Craig Taubman remembers a time not too long ago when he and other popular Jewish musicians were branded as destroyers of Jewish culture.
“Years ago there was incredible tension. You can’t ignore it,” Taubman told The Journal from his Studio City home and office. “There were inflammatory, not nice things said about a lot of contemporary writers. It was said that so-and-so or such-and-such had single-handedly not only destroyed Jewish music, but was destroying Jewish culture and Jewish prayer.”
That antagonism, it seems, is on the way out, just as more and more of Taubman’s music, along with the works of Debbie Friedman and other songwriters, becomes a more formalized part of services.
Aside from collaborating with cantors at Sinai Temple and Adat Ari El to develop new Shabbat services, Taubman this year is entering one of the strongest holdouts for traditional cantorial music: The main sanctuary on the High Holy Days.
Together with Cantor Joseph Gole at Sinai Temple in Westwood, Taubman has created an arrangement that combines a chorus of Psalms with trumpets and dramatically placed organ chords, interwoven with the Shofar blasts, for what Taubman hopes will be an inspirational and participatory shofar blowing service.
“The text says be stirred to life, it doesn’t say sit quietly and passively, it says be moved. And hopefully they’ll be moved,” Taubman says. “But at the same time, we’re not totally taking it out with rock music and guitars and other things that will be more focused on the setting of the music, rather than the text and the moment.”
Achieving that balance of the familiar and the innovative, of the traditional and the contemporary, is one of the greatest challenges of cantors and musicians today, as many observers believe we are witnessing the solidification of a uniquely American mode of prayer.
It is a mode that diminishes the performance/ audience aspect of prayer and emphasizes participation with accessible words and singable melodies. It is energetic and melodic and can cover the gamut of emotions in an effort to bring about spiritual connection. And it is influenced not only by the long historical chain of cantorial traditions, but by the great cantorial composers of the 20th century, the song leaders groomed at summer camp, American folk rock and the Chassidic melodies of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach.
While no one is claiming the advent of a great revolution on the American Jewish music scene, it seems that after 25 to 30 years of development, we are at a discernible point in an evolutionary process where American Jewish liturgical music is coming into its own.
“It’s a very natural kind of evolution. For the people who are involved in trying to change things, it is very challenging and also exciting,” says Cantor Ira Bigeleisen of Adat Ari El in North Hollywood. “Eventually, American Jewry will grow up and find its own voice, just as German Jewry grew up and found its own voice. It happens with every community after a couple hundred years, where it gets established enough and develops its style.”
The success of the emerging style is hard to deny, and cantors are meeting the challenge with a healthy hesitancy, working to assure that the centuries-old traditions do not get lost in the wave of creativity and artistic freedom. With the right melding of old and new, Bigeleisen believes the 21st century American contribution to the cantorate can be long lasting.
“My opinion is that we’re having a resurgence of what I call liturgical poetry,” says Bigeleisen, pointing out other centuries in Jewish history where prayer compositions proliferated.
“This is an American style of liturgical poetry, so instead of being in Aramaic, the common language at that time, now we have poetry in Hebrew and in English, adapting to the musical style that is common here. It’s a way of integrating and modernizing the service while still maintaining a traditional structure. And I think this is really positive.”
One reason Bigeleisen and others are so enthusiastic is that the new style is attracting unprecedented hundreds to services.
Friday Night Live at Sinai Temple and One Shabbat Morning at Adat Ari El are nationally acclaimed illustrations of the fusion of popular music with Jewish prayer.
Taubman, Bigeleisen and Rabbi Moshe Rothblum set out to structure One Shabbat Morning, the Conservative synagogue’s monthly service, to engage congregants through interactive Torah discussions, an air of intimacy, and music that is contemporary but based on traditional Shabbat nusach. (Nusach, musical modes based on melodic formulas of chanted prayer particular to a time of the year, time of day and specific sections of the service, is among the oldest layers of extant Jewish liturgical music.)
Taubman worked with Bigeleisen and other cantors including Alberto Mizrachi, a renowned Sephardic cantor from Chicago, to shore up his knowledge of nusach.
Together, they came out with a service that attracts as many as 1,000 people, of all ages and levels of affiliation. They even snagged the hard-to-reach teenagers.
Taubman is convinced the success is due to the newfound cooperation, where the parties — rabbi, cantor, musician — have taken joint ownership of the process.
