October 15, 2018

Chanting con Pasión

Is there something about Buenos Aires that breeds chazzanim? Some cantorial organism lurking in the bulrushes of Rio de la Plata, the river that borders the city? Something in the rhythm of the city — all those taxis and cars and buses, all that street life — that resonates with Jewish liturgical rhythms?

The land that gave us the tango is also responsible for training at least three Southland cantors, who bring a passion and playfulness to Shabbat services. Marcelo and Mariana Gindlin and Pablo Duek are among those who are also bringing full circle an important lesson taught by an influential American rabbi in Argentina: that music — chanted prayer — is the vehicle by which the sacred is transmitted in a direct and profound way.

Argentine cantors have “spirituality, talent and a bond with congregants, which is really important when they first arrive in this country since they may not yet have the capacity to communicate in English,” said Rabbi Daniel Mehlman of Studio City’s Congregation Beth Meier, himself born in Argentina. “But the language they speak is music.”

Duek, 39, has been cantor at Temple Etz Chaim in Thousand Oaks for more than eight years, where he encourages congregants to sing with him.

“I want the congregation to feel there’s space for them. Yes, they could enjoy the chazzan’s voice in a passive manner, but that would be less of a living experience,” he said.

As a child in Buenos Aires, Duek went to public school in the morning. Then every afternoon he went to Salomon Schechter School, where he received an intensive Jewish education. Duek had voice teachers to help him develop his singing.

“But everything that had to do with cantorial skills,” he said, “I learned on my own. I never went to cantorial school.” His childhood and adolescent Jewish studies in Buenos Aires were so substantial that even before finishing high school, when he was 16, Duek started his career as chazzan.

“It was at a small synagogue,” Duek said, “where I went on Friday nights, as well as bar mitzvahs on Saturday morning. There was no rabbi there, just a rabbinical student, and it was a wonderful time. I learned how to be a cantor.”

Duek would later spend nine years in the attractive neighborhood of Palermo as chazzan at a much larger comunidad, or community, as Argentines refer to a synagogue.

Among his influences, Duek cites his summers at Argentina’s Camp Ramah, founded by American-born Rabbi Marshall Meyer, an important figure in the Argentine Jewish community who was called “Marshall” by congregants and students.

“Marshall was the rabbi at Bet El,” Duek said. “He was the person who generated and shaped the Conservative movement in Argentina. He brought an energy which many of us adored, his love of music and Judaism.”

Marshall Meyer was born in New York in 1930. When he was a student at Dartmouth, he came in contact with Abraham Joshua Heschel, who convinced Meyer to go to rabbinical school. After ordination in 1959, Meyer went to Argentina and stayed for 25 years. Besides Comunidad Bet El, Meyer founded a publishing house, which printed Jewish religious texts that had prayers and songs translated into Spanish, a rabbinical seminary that trained rabbis and cantors now leading congregations throughout the world, and Camp Ramah.

“I remember Marshall as a person of enormous vitality,” Duek said. “It didn’t matter to him if you sang well or poorly. The important thing was to sing. What mattered to him was to express joy, to get involved, whether it’s song or dance or your studies.”

Meyer infused his Argentine students and disciples with the idea that Jewish prayer and song, chanted by a totally committed rabbi, chazzan and congregation, could have enormous power. In recent years, some of those influenced by Meyer, directly or indirectly, have come full circle, bringing Meyer’s spirit back to the United States.

Marcelo Gindlin, 41, is cantor at Malibu Jewish Center, and his sister Mariana, 42, is cantor at Glendale’s Temple Sinai. The siblings have a close family bond and shared history. When together, they tend to finish each other’s sentences.

Both Marcelo and Mariana did cantorial studies at the Buenos Aires rabbinical seminary founded by Meyer, but they cite other factors that influenced them. They have deep, early memories of being with their parents at Argentina’s oldest synagogue, Templo Libertad, where their father sang in the choir. Later, they attended Sholem Aleichem School, morning and afternoon, studying Hebrew, Yiddish, bible and other Jewish subjects.

Mariana studied opera singing at a conservatory, then left it to pursue a career in psychology. She started formal cantorial studies at the rabbinical seminary in her 30s.

“At the seminary I breathed in Judaism,” Mariana said, “the Judaism associated with music. It was my re-encounter with my earliest images of Judaism, with what music, family and life mean to me.” It was there that she found her “musical passion.”

Marcelo pointed out that “passion” characterizes Argentine cantors.

Mariana agreed. “A passion that you can feel in every song we sing, every class we teach, in everything we do. It’s a different way of being, and it’s part of Latin American culture,” she said.

Marcelo added that something else that distinguishes Argentine cantors is “playfulness.”

That playful attitude was on display recently at an Etz Chaim Friday night service, during which Pablo Duek paid homage to his Latin roots by singing “Adon Olam” to the tune of “Carnavalito,” a song often played on pan-pipes by the indigenous people of northern Argentina. The congregation loved it, tapping on their prayer books and singing along.

Playfulness was also on display at Glendale’s Temple Sinai when Mariana Gindlin sang “Adon Olam” to the tune of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, a melody so viscerally involving that the congregation instinctively sang or hummed.

At the Malibu Jewish Center, Marcelo Gindlin’s service was warm and friendly, punctuated by niggunim that allowed the congregation to become an integral part of the service.

“After World War II,” Mariana said, “what people wanted to hear from a chazzan was tragic, because that represented people’s feelings. The culture has changed, and so has the role of the chazzan. Nowadays a chazzan is more approachable, not the distant figure up on the bimah but someone who has close contact with the congregation.”

“We’re not using the model of the traditional cantor, whose voice rings out,” Marcelo said. “What we do is try to heal with our voices. We come from a place of healing and comfort. We want people to feel that shul is a place where they’re safe and happy.”