Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Hazzanut is not a dirty word.

What does Jewish music sound like? To some, it sounds like Debbie Friedman's Mi Shebeirach. To others, it sounds like Hava Nagila. To me, it sounds like Adolph Katchko's Unetaneh Tokef. 

I grew up listening to Cantor Jacob Ben-Zion Mendelson chanting hazzanut on Shabbat and the High Holy Days, and was incredibly spoiled by the experience. Cantor Mendelson is more than just the cantor who made me want to be a cantor. He's a master of interpreting hazzanut, and a world-renowned expert on the subject. For the past eleven years, he has instilled in me a love of, an education in, and an appreciation for hazzanut that propelled me full speed ahead towards a career in the cantorate. 

I don't just want to be a cantor; I want to continue the tradition and interpretation that was gifted to me all those years ago in Cantor Mendelson's study. I want to keep hazzanut alive, and I want to keep it relevant.

There is something about hazzanut that speaks to me, both when I listen to it and when I sing it. As I begin my cantorial studies, I am increasing my fluency in the language that helps me put these "musical feelings" into technical terms: scales, modes, sequences, motifs. But look past the flat seconds and raised sevenths and there is a primordial musical sob emanating from somewhere between the lines of the staff. That is what makes hazzanut so beautiful to me -- that moment when the soul speaks in song.

But that's just me.

To many people, hazzanut is a complete turn-off. Its performative style sometimes renders it completely inaccessible. Some people feel they connect only when they can sing along, and a simpler melody invites participation much more effectively. Plus, some cantorial recitatives can be quite lengthy and can leave people itching for the oneg. 

There is a time and a place for everything, and hazzanut is no exception. Love it or hate it, hazzanut is an integral part of a multi-faceted Jewish musical tradition that continues to expand. Can we find a place for hazzanut in an age of drum circles and campfire singalongs? I believe we can, simply by reframing the function that hazzanut can play in the context of a prayer service. Instead of making hazzanut a performance, why not make hazzanut personal?

There has been a palpable shift within many Jewish communities towards alternative, contemplative, spiritually charged services that can consist of meditations, mantra chants, and even some yoga. These services encourage the worshipper to find sanctity in moments of increased mindfulness. There has been a similarly successful movement towards incorporating niggunim -- wordless melodies -- into services, and even these melodies can take on a more meditative tone.  

I believe that if you strip it down to bare bones, hazzanut has the potential to be a musical tool for transcendence and introspection. Instead of shutting people out from meaningful prayer experiences, hazzanut can usher people into them. In the same way that meditation encourages us to turn our attention inwards, hazzanut can also help us to focus our energies within. And if you can't stand hazzanut, then listening to it is a valuable exercise in tolerating feelings of discomfort -- a skill that many of us might benefit from sharpening.

Hazzanut is a living, breathing Jewish musical history. It is not meant to be shoved into dusty anthologies or preserved in tightly sealed glass jars. If we can learn how to use and appreciate it, hazzanut can enhance and breathe new life into our ever-developing ritual and musical tradition. The challenge is listening to it with a new set of ears.

1 comment:

  1. Love what you wrote and wish you could see me nodding along. I can only imagine how beautifully your singing is developing in Israel. Hugs to you!