“The likelihood of a song of mine becoming part of the tradition a hundred years from now is highly unlikely. But if I can make one contribution that will possibly be invaluable, it is getting rabbis and cantors and lay people and musicians such as myself to sit at the table and say, ‘OK, instead of creating this stuff independently, how can we work together toward creating a liturgy that speaks to people?'” Taubman says.
What they have created so far does speak to people.
“I think people want to be engaged,” says Ron Wolfson, director of the University of Judaism’s Whizin Center for the Jewish Future and cofounder of Synagogue 2000, an interdenominational project. “The question for the rabbi and the cantor and the lay leadership is, how are we going to create a service that engages people in prayer, in study and community?”
Part of what makes Taubman’s and Friedman’s music so accessible is that it combines Hebrew and English, a must for a Jewish laity that has a diminishing knowledge base.
“It seems that we in the Conservative and Reform world are confronted with a generation that wants us to create a service they can somehow relate to, although they come to it without a basic ability to experience it in an authentic Jewish way,” says Cantor Joseph Gole at Sinai Temple.
Thus, more wordless melodies have been added, and some congregations, such as Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel, have increased the availability of transliterated texts and started prayer education classes.
“There are lots of ways to bring people in so they don’t feel alienated, without dumbing down the service,” says Cantor Evan Kent of Temple Isaiah in West Los Angeles, who is also the newly appointed director of the cantorial program at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. “There is a healthy balance to making service accessible, but not making it ridiculously easy so regulars feel insulted.”
Cantor Aviva Rosenbloom, who has helped to guide the evolution of a more participatory service at Temple Israel of Hollywood for 26 years, believes that people want to take ownership of their prayers.
“I think people are looking for a more personal experience in worship. They want to be moved and they want to be touched, and they want to do it — they don’t just want to have the clergy do it for them,” she says. “I think this is linked to the change in the concept of God that people are comfortable with. People are more comfortable with an imminent God, with a God that is close to them and touching there lives, and they are less comfortable with a transcendent God who is controlling things from on high and judging. I think they want that closeness and intimacy to be felt in the music, with songs that will touch the heart more directly and immediately.”
That desire for intimacy arose within a generation whose Jewish experiences and musical tastes were nourished largely in summer camp or youth groups, and largely on the musical styles of Taubman and Friedman.
Today, that generation is in a position to institute their musical and theological predilections in a formal way.
“The synagogue presidents and the rabbis and the cantors grew up at camp with me — we all went through that experience,” says Taubman. “We are experiencing the effects of the ’60s revolution decades later in the context of our prayer and our synagogue environment.”
According to Mark Kligman, an ethnomusic-ologist at HUC-JIR in New York, the change is also the product of a generational shift.
“The American Jews of the ’70s tried to define and assert themselves, and they did so by saying they did not want to sound like their parents’ generation. They didn’t want their cantors wailing and crying and emoting as they did in earlier generations,” Kligman says. “Those changes have been felt most significantly since the mid-’70s, and certainly those issues were in the fore during the ’80s and became more institutionalized in the ’90s.”
Some in the synagogue music business express concern that the innovations don’t overwhelm the quality of the prayers.
“Unless there is somebody maintaining a certain level of standards, the heritage will be endangered,” says Sam Glaser, composer and performer who leads services at the Happy Minyan and Young Israel of Century City. “We want to give kids synagogue memories, but we also want them to have the option of showing up in a synagogue in Romania or Mexico City and being able to daven with the nusach, and not to have an alien tune because the Debbie Friedman tune is the only one they ever learned.”
That is a challenge cantorial schools are taking seriously. Kent says that a significant amount of each class and music workshop will be dedicated to melding tradition with contemporary music when HUC’s expanded cantorial program opens its doors in spring 2002.
The school will open as a preparatory program for students waiting to enter the cantorate, and Kent says Los Angeles’ Reform seminary hopes to have a fully investing program in the near future. “One of the most important things in training students is teaching them to evaluate criteria for what is good,” Kent says.
Kent notes that today’s cantorial students are being trained by cantors who are not only themselves American trained, but whose teachers were also American trained. As the link to the European tradition grows more abstract, the American tradition has more room to flourish.
“We are really creating a Nusach America, which has to reflect everything that we know as Americans,” Kent says.
