Cantor Jack Mendelson in "A Cantor's Head"
Cantor Jack Mendelson in "A Cantor's Head"

A master of synagogue music finds his style and career fading in touching documentary

Cantor Jack Mendelson’s style — the operatic hazzanut (classical European Jewish liturgical music), which enjoyed a golden age in early and mid-20th century American synagogues — is heard less and less in America today.

The documentary “A Cantor’s Head,” playing at Jewish Film Institute’s WinterFest on March 1, is an engaging profile of a man with great skill, a master of his craft, who feels he and the music he has devoted his life to are being unfairly cast aside.

It’s a quiet, personal documentary about the work of synagogue cantors that sometimes feels like a eulogy for a dying art. For those who appreciate that musical style, the film is chock-full of it.

Though the style of the documentary is nothing special, it paints a touching picture of a big man with a big personality and an even bigger voice.

Much of the film follows Mendelson preparing for his final High Holiday season at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, New York.

At times, it is surprisingly intimate. In one scene, we see him half-clothed, getting ready for Erev Yom Kippur. He notes that one is supposed to use and wear new things on Yom Kippur, then pulls out a new razor to shave. In another scene, he narrates engagingly the dozen pills he takes every morning. “This is for my mood. Without it, I’m angry at the world, I’m angry at myself.” Another pill, he notes, makes him pee more.

Cantor Jack Mendelson in "A Cantor's Head"
Cantor Jack Mendelson in “A Cantor’s Head”

After that, we’re with him in his therapists’ office, where he controls the conversation with her. Mendelson always wants to be in control of the conversation, any conversation.

His son, Daniel, is also a cantor. “My dad happens to be the best, if not among the best, cantors in the Conservative world…. He’s the Michael Jordan of what he does,” he says.

But what good is being the Michael Jordan of something no one cares about anymore?

“Twenty-eight years of what I did is finished, over, all of a sudden,” Mendelson says later in the film.

“They’re singing music from composers with an ‘American sound,’” Mendelson says dismissively. “And I wasn’t against that, as long as that music was a guest in the service and the hazzanut is the host … a typical new cantor won’t do any hazzanut at all.”

His attitude is pessimistic about the future of Jewish synagogue music, derisive toward the new American composers. He complains at one point about a contemporary Christian melody that has become common in some American synagogues and summer camps — never mind the long history of European synagogue music being in dialog with European secular and church music.

On one hand, it’s easy to sympathize with his sadness. On the other, his resentfulness toward new styles is unbecoming. It is true that, as one talking head in the film says, people today don’t like hazzanut because they don’t know it. But there is a difference between liking or appreciating hazzanut and wanting to hear it in one’s own synagogue every week. People can be taught to appreciate it, but you can’t teach them to want it. Many, if not most, modern synagogue-goers, go to synagogue to participate. But hazzanut is the opposite of participatory — it is performative.

“Anyone who wants to live in the past is going to be out of a job,” says one cantor interviewed, though she also expresses shock and dismay at Temple Israel Center’s decision to get rid of Mendelson.

Another interviewee, a cantor who knows Mendelson well, discusses and sings his own compositions — modern pop rock music “but with Jewish content.” It’s utter shlock. If that’s the modern American synagogue music Mendelson is exposed to, no wonder he’s disdainful of it. Rick Recht, the master of modern synagogue pop-rock shlock, also puts in an appearance.

Mendelson and the filmmakers appear unaware of the other new modes of synagogue music in America — the music of new composers like Joey Weisenberg, who right now is creating an entire new school of American Jewish music, and the neo-Hasidic style one hears from Renewal types. And there’s also the growing awakening of American Jews to classic Sephardic music — as venerable a tradition as Mendelson’s European hazzanut.

Though his longtime congregation has cast him aside, Mendelson is traveling and teaching. When teaching about hazzanut, he comes alive. He’s funny and powerful. One former student calls him a “sit-down comedian.” In the classroom and outside of it, he tells the stories of his life nonstop, most of them quite funny.

He is working on a one-man musical show on his life. Are these enough on which to build a future? It’s unclear. Mendelson is fearful. He is depressed. He has money problems.

Mendelson has struggled with depression his entire life. In one tearful scene, he tells of his bar mitzvah, in which he made error after error while chanting his Torah portion. His father was deeply disappointed. It is a trauma that is with Mendelson seemingly every day of his life.

His mother would tell him “hazzanus [another pronunciation of hazzanut] is my life.” Not Mendelson, not his brother, not her husband — “hazzanus is my life,” he notes with some resentment. She had “a deep wellspring of anger,” Mendelson says. She assuaged that anger only in shul, during the Hoshana Rabba service at the end of Sukkot, in which worshippers bash leafy branches on the ground. One can see how Mendelson learned that shul — and shul music — is the place to express yourself.

Teachers and practitioners of cantorial music interviewed throughout the 86-minute film call Temple Israel Center’s decision to get rid of Mendelson “insane.” And it is. There’s a place for what he does, and for what new cantors do.

The film left me with a renewed appreciation for classical European cantorial music, and hoping that American synagogues can find a place for both it and its newer counterparts. But like many in the film, I’m not optimistic that it will happen.

“A Cantor’s Head”

5:50 p.m. March 1 at Vogue Theatre, 3290 Sacramento St., S.F. 86 minutes, not rated.

David A.M. Wilensky
David A.M. Wilensky

David A.M. Wilensky is director of news product at J. He previously served as assistant editor and digital editor. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @davidamwilensky