New Cantorial Program for the High Holidays keeps Ancient Melodies Alive

avinu-malkeinu-record-labelBy Sara Spielman

As Jews gather this year during the High Holidays at synagogues across the world, the powerful melodies evoke emotions, trepidation and something else too – a distant memory, as though one’s soul is being transported back hundreds of years to an old synagogue in Eastern Europe.

The Orthodox Union is aiming to restore the ancient melodies accompanying the Jewish prayers in time for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Its newly launched cantorial program, Nusach HaTefillah, offers an online database of chazanut recordings and lectures by world famous cantors ensuring that the melodies are accessible to both professional cantor and lay person.

Chazanut is the music of our people, and it had its heyday when there were less distractions and attractions out there,” explains Joel Kaplan, cantor at Congregation Beth Shalom in Lawrence, NY and Honorary President of the Cantorial Council of America, who founded this new program in conjunction with Judah Isaacs, Director of Community Engagement at the OU. “People are now in faster mode, they want to go home quicker… It’s been lost because people are fixated on time and don’t want words repeated, which Chazanim have to do to be faithful to the original melody.”

Chazanim call these melodies “MiSinai,” which refer to melodies from Ashkenazi communities sanctified as authentic traditions by the Maharil, Rabbi Yaakov Halve Möllin, Chief Rabbi of the Rhineland during the 14th century. There are approximately fifty-two melodies that can be identified; many are “motifs,” musical phrases which are repeated in different texts, mostly for the Yamim Noraim and some for prayers of the remaining year.

As part of the Nusach Hatafillah program, spearheaded by Cantor Chaim Dovid Berson of Manhattan’s Jewish Center, the OU arranged community events around the country leading up to the holidays, including in Teaneck, Los Angeles and on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Cantor Joseph Malovany, chazzan of the Fifth Avenue Synagogue for 43 years, spoke at a pre-yomim noraim inspirational event at Teaneck’s Congregation Keter Torah, which was also a tribute to Malovany’s close friend, Elie Wiesel. He shared memories of Wiesel’s contributions to his own high holiday liturgy, also demonstrating the singing of nigunim and nusach of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers and the goals of the shaliach tzibur. Attendees brought recording devices to memorize it before the holidays.

Malovany, who teaches at the Leipzig Institute in Germany and at the Belz School for Jewish Music, says he’s “on a mission, a crusade to convince congregations all over the world to preserve, develop, to make people aware how important the ancient motifs are to chant for every prayer.”

Emerging cantorial stars Cantor Zev Muller of West Side Institutional Synagogue, Cantor Chaim Dovid Berson of The Jewish Center in Manhattan, and Cantor Yanky Lemmer of Lincoln Square Synagogue, led a music master class and presentation on the prayers of the high holidays at the West Side Institutional Synagogue with piano accompaniment by Eric Freeman from the Belz School for Jewish Music at Yeshiva University, who co-sponsored the event with the OU.

A conversation and music with community leaders reached Beverly Hills, too, with Rabbi Pini Dunner and Cantor Netanel Baram and the Yavneh Hebrew Academy Children’s Choir for a pre-Rosh Hashanah discovery at the Young Israel of North Beverly Hills.

“A lot of people who daven don’t know it because they didn’t learn it,” Kaplan says. “Chazanim don’t produce aids for it and unless [lay people] are taught it, how are they supposed to learn it? We want to make people more aware of appreciating the nusach hatafilah; the chazan elaborates on that, it can be very inspiring and elevating if done the proper way.