Groundbreaking album breathes new life into nearly abandoned Jewish musical art – The Forward

The most sought-after figures in Jewish life at the beginning of the 20th century in Europe and America were the khazonim, the singers. They conducted services in synagogues and gave performances in concert halls, with wide operatic ranges and moving pathos. The singers love Gershon Sirota, Yossele Rosenblatt and Zawel Kwartin were paid top dollar. Rosenblatt was advertised while on tour across America as “the man with the $50,000 beard”, in reference to his traditional appearance and the princely sums he commanded. He even starred in the 1927 film ‘The Jazz Singer’, the world’s first ‘talkie’, where he made a guest appearance after missing out on a starring role.

Yet despite the similarity to classical opera singers, Eastern European-born cantors of the Golden Age (often defined as the period between the late 19th century and World War II) sang d in a way foreign to conventional opera. Much of their singing was actually improvised.

Many terms used in cantorial singing from this period bear evocative Yiddish names. A great singer would beZog (say) the words of the liturgy in all humility, as if addressing God directly. More khazonim possessed multiple “voices”, completely different vocal ranges they could switch to mid-song – or even mid-sentence. They could go from a booming voice that shook the room to a soft, plaintive voice”baikol(falsetto), which took over in the most sensitive moments.

At any moment, a stinging sadness could be punctuated by a “krekhts,– a sudden, intentional voice cut that sounded like crying. “Dreydlekh (trills) and other embellishments allowed the cantor to demonstrate incredible vocal control in coloratura – long phrases filled with lightning-fast ornamentations that could dazzle the listener. The emotional release of his music, sung humanely but with great skill, often brought people to tears. No wonder Jews and non-Jews come from far and wide to see these stars perform.

The cause of the style’s decline in popularity came from the same forces that beset Yiddish: the murder of six million Jews during the Holocaust in Europe; the repression of Jewish culture in the Soviet Union and the estrangement of American and Israeli Jews from the perceived weakness of Old World Jews from which the style originated.

But the decline in popularity did not happen all at once. At first, the cantors of the 1950s became masters of cantorial music as it was written, but they no longer performed it with the passionate energy and improvisation of the shtetl prayer leaders that had inspired the cantors of the golden age.

In 1966, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel gave a speech decrying this rote performance of formerly improvised music. “The drama of the synagogue is in the depersonalization of prayer. Hazzanuth has become a know-how, a technical performance, an impersonal business. As a result, the sounds that come out of the Hazzan do not evoke any participation. They enter the ears; they do not touch hearts.

Heschel was not the first to complain about it. When cantors began to record liturgical music on vinyl and sing it in theaters, this was denounced by some who claimed that prayer was becoming profane. (One reviewer bitterly protested the fact that prayer words were listened to in brothels.) Yet Heschel’s complaints weren’t really directed at the khazn – he spoke more against the Americanization of the synagogue as a whole, transforming it from a community gathering place with the casual warmth of the Old World, into a more stately but lukewarm affair, to which the khazn n I had no choice but to adapt. As Heschel lamented in that same talk: “After a service, I heard an elderly lady comment to her friend, ‘That was a lovely service! I felt like crying. Is this what prayer means to us? God is serious; He is never charming.

Over time, the nuances that made cantorial music emotionally impactful were dismissed as “old-fashioned”, and teachers of Golden Age stylization became harder to find. Although musical pieces from this era are still performed around the world, the stylizations of the time have been discarded in favor of a purely lyrical style. His Heymish Yiddish character was increasingly shunned in a society that wanted less and less to do with its own language and culture.

Around the 1970s, the synagogue experience was transformed by community singing accompanied by guitar, which spread inspiring new folk singers like Debbie Friedman in the Reform movement and Shlomo Carlebach in the Orthodox movement. Professional cantors who adapted to these new musical tastes were able to keep their jobs, but many who clung to the old ways were asked to retire.

Yet the traditional singing style of singing, just like other aspects of yiddishkeit, never completely died, as a handful of young people continued to find joy in listening to old vinyl records from that era and retained memories of this kind of liturgical music from their childhood.

One such person has made it her personal mission to make sure she finds a new audience.

This man, Jeremiah Lockwood, is the grandson of one of these singers, the late Jacob Konigsberg. Lockwood fondly recalls listening to old cantoral records with his grandfather in Queens – an experience he described in a 2021 interview with the Forward. “There’s a certain richness and sonic flourish that I associate with the smell of pipe smoke, the way the smoke would waft through the air in the back room of my grandfather’s office in his apartment in Forest Hills and a lot of my musical endeavors have been around trying to recreate that feeling.

Jeremy Lockwood. Courtesy of Jeremiah Lockwood

This passion inspired Lockwood to create the internationally touring band, The Sway Machinery, in 2006, which not so subtly incorporated the sounds of old-school cantorial music into blues and afro-funk, like you can hear it in his 2008 song “Avinu Malkeinu Z’khorboldly including the holy day prayer in a mainstream scrapbook. In this way, Lockwood was able to introduce the music to an audience outside the closed channels of Jewish communal life.

But he was not satisfied with that.

After registering for a doctorate at Stanford University, he discovered, while listening Youtube clips, that there was a circle of young Hasidim in Brooklyn who met at each other’s homes, singing and improvising khazzones. They did so in defiance of their community, which had also adopted pop and folk as the dominant modes of prayer music. Surprisingly, most of these khazzonim learned the style by listening to old records so they could pick up as many nuances as possible. “They train their bodies to make sounds,” Lockwood explained.

Lockwood has found his place in this group of khazzonimand decided to record an album with them,”Golden Age: Brooklyn’s Hasidic Cantorial Revival Today.” It was published last June, along with a forthcoming book – all part of his doctoral dissertation. Yanky Lemmer, Shimmy Miller, Yossi Pomerantz, Yoel Kohn (who left the Hasidic world but still pursues the craft), Yoel Pollack and David Reich all have tracks on the album, accompanied by organ, and sometimes one l other as meshorerim (choristers). A number of the band members performed at the Krakow Jewish Cultural Festival, which also distributes the record on vinyl and digital download, where they wowed audiences with this old and new musical sound.

Inspired by their talent, Lockwood decided to record them at Dapton Studios in Brooklyn, a legendary home of soul and funk, just before the pandemic hit. But analog recording was uncomfortable for singers, Lockwood said, given they were used to the luxury of digital, where they could easily correct any notes or sections that went wrong. Lockwood felt that perfection was not the goal here – authenticity was. He knew Daptone’s sound engineers were “the best in the business,” and he wanted to challenge the khazzonim take full, uninterrupted takes, putting their heart into it. Some of the singers improvised parts of the music, capturing the characteristic spontaneity of performances by traditional cantors. The results are breathtaking, especially Yoel Kohn, who seems to have taken over all the techniques of yesteryear.

Kohn insists on the need to react to words. “Thinking about the words and putting them in context helps a lot in making the music what it wants to be,” he wrote in an email. Words like “mah lanu mah chayenu,(Who are we to you? What is our life to you?) in Kohn’s rendition of “Olam Yehey Odom” (At All Times, Man Should Fear God) composed by Yehoshua Vider, pushes Kohn to feel “the emotion of helplessness in the face of the enormity of existence”.

What is most striking is the emotional abandonment heard throughout the album, an embrace of what Lockwood calls a “nonconformist worldview”, a vision that does not stick not to routine and perfect form. When the Golden Age style is performed faithfully, you can hear the cantor’s inner thoughts and feelings in the heartbreaking moments of the song. “Suddenly things that aren’t emotionally charged become like that,” Lockwood says.

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