cantorial-aficionados in mind when reading Cantor Zawel Kwartin’s 1951 autobiography Mayn leben (My Life). Kwartin was born in Russia in the 1870’s. After a lengthy career as a Cantor in many of the metropolitan centers of Eastern and Central Europe, he came to the United States and rode to triumph as one of the masters of the “Golden Age” of Cantorial music recordings in the 1920s and ‘30s. Recalling the days of his boyhood in Russia, Kwartin wrote,

“I obeyed [my father’s instructions to sing], and I had a strong feeling that something important was happening as my voice rolled inside me, but I was not sure if what I was doing was acceptable. This whole business with developing my young voice gave me great pleasure; and when my dad gave me his approval and said that it was good—I was in seventh heaven for joy, and there was never a happier boy than me in the whole world.” (Mayn Leben, my translation from the Yiddish)

For Kwartin as a child, his emerging interest in creativity and vocal artistry was tainted by the fear that a borderline of acceptable behavior was in jeopardy of being breached. Art had not previously been a part of his experience of Jewish life and was therefore a potentially taboo subject. His father’s pleasure and approval of the young boy’s attempts at artistry came as a great relief.

Kwartin’s recollections reflect the influence of Euroclassical music on Cantorial music.  Like Lemmer, Kwartin displays some of the anxieties attendant on his reach into a creative domain outside of the boundaries of religious life. And like the Chassidic Cantors Lemmer speaks of, Kwartin is overjoyed to have gained access to an artistic pursuit that is deemed acceptable.

Lemmer suggests that the Chassidic world has, by and large, rejected the discourse of art and expressive culture for being in too close a proximity to the presumed amorality of non-Jewish culture. But, as a means of accessing “high art,” Cantorial music is becoming attractive to young aspiring artists in the Chassidic world because it functions inside the parameters of Synagogue life.

For both Kwartin and Lemmer, separated from one another by over a century, chazzanus has the flavor of the borderland and serves as a potential site of intercultural experimentation, one that flirts with taboo cultural expressiveness.

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