Cantor Malachi Kanfer. (Photo/Forward-Ellen Dubin Photography)
Cantor Malachi Kanfer. (Photo/Forward-Ellen Dubin Photography)

Sanctifying the stutter: How I embraced my speech disorder as a cantor

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I’m a person who stutters. I’m also a cantor in the Conservative movement. My Jewish and stuttering identities feel increasingly intertwined, as both are related to the experience of time.

As a person who stutters, nothing is more liberating to me than the sensation of having time while talking. This sense of time can be inhibited by a fear of dismissal, and doubt of acceptance and efficacy. Even the common experience of someone asking if I “forgot my name” when introducing myself can subtly inhibit my confidence. When I’m not afraid, I know I have time to express myself, regardless of blocks, repetitions and other disfluencies. I can share my authentic self with the world.

As a Jew, nothing is more central or pressing for me than time. We deliberately sanctify time with Shabbat every week, creating space for self-reflection, connection and joy. In his famous book “The Sabbath,” Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes that Shabbat is “not an interlude, but the climax of living.”

Like many people who stutter, I don’t stutter when I sing. However, I stutter when I teach, when I announce a page number at a Shabbat service, when I give a eulogy at a funeral and when I tell preschoolers about dinosaurs that love to eat challah.

For most of my life, I tried to hide stuttering as much as possible, an experience of constant anxiety, shame, frustration and exhaustion. As a chubby kid who stuttered, raised in a very observant, Orthodox household in Columbus, Ohio, I was desperate to fit in. If I was capable of hiding stuttering, even a little bit, I would. For me, hiding a stutter often meant simply not talking, even when I desperately wanted to. I also avoided stuttering by constantly changing words and phrases as I spoke, usually approximating what I originally intended to say, but not always expressing the complete intent of what I wanted to.

RELATED: This podcast host is a ‘Proud Stutterer’

A sea change occurred when I listened to the StutterTalk podcast for the first time in 2019. I taught voice lessons in college to a person who stuttered, and he had posted about the podcast on Facebook the previous day. I was driving to officiate at a funeral, and I was a little anxious: I hadn’t slept well the night before, and disfluency increases with fatigue. It’s deeply important to me that the deceased receives all of the honor and attention at a funeral. If I stutter too much, I worry that people will focus too much on me, and I will take time away from the funeral.

I pressed play as I was stuck in traffic, trying to cross the Throgs Neck Bridge. The host stuttered as she introduced the episode. She stuttered over and over again, but she stuttered like it was the most normal, natural thing in the world. She described the beauty and courage of living openly with a stutter and encouraged her teenage guest to do the same. I started to weep as I inched across the bridge in my car. I couldn’t stop, and I didn’t want to stop.

Initially, the idea of living openly with a stutter was terrifying. Camouflaging stuttering keeps at bay an overflowing river of emotional baggage, and I was afraid to let it out. When I hid stuttering during interpersonal conversations or during public speaking, I was also trying to hide questions and feelings like:

Does the other person think I’m stupid? Are they bored? Do they think I’m incompetent? Do they think I belong here? Will I ever be able to truly get out what I mean? When will this block end? Will they make fun of me?  Will someone wonder why the cantor with a stutter is officiating at their loved one’s funeral? Can anyone see that I’m thinking all of these things? I’m just so embarrassed and ashamed.

In the moment of a block, these giant emotions of shame and unworthiness can come rushing through.

This article first appeared in the Forward.

Malachi Kanfer

Malachi Kanfer has served as the cantor at Sutton Place Synagogue since 2020. Previously, Malachi was the cantor and youth education director of Congregation B’nai Jacob in New Haven, Connecticut, and the High Holidays cantor at Congregation Agudas Achim in Columbus, Ohio.


Content reprinted with permission from the Forward. Sign up here to get the Forward's free email newsletters delivered to your inbox.