The Lost World of African American Cantors

During the first half of the 20th century, American Jews became eager consumers of cantorial music. This was also a time of increased interaction between Jews and African Americans—by the 1920s Harlem had become home to the world’s second-largest concentration of Jews—and the proliferation of black synagogues. Perhaps one result of these trends, writes Henry Sapoznik, was the phenomenon of the black cantor:

That we even know anything about the diversity of black cantors in the 1920s is thanks to journalist and essayist Sh. Rubinzohn of Di Yiddishe Togblatt (the “Jewish Daily News”). . . . In his June 28th, 1920 column, entitled Mendel, der Shvartser Khazn (Mendel the Black Cantor) Rubinzohn tells of arriving in his office to find a young black man waiting to speak to him. He introduced himself as Mendel, a press agent for Kessler’s Theater—a popular Yiddish stage on the Lower East Side—and was looking for a plug in Rubinzohn’s column for their new show which featured Mendel’s specialty: Yiddish songs and cantorial prayers.

Asked for a demonstration, Mendel launched into the industrial-strength Yiddish showstopper, “A Khazndl af Shabes” (“A Cantor on the Sabbath”) a demanding pyrotechnical mix of ornate cantorial melismata and snappy barn-burning theatricality.

“He sings with a real Jewish turn,” Rubinzohn marveled, “with a real Jewish moan and sigh.” . . . Rubinzohn [also] commented on Mendel’s reyner yidish (literate Yiddish), about his birth in Barbados, his coming to America around 1910, and his eventual migration to the Yiddish theater.

A few months later, Rubinzohn profiled one Dovid Ha-Kohen, from the Ethiopian city of Massawa:

[Ha-Kohen] claimed to know 29 languages and who, in a wide-ranging conversation which toggled effortlessly between Yiddish and Hebrew, offered a whirlwind narrative about being educated in Paris and Palestine, studying under a cantor in Russia as a meshoyrer (an apprentice cantor), marrying a Jewish woman in Pinsk and fathering two children, doing translation work for the U.S. Army and coming to the United States to become a cantor.

Rubinzohn was curious: what did his parents say about his marriage? They were horrified and [said] that it was a “shande” (disgrace.)

Read more at Henry Sapoznik

More about: African Americans, American Jewish History, Jewish music, Yiddish theater

How to Save the Universities

To Peter Berkowitz, the rot in American institutions of higher learning exposed by Tuesday’s hearings resembles a disease that in its early stages was easy to cure but difficult to diagnose, and now is so advanced that it is easy to diagnose but difficult to cure. Recent analyses of these problems have now at last made it to the pages of the New York Times but are, he writes, “tardy by several decades,” and their suggested remedies woefully inadequate:

They fail to identify the chief problem. They ignore the principal obstacles to reform. They propose reforms that provide the equivalent of band-aids for gaping wounds and shattered limbs. And they overlook the mainstream media’s complicity in largely ignoring, downplaying, or dismissing repeated warnings extending back a quarter century and more—largely, but not exclusively, from conservatives—that our universities undermine the public interest by attacking free speech, eviscerating due process, and hollowing out and politicizing the curriculum.

The remedy, Berkowitz argues, would be turning universities into places that cultivate, encourage, and teach freedom of thought and speech. But doing so seems unlikely:

Having undermined respect for others and the art of listening by presiding over—or silently acquiescing in—the curtailment of dissenting speech for more than a generation, the current crop of administrators and professors seems ill-suited to fashion and implement free-speech training. Moreover, free speech is best learned not by didactic lectures and seminars but by practicing it in the reasoned consideration of competing ideas with those capable of challenging one’s assumptions and arguments. But where are the professors who can lead such conversations? Which faculty members remain capable of understanding their side of the argument because they understand the other side?

Read more at RealClearPolitics

More about: Academia, Anti-Semitism, Freedom of Speech, Israel on campus