Once upon a time at Congregation Beth Sholom. (Screenshot/bethsholomsf.org)
Once upon a time at Congregation Beth Sholom. (Screenshot/bethsholomsf.org)

A synagogue choir is not to be applauded … or is it?

I sang bass in Congregation Beth Sholom’s professional eight-voice High Holidays choir in the 1980s, sometime after Cantor Israel Reich retired. Rabbi Alexander Graubart was leading services at the San Francisco synagogue, Kenneth Koransky was the cantor and Scott Singer was leading the choir.

Cantor Koranksy was a wonderful tenor with a career behind him that included grand opera on the European performance circuit. When he wanted to, he could really bring the house down!

During the Musaf service of the first day of Rosh Hashanah, we sang Samuel Naumbourg’s setting of S’u She’arim, Psalm 24: “Lift up your heads, O ye gates that the Sovereign of glory may enter!” Ken brought a power to that piece that I had never heard before, and have never heard since. It was a truly amazing rendition.

Then, when it was done, something happened that I’d never experienced before.

The congregation actually broke out into applause. We all stood there on the bimah looking at each other in surprise. We were all experienced performers, but receiving an ovation like that in the middle of such a service was new to us all.

After the service, Rabbi Graubart and Cantor Koransky had a somewhat long and intense meeting. I don’t think I’m sharing too much by mentioning that voices were raised. We in the choir had no idea what was going on, or what the fallout might be. We had simply done all that we were capable of doing to bring life and beauty to the music and the moment. It was out of our hands how it would be received.

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Graubart dispensed with his normal commentary for Musaf. Instead, he spoke eloquently about what had happened the day before. He explained that the art of the cantorate, and the delicate balancing act of every cantor, is to bring all of his or her skill to bear while leading the congregation in prayer. It is not a performance, he explained; it is leadership.

Similarly, it is the responsibility of the congregation to receive the work of any cantor or synagogue choir in the way it is offered.

By applauding, the congregation separates itself from the prayer. It is the applause that makes it a performance, not the singing.

In those times when the cantor and the choir are presenting portions of the liturgy outside of a sing-along context, it is not something to be applauded. It is something with which the congregants should endeavor to join and to experience as if they were singing it themselves, even if they aren’t. That is the liturgical purpose of an “amen” at the end of a prayer or blessing. It essentially means “I agree.”

By applauding, he explained, the congregation is separating itself from the prayer. It is the applause that makes it a performance, not the singing. Just as members of the choir would not applaud their own singing, the congregation should not feel the need to applaud the choir’s singing, or that of the cantor, because we are all there worshipping as one.

Rabbi Graubart offered that commentary right before we were to sing the very same setting of S’u She’arim. Instead of applauding, he suggested, let’s all try to sit with it and let it settle in. Let it be all of our experience. Let it not be an offering from the cantor and choir for the congregation’s enjoyment, but an offering from the whole congregation together for the greater glorification of God.

Soon after that High Holiday season, I became a cantor, myself. I have led High Holiday services nearly every year since then. In the intervening 35 years or so, I have often reflected on the difference between performance and leading services.  And I have always tried to balance the two.

A rabbi once pointed out that the most holy part of the shofar blast is not the blast itself. It is the silence that comes in the moment after the final tekiah. In that moment exists infinite possibilities for awakening, enlightenment and inspiration.

Through many years of performing, I have learned that a similar moment exists at the end of every musical performance.

When we listen closely and delay our applause just a little to allow for that silence to be fully experienced, it can be a remarkable moment. Prolonging the silence only intensifies its depth.

I have come to believe that by avoiding applause altogether, as we do in services, we can take the holiness of that moment and infuse the moments that follow with the same depth and magnitude.

It takes some discipline, and it requires a conscious decision and agreement, but one can learn to hold that energy for quite a while. That is what I keep in my mind when I finish something beautiful in a service.

After the rabbi’s heartfelt commentary, Cantor Koransky and the choir once again launched into the Naumbourg setting. It was, just like the day before, a truly glorious thing!

At the end of it, the congregants didn’t applaud. After a few moments of silence, they gave Cantor Koransky and the choir a thunderous standing ovation.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Stephen Saxon
Stephen Saxon

Stephen Saxon is a professional singer, brass player, composer, cantor, author, and cybersecurity engineer. He lives in the Fairview area of Alameda County.