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What does it mean to be a cantor?

Cantor Sam Weiss shared this with the Jewish-music mailing list:

There is an article that I've been meaning to share with this list for a while, and I'm finally getting around to doing so. It does not necessarily represent my practice, but I think it serves as a necessary antidote to the "Three Tenors" conception of what being a cantor is all about. Following the link is the title and a tiny excerpt:

Speaking Before The Heavenly Court, by Cantor Sherwood Goffin, Jewish Week of Greater New York, 3 Oct 2003

... It is then, nearly two months before Tishrei, that it all begins for me the realization that as the cantor of a community, I am the one who will soon be called upon during the High Holy Days to plead on behalf of my congregation, my family, my friends, for a verdict of compassion for the coming year...


Cantor Goffin's was a wonderful account of devotion through the singing voice. Reading him, I wish I had the chutzpah to travel to Manhattan on Shabbos or Yuntif to hear him at work--however, I live in New Jersey. I can remember a synagogue to which I belonged years ago in which we cycled through cantors, and nobody seemed happy. My favorite was the guy who started off with a few lines of each prayer, then allowed us to get inside the prayer on our own: a case of Alone Together. Another had a pleasant voice and manner, but could not satisfy the majority of the congregation either. We finally got some gentleman who did a pretty sad imitation of Luciano Pavarotti, complete with Pavarotti's secular version of lack of kavanah. I would rather hear an "amateur" with passion chant the words then listen to some burned-out opera singer or someone for whom the music was a way for him to show off his voice.

Am I unfair? Probably. Have I heard this stuff? Absolutely.

Thanks for the comments, Ken. I hope that your current synagogue has davening more to your liking!

I don't have a good answer to who or what a perfect cantor might be - that's it's own question, and each person and each congregation must answer it in ways that best serve. The cantor, after all, is known in Hebrew as the "shaliakh tzibur" - which might be loosely translated as the "public's representative". Some congregations need or want more; others less. In my congregation, we have two rabbis and no cantor. My brother-in-law goes to a minyan where duties are simply shared between the members.

But, a good cantor serves also as an inviting expediter of prayer, and certainly is a wonder to hear. To present hazzanus from that perspctive was why I was so pleased to post Sam's link to Cantor Goffin's article.

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