COVER STORY:Chanting challenge

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The Athens Games may be over but the “Olympics” for cantors have just begun.

During the High Holy Days, the cantor is the singer qua non, the channel of communal prayer, the virtual voice of the Jewish people.

And it doesn’t come easily.

On Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the cantor’s job becomes a grueling test of physical, vocal and spiritual endurance. Most sing for hours at a time, some doing double-duty at early and late services. In the more liberal Jewish streams, many also conduct or work with the choir. And along with the rabbi, the cantor serves as a kind of spiritual quarterback, making sure the service keeps moving downfield.

Most cantors start preparing months in advance, establishing the order of the service, rehearsing with the choir and soloists, and toughening up the vocal chords for the main event.

“You have to be in tip-top shape,” says Cantor Rita Glassman of Reform Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. “You have to have vocal stamina to do this. I start preparing long before the holidays.”

For Glassman, getting in shape means a regimen of regular exercise, which in her case includes walking, hiking, dancing, yoga and tennis. She also maintains a healthy diet and sleep schedule. Perhaps most importantly, she continues to take voice lessons.

“I’m very diligent about my vocal coaching,” she says. “My teacher Ruth Rainero has high standards. I work with her doing challenging arias and songs, things that stretch and exercise the voice.”

Cantor David Margules of Reform Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael has his own system. “You have to pace yourself and keep yourself in good vocal shape,” he says. “I do exercises that get the voice warmed up: vowel work, scale work.”

While none minimizes the importance of getting the voice in opera-house shape, most cantors stress another crucial aspect.

“For me the biggest preparation is spiritual,” says Margules, “to get my soul ready to pray on behalf of the congregation.”

Adds Glassman: “It’s a huge responsibility to pray for yourself and others, and to be a channel for other people’s prayers. As far as prayers and liturgy, it’s important I spend time each year focusing in on the meaning of the words.”

At the Conservative Temple Beth Sholom in San Leandro, Cantor Linda Hirschhorn similarly goes deep into the liturgy to find her annual inspiration.

“I’m blessed to have a rabbi who allows me to do one of the major sermons,” she says. “So I look at the Torah readings that come on the High Holy Days, spend time studying the prayers and seeing what’s really important. I want to make sure everyone’s conscious and not on automatic pilot.”

For Cantor Brian Reich of Berkeley’s Reform Congregation Beth El, preparation begins in June. “There’s technical stuff, people to prepare for their Torah chanting, soloists to meet with,” he says. “I also meet with Rabbi [Ferenc] Raj twice a week to go over cues.”

A sixth-generation cantor, Reich grew up seeing first hand the rigors demanded of a chazzan on the High Holy Days, which began at sundown Wednesday, Sept. 15. For Reich and others, the biggest challenge is Yom Kippur, the all-day fast that begins this year at sundown Friday, Sept. 24. By the end of that day, cantors may show the strain.

“I once figured out on Yom Kippur I’m singing 16 out of 24 hours,” Reich says. “It’s a marathon. When I was younger I would give it my all, and by end I felt like I swallowed glass. You have to prepare properly.”

To that end, in the days and weeks leading up the High Holy Days, Reich has been known to get up from a perfectly normal conversation, step into his car and start vocalizing. “This is a time we kind of drift away,” he says. “For me with that level of focus and emotional ups and downs it’s hard to let anybody in around this time. I don’t know how anyone can be married to a cantor during the holidays.”

Since they’re blessed with musical talent, it’s no surprise many cantors also compose music, including pieces for the High Holy Days. For this year’s services at Sherith Israel, Glassman composed a song scored for voice, piano and flute titled “For the New Year,” sung in Hebrew and English. She will also perform “Loving Peace, Pursuing Peace,” an earlier composition that has been performed in other synagogues around the country.

“We have freedom to bring in new musical settings,” says Glassman. “New music is very uplifting and inspiring. The psalmist said, ‘Sing to God a new song.'”

Hirschhorn has also written music for services this year, including an arrangement for voice and cello that will be done at the Kol Nidre service.

Cello accompaniment on Kol Nidre has long been common in many synagogues. In fact, introducing varied instrumentation is a growing trend in liberal congregations.

“I like to come up with new ways to present the prayers,” says Margules. “I’m getting more congregants involved. We have someone playing guitar, another playing flute, and we have a young girl singing with me on Kol Nidre. This keeps things interesting.”

At Berkeley’s Beth El, Reich has even dispensed with a choir altogether. “We do duets and solos,” he says. “I don’t like to entertain. I want to keep the participation of the congregation at maximum. I was taught that my job is to inspire participation.”

Because of their role on the bimah, cantors don’t get to experience the services in the same serene way as their congregants, but it’s a fair trade-off, they say. “For me,” notes Hirschhorn, “the music is so beautiful, even though I can’t let it wash over me, I really do get inside the melodies. It’s so glorious, it makes me high.”

Margules knows what she’s talking about. “There is a definite rush,” he says of the experience of leading the congregation. “It comes in a different place in the service every year.”

Like his colleagues, Reich agrees that the most important aspect of the job has more to do with inner music. “When I get up on the bimah,” he says, “I’m prepared to accept responsibility for being the ba’al tefillah, the master of prayer.”

He says this was a lesson he learned singing with his father, a cantor who died three years ago. “I used to meet with him every week before the holidays,” he recalls. “When he passed away, my brothers and sisters began to rely on each other.”

Reich’s siblings also went onto the family business. All are invested cantors.

And this time of year is time for all cantors to shine brightest.

“I would love to sometimes sit with the congregation,” Glassman says. “But I also love the privilege and honor of being a cantor. It’s a cantor’s dream to be in that sanctuary, and it’s a tremendous feeling to hear the whole congregation singing. It’s awe-inspiring.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.