25 Years as Your Cantor (5774)
© 2013 Linda Hirschhorn
As you know Kol Nidre gets chanted three times each year, which means that last night I chanted Kol Nidre from this bima for the 75th time which got me to reflecting about my journey that led me to being your cantor for 25 years.
I was going to begin my talk with saying that I didn't start out in life aspiring to be a cantor but thinking about it some more I realize maybe that's not so true. My earliest memories are of going with my father to Rabbi Weinberg's shul in Washington Heights every Saturday morning, and of sitting upstairs in the balcony with all the other women of the congregation.
As a young girl I was always envious of the boys who became bar-mitzvah. In fact I learned my brother's bar-mitzvah portion along with him and can still chant a good deal of it from memory to this day. I was even more envious of the younger boys who were chosen to chant the final hymn of the Shabbat morning service known as 'anim zemiros.' The ark is opened, and the young boy who is chosen has a tallis draped over his shoulders and leads the congregation in this lovely call and response poem.
“Anim zemiros v‘shirim e'erog ki eilecha nafshi sa'arog. Asap‘ra ch‘vodcha velo r’i’sicha adamcha achancha v’lo y’dasicha.”
Sometimes the boy would mangle a word or sing a bit off-key and I'd think I could do this so much better.
Our synagogue was an orthodox with two wonderful cantors. The official cantor, Hazzan Schweid, was a handsome, well-groomed man who had a classically-trained tenor voice and could sing perfect runs up and down the scales. The second cantor, hazzan sheni was our gabbai, the shul's all around helper, Mr Shalamach, a sweaty, overweight man who always looked a bit untucked and unshaven. When he sang, he sang in a rich throaty guttural voice with that krechtsing kind of inflection - a sort of weeping and wailing (it sounds like this) and in the times my mother came with us she would turn to me and say- he is the one to listen to, he is the one with passion.
I loved synagogue music and from my my place up in the balcony I'd sing along with the men as loud as I could.
During the week, from grades 1-8 I attended a modern orthodox yeshiva and yet, you would be wrong in surmising that I came from an orthodox family.
My parents were refugees from Europe and like many post holocaust refugee families, though we weren't in the least bit religious, we were steeped in Jewish tradition, and because of this our parents wanted to be sure we knew exactly what it was we didn't believe in. So for instance there was no contradiction between our going to shul every shabbos morning and say getting in the car and going shopping Shabbos afternoons. Or, we'd carry all our our pots and pans over to the synagogue just before Passover to have them boiled and made kosher, yet would think nothing about ordering, what my parents insisted were beef spare ribs, at Chinese restaurants. It was our favorite dish.
It was a consistent way of life and perhaps the benefit was that I experienced Judaism as a flexible religion with flexible boundaries.
As a teenager I was a member of Habonim, a socialist-zionist youth movement that was not religious based but rather focused on modern Jewish history, modern Israeli culture, and on our responsibility as Jews to be engaged in social justice, just as the prophets had enjoined us to in olden times. Habonim expanded my Jewish identity to include engagement in contemporary, progressive social movements. It also introduced me to a whole new world of Israeli and International folk music.
These songs became part of my personal repertoire as I started to perform at Hadassh luncheons, Israel bonds' dinners and Greenwich village coffee houses.
When I moved out to California I taught music in hebrew schools as I had been doing since I was teenager and also began leading services for various independent chavurot when people discovered that I knew how.
In the 1980's I began to witness many of my Jewish contemporaries flocking to other spiritual traditions. I had friends who went off to India to be with the guru Rajneesh and came back wearing orange. I had friends who followed the Guru Ram Das who himself was born Richard Alpert to a Jewish family from Newton, Mass. Other friends sat for long hours meditating and chanting syllables in languages they didn't necessarily understand or have a relationship to. Perhaps because of my family's flexible interpretation of what it meant to be Jewish I never experienced any sense of estrangement from Judaism. I never felt hungry for other spiritual experiences. I had Jewish music.
In the 1980's women who had been part of consciousness-raising groups in the 1960's and 70's began to assert their claim to leadership roles in the synagogue not just in the offices, or as Sunday school teachers, but on the bima as well.
For me this meant that I didn't have to sing from the balcony.
I got my first cantorial position by accident. I went to audition for a job teaching music in a Sunday school at a synagogue in San Mateo but when I got there someone asked me “are you here for the cantor's job?” and I said yes. I sang a few melodies and got the job. But it didn't last long. It was a reform congregation that had had a church organist accompany their cantor for over 30 years. I couldn't get used to his style, he couldn't get used to mine.
In 1984, along with Rabbi Burt Jacobsen and David Cooper (my children's father) I became one of the founders of and the cantor for Kehilla Community Synagogue, a Jewish renewal congregation that was part of the newly emerging Jewish renewal movement which began to draw back many of the Jews who had wandered away in search of deeper spirituality.
