The Surprising Revival of Old-Style Cantorial Music, and Its More Surprising Place in Israeli Culture

September 30, 2016 | Allan Nadler
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Recalling how, as a youth, both he and his father mourned what they saw as the imminent loss of traditional cantorial singing, Allan Nadler documents its unexpected revival, thanks in no small part to Montreal’s Gideon Zelermyer and his protégés. This rebirth, writes Nadler, has implications for synagogue music in general and Israeli culture in particular. (Links to several recordings included.)

Before I introduce Zelermyer’s five stellar young colleagues (none of them over age forty), it is only fair to begin with the progenitor of this renaissance, and Zelermyer’s mentor, Ḥazan [Cantor] Naftali Hershtik, who trained a full two generations of cantors at the Tel Aviv Cantorial Institute. Here then is Ḥazan Hershtik’s rendition of the great Yossele Rosenblatt’s “T’kah b’Shofar.”

This concert was a landmark event, a cultural coup staged in the very heart of secular Israel’s inner sanctum, its “Palace of Culture,” the Heikhal ha-Tarbut in Tel Aviv. Like Yiddish language and culture, cantorial music had grated on the ears of the vast majority of Israelis both religious and secular since the heady days of the Second Aliyah [1904-1914]. This began to change when the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra accompanied Hershtik and a group of young, mostly Israeli-born ḥazanim in this shofar-centered prayer whose words are all about shivat Tsiyon, the return to Zion. The old and tired musical dichotomy between the galuti (diasporic) minor-key prayers from shuls in Poland, Lithuania, and Hungary, and the proud major-key ballads about soldiers and young girls in the Yishuv, or dance music for the hora, was shown up for what it was: silly ideology. And, forgive my snobbishness, but this piece—like the entire rich oeuvre of cantorial music—is surely more musically interesting, demanding, and moving than “Hava Nagilah.”

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