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Nice to meet you Cantor

Nice to meet you Cantor.

Quite often this sentence is more of a question than a statement, with the responder not quite sure what a ‘cantor’ is and what a ‘cantor’ does.  My simple response is that a cantor is like a rabbi, but more concerned with the music in the Jewish worship service than the legal decisions guiding the congregation.  But that answer is very reductionist to both the roles of the rabbi and the cantor.  Since this is my introductory post, I will take this opportunity to explain in more detail the position and purpose of the cantor in the modern Jewish synagogue.  I will leave the explanation of rabbi to my colleagues.

Part of the confusion around the term ‘cantor’ arises from the multiple usages of the term.  Some refer to anyone leading a Jewish prayer service as a cantor.  Some synagogues have a cantorial soloist who is called cantor, but who has not completed the full training of an ordained cantor.  Just to make things even more confused, the term cantor is also used by some churches to denote a singer of high ranking. 

Perhaps some history can help.  The Jewish cantor was traditionally known by the term Chazan.  In fact, many still use that term today.  The first reference to a chazzan as a musical prayer leader occurred around the fifth century.  But most were not professional, but lay volunteer members of the congregation.  The modern synagogue began to form in the 1700’s and 1800’s with the Enlightenment, the granting of increased rights to the Jews of Europe and their increased exposure to both Christian worship and music.  It was during this period that a more sophisticated musical liturgy developed which took the traditional prayer melody modes and grounded them in Western musical theory. 

Solomon Sulzer could be credited as the first pioneer who combined all of these elements successfully in mid nineteenth century Vienna.  Sulzer was the first to call himself cantor, borrowing the term ‘Oberkantor” from his Christian colleagues.  Sulzer was a true musical genius who composed many extraordinary compositions (including the beloved melody for the Sh’ma prayer we still use today), but he also envisioned his role as more than just musician and prayer leader; he saw himself as a pastoral presence as well.  Sulzer famously walked side by side with the rabbi of the congregation he served, visiting the protestors of the 1848 revolt who were encamped in the streets of Vienna. 

The profession of cantor had a sporadic run after Sulzer.  Truly large congregations could afford full-time cantors, but most made do with lay leaders or at best, part-time cantors.  Training was often by apprenticeship and the role of the cantor was generally individualized by the abilities and educational background of the particular cantor.

The establishment of professional schools to train cantors in the mid nineteenth century really established the modern cantor as a full-fledged spiritual leader.  Cantors attended a rigorous course of study in all forms of music instruction and in Judaic studies as well.  Most cantorial schools are 4-5 years long, covering diverse topics such as educational pedagogy, pastoral counseling, history, Talmud, musical composition,  and conducting- just to name a few.

The modern cantor is trained to use his or her (women were a relatively recent addition to the cantorate) voice to inspire, to lead and to heal.  Working side by side with the congregation’s rabbi, the cantor conducts services using musical creativity that bring spirituality and modernity to ancient texts.  Cantors are recognized clergy by the government and can officiate at all life cycle events including weddings and funerals.

Personally, I love being a cantor.  I can’t imagine another profession that allows me not only to sing for a living, but to use my skills to teach pre-schoolers, offer comfort to the sick, train bar mitzvah students, and sing an ancient prayer in a way that truly lifts up the spirits of my congregation.

I hope this brief post explains a bit of what it means to be a modern ordained Jewish cantor and that if we meet, you too can say, “Nice to meet you Cantor”, and it not need be a question!

Cantor Marcey Wagner


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