Jewish renewal focused on ways to reinvigorate modern Judaism, incorporating new music, and inclusive egalitarian language into the liturgy, as well as Jewish meditative, Kabbalistic, and Hasidic practices. Kehilla in particular became a a spiritual home for politically progressive Jews who felt no connection with traditional synagogues. For me it also became a place to try out some of the new melodies that I began composing to Jewish liturgy.
But I have to say I think my job here at Temple Beth Sholom must have been destined because it almost didn't happen.
In 1988 I was part of a support group for women clergy. (There still were't too many of us at the time) and it was there I met your previous cantor, Sylvia Wishnoff. She mentioned that she was leaving the pulpit and suggested I apply. So in March of 1988 I sent my resume to the Temple office but didn't hear back until six months later in August when I got a call from Zel Barson who said that for some reason the post office had sent my application to Virginia and it had just been mailed back, could I come in for an interview.
The day of my interview was also the day I happened to be returning from singing at a folk festival in Canada and for some reason I read my ticket wrong (I never do that) and missed my direct flight from Winnipeg to SF and ended up traveling for ten hours, flying standby through Omaha and Salt Lake City arriving at SFO 7:30 that night.
David was there with my then three-year-old daughter Talia and we made it to San Leandro with barely five minutes to spare. My committee included Zel Barson, Esther de Koven, Coleman Hertz and the previous rabbi. I sang “etz chayim hi” and was hired on the spot.
It took a while for you all to get used to me and for me to get used to you. Now remember my Jewish practice was full of contradictions. So on the one hand while I was thrilled to become your cantor, when you asked me to wear a Tallit and a Kippah it seemed completely wrong. How could I when only men can? Right? (Now of course there is a great industry in fashionable tallitot and kippot)
And then there was the music. I knew some of the melodies that you were accustomed to singing here but mostly I chose to sing my favorite melodies from Washington Heights.
When there were prayers whose melodies I couldn't remember I wrote new ones. Some of you loved what I sang but some of you said “why can't you sing the traditional ones”, meaning of course the ones you were used to. When, influenced by the music in Jewish Renewal communities, I encouraged clapping in rhythm, some of you joined right in, while some of you left the room.
But from the beginning my orientation to being your cantor has always been to make the music both accessible and beautiful and to bring you melodies that you can sing along on.
The person who leads prayers from the bima can also be called the shaliach tsibur, the spiritual singing emissary. I would say that I see myself as a spiritual enabler, or enhancer rather than as a spiritual director or guide which is more of a Rabbi's role.
My job is to sing with enough passion (more Mr. Shalamach less Chazzan Schweid) so that you can feel uplifted, transformed and comforted as you need.
I don't see your role as passive. For the most part I don't want you to just sit back and listen although occasionally there are indeed times for that. I want you to sing with me and have both the experience you came for and experiences that surprise you.
When I compose new melodies I am very focused on the meaning of words, on the way they sound, and on their internal rhythms. I want the melodies I write to convey the emotion of the prayer so that, even if you don't understand Hebrew, even if you hum the melody without words or hear it played by our instrumentalists on music Shabbat you can still feel the power and meaning of the prayer.
Speaking of which I've loved having our music Shabbat with our instrumental ensemble. Some of the musicians who have played with us dug up instruments that they hadn't played in decades, others were children just beginning music lessons. I'd love to have more of you involved.
Don't play an instrument? Come sing in the choir. The choir has just asked me if we could continue singing all year round. We'd love to include more of you. Please talk to me about joining us.
I have seen our community through many life-cycles- including my own. My son Lev was born a year after I came here and became a bar-mitzvah here eleven years ago. Some of the babies I named and later tutored for their bar or bat mitzvah have gone on to have me officiate at their weddings. I've sung at too many funerals and I can still see in my mind's eye exactly where many of them sat in the congregation.
I appreciate the trust you have put in me over the years especially during the transition between Rabbis. You made me stretch. I learned that I could take us through an entire year's life cycle of events, I could give sermons, offer counseling, and could be someone to lean on in times of crises.
Right now, on Yom Kippur is the time when we not only think about where we are headed personally but also where we are headed as a community. I've been thinking about ways in which we can strengthen ourselves. I've already mentioned joining the orchestra or choir. We can also get to know each other better. You are all hearing some of my story right now, maybe tonight during the break-fast tonight you can introduce yourself to people whose names you don't know and tell them some of yours.
I've also had this idea about forming Havdallah chavurot. Once a month, perhaps the first Saturday of every month, a few of you, maybe groups of just half a dozen people might get together to share a meal, make havdallah, and study a sentence or two of the week's portion. The rabbi and I can rotate our visits to different groups every month.
25 years. I find that amazing. Thank you for the privilege.