New York Convention

Tova plays Carnegie!

Our Jubilee year continues... with many a grand convocation at the Jewish Theological Seminary on February 25, special programs around the country and a grand celebration in New York City.  From June 7-11, 1998 our gathering included a concert at Carnegie Hall, performances on Ellis Island and at the new Holocaust Museum, at Park Avenue Synagogue, Congregation Emmanuel, the Eldrige Street Historic Shul and much more.

Cantors Assembly Jewish Theological Seminary

Email: Cantors Assembly
Webmaster: Cantor Sheldon Levin
3080 Broadway Suite 613
New York  NY  10027
Tel:  212-678-8834
Fax: 212-662-8989
Sunday, June 7

ISRAEL 50 Spectacular in Central Park
Concert at Park Avenue Synagogue

Monday, June 8

Eldridge Street Synagogue Program & Concert
           Dr. Ismar Schorsh, Keynote Speaker
Concert at Carnegie Hall

Tuesday, June 9

Program at Ellis Island
Concert at Temple Emmanuel

Wednesday, June 10

Program at new Heritage Museum
Gala Dinner Dance

CONCERT OF CANTORIAL MUSIC -- Festival of song marking the 50th anniversary of the Cantors Assembly.  Chorus and orchestra conducted by Matthew Lazar.  Carnegie Hall

Cantor Ralph

About 300 cantors gathered at the Eldridge Street Synagogue on the Lower East Side on Monday as part of the annual convention of the Cantors Assembly, which is celebrating on 50th anniversary this year.

Credit: J. Emilio Flores/The New York Times

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I think Hazzan Ralph Goren was there too!

Gathering to Sing a Song of Their Past
by Joseph Berger

NEW YORK -- Worn into the frayed burgundy carpet at the front of the Eldridge Street Synagogue are two footprints, the marks left by the succession of cantors who led congregations in prayer from the time the synagogue was the neighborhood shul of tailors and peddlers on the late 19th-century Lower East Side.

Those footprints were a poignant bit of history for the 300 cantors who crowded into the landmark synagogue on Monday, their collective voices resounding like the voices of 300 Pavarottis. And history was much on their minds as they gathered this week for the annual convention of the Cantors Assembly. The organization, affiliated with Conservative Judaism and the largest of three American cantorial groups, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

The cantors took pleasure reminiscing about the days when cantors were the stars of the Jewish world and people taking a break from High Holiday worship would argue the comparative virtues of Yossele Rosenblatt, Moshe Koussevitzky and Richard Tucker while their sons compared the centerfield skills of Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Duke Snider.

In teeming Jewish communities like Borough Park in Brooklyn or Passaic, N.J., cantors would perform four or five weddings on a Saturday night. Abraham Shapiro, a retired cantor from Lynbrook, N.Y., recalled that when the legendary Leibele Waldman confronted one anxious groom who was about to faint, he took the matter firmly in hand.

"Listen," Waldman warned him. "I got four more to do tonight. I've got to get out of here."

But the convention also comes at a time when cantors have to grapple with changes in their profession unimagined a generation ago.

For one thing, the cantor is increasingly likely to sing in a soprano. Though female cantors were not given full status in the Conservative movement until 1987, 40 of the Assembly's 450 members are women and, more tellingly, women make up half the classes at the cantorial school of the Jewish Theological Seminary, the fountainhead of the Conservative movement. In the Reform movement, women are a sizable majority of trainees. (Orthodox Jews do not permit women to lead congregational prayers.)

"Many of the women who might have become cantors in our days had to make other career choices," said Erica Lippitz, one of the first two female cantors to graduate from the Jewish Theological Seminary and now the cantor of Oheb Shalom in South Orange, N.J. "The years have given us a whole new generation of women who, when they were teen-agers, could think about the cantorate as a first profession."

Another change in the cantorate is that congregations want their cantors to do more than sing, to be jacks-of-all-trades, virtually rabbis with golden voices, all for a salary that averages $70,000 plus benefits. Ms. Lippitz finds some members of the congregation relying on her to discuss troubling personal issues like divorce. Marla Rosenfeld Barugel of Congregation B'nai Israel in Rumson, N.J., a mother of two sons, teaches afternoon Hebrew school, prepares candidates for the bar and bat mitzvahs, supervises the Sabbath Torah readers and runs the weekly practices of the choir.

"My relationship with my kids is on my day off and over the phone," said Ms. Barugel.

Stephen Stein, an Akron, Ohio, cantor who is the Assembly's new executive vice president, said that when congregations want to economize, cantors -- known in Hebrew as hazzans -- are the ripest target.

"When a congregation looks at its budget and says, 'Where can we slash?' the role of the rabbi is never in question," he said. "They'll say, 'Let's go from a full-time cantor to a part-time and from a part-time to no cantor at all."'

But on Monday morning, the profession's problems were far from the cantors' minds as they took time, jovially, to remember some of the great cantors of old.

At a panel discussion at the World Trade Center's Marriott hotel, they reminisced about the days when Yossele Rosenblatt's singing in Borough Park's Anshe Sfard or Harlem's Ohab Zedek not only filled a Kol Nidrei service on Yom Kippur, but an ordinary Sabbath. So crowded was his synagogue on a Sabbath that tickets were required, and a gentile Pinkerton guard would let those without tickets in with the warning, "You can go in, but don't pray."

The panel discussion was titled "Renew Our Days as of Old," after a verse from Jeremiah chanted when the Torah is returned to the Ark. But several speakers observed that the old days were not all that wonderful.

Cantors earned their bread by working most of the week as tailors, carpenters and salesmen. They had no job protection and the first effort to give them some would have merged them with the butchers' union -- an insult to the famously egotistic profession. Young Jewish boys were recruited into steppingstone choirs by a self-styled talent scout named Abe Nadler, who paid them 15 cents plus carfare for a night's work.

"He was not exactly a thin man," said Saul Hammerman, a retired cantor from Baltimore. "Maybe 450 pounds. That's after Yom Kippur."

Those assembled for the panel discussion said the profession's status began to change with the creation of the Cantors Assembly in 1948, which backed cantors with a powerful organization. Another milestone was a 1966 federal tax ruling that determined that cantors were not just entertainers but clergy members, entitled to the same benefits and deductions as rabbis and ministers.

The cantors are also aware that they benefit from a nationwide scarcity. Many young people do not want to spend the five years in the Torah, Talmud and music studies required to become a bona fide cantor.

At the Eldridge Street Synagogue, just before the afternoon service, Dr. Ismar Schorsch, the seminary's chancellor, gave the cantors a kind of pep talk, reminding them that they were the ones whose reverential and mellifluous voices opened "the gates of righteousness" for worshipers.

"They want to feel something holy in their lives, which have been numbed by the pace of materialistic life in America," he said of the congregations. "One needs a guide, a source of inspiration. That comes from the hazzan."