Cantor Nathan Lam of Stephen S. Wise Temple, who heads the Academy for Jewish Religion’s cantorial school, says students must have a firm grounding in tradition before they can innovate.
“I think the new cantorate is being taught to make the amcha [people] one with the prayers. The text is priority and belief in God is priority, and make them the center of your focus,” Lam says.
Lam also points out that changes in the tradition of change and absorption of outside influence in the cantorate is a well-documented part of Jewish musical history.
To illustrate his point, Lam sings the second half of “Aleinu,” beginning with “Shehu Noteh Shamayim” (He who plants the heavens). He then launches into a rendition of “The Itsy Bitsy Spider.”
The tunes are nearly identical. It is a vivid illustration that Jewish music and the music of the surrounding culture have always existed in intricate interplay.
Most of the nusach is undocumented in origin, but dates far back in Jewish history, as does cantillation of the biblical texts. In contrast, many of the High Holy Day melodies we hear today were written in the last 200 years in Central and Eastern Europe, when the post-Enlightenment cantorate experienced an age of prolific artistry, influenced by the musical culture surrounding it. Strains of classical influence can be heard in many traditional melodies.
Kligman, the ethnomusicologist from New York, says that while comparisons of cultural influence can certainly be made with today’s musical resurgence, the analogy must be nuanced.
“Today our society in general has moved away from classical music … Everything needs to be user- friendly and needs to be very appealing and functionable,” Kligman says. So while composers such as Salomon Sulzer and Louis Lewandowski, cantorial giants who lived in Central Europe in the 19th century, may have sought aesthetic and artistic excellence in their compositions, today’s composers have a different goal.
“Debbie Friedman’s reference is not classical music, she is not writing to people’s intellectual center. Her music is about communicating to God, to help make prayers understood in a folk music idiom,” Kligman says.
Perhaps it is the cantorate’s malleable nature that has left it so open to innovation.
“When someone asks me, ‘Is this traditional?’ I say, ‘Whose tradition?'” Kent says. “I think in a multicultural Jewish city like Los Angeles, we have to be very cognizant of the fact that what is your tradition is not necessarily someone else’s.”
That is especially true when Kent looks out at his Westside congregation and sees non-Jews sitting with their Jewish partners, and sees a good number of congregants who are Israeli or Persian.
“The Eastern European tradition means nothing to them,” he says.
In Temple Isaiah’s High Holy Day services, which take place at the Century Plaza, Kent includes in his services Yiddish songs, Moroccan tunes, a fair amount of English, silent meditations and wordless melodies.
While in most synagogues the High Holy Day services remain largely unchanged, many cantors and rabbis are slowly introducing new melodies.
“Especially on the High Holy Days, people have real expectation that they will hear the same pieces,” Bigeleisen says. “I don’t change more than one or two pieces a year.”
Lam says he will begin the service with a niggun, to get people more in the mood to participate, and will add some contemporary music to the Torah procession service. Rosenbloom at Temple Israel will do the same thing.
She believes that the reluctance to change the High Holy Day service, while related to nostalgia, also goes back to people’s perception of God.
“Much more than on Shabbat, we are talking about a royal concept of God, a queenly or kingly concept of God, and the music and the majesty of the music reflects the theology that is behind the prayers,” Rosenbloom says.
Temple Israel, like many other large synagogues, offers several alternative services, including one that is less embellished than the main sanctuary.
At Sinai Temple for the past few years, Craig Taubman has joined forces with Rabbi Sherre Zwelling Hirsch to create an alternative High Holy Day service that attracts about 1,000 worshipers. Like the new Shabbat services, this one aims for intimacy, more interactive Torah study, and contemporary, participatory music accompanied by a band.
“People come and they can’t believe it. They have these expectations that during the High Holy Days you’re supposed to be bored and sit through it and endure and be hungry. People are transformed….There is excitement and energy,” Hirsch says.
Even more remarkable, she says, is that people come back on regular Shabbats and other holidays.
“They are no longer once-a-year Jews,” she says.
Taubman says it’s an important lesson for other synagogues to absorb.
“Congregations get 5,000 people coming on the High Holy Days, and then they don’t come back for 50 weeks,” Taubman says. “Something tells me that anybody in marketing would say here is a golden opportunity not to do the same old same old, try something new, and see if they might actually come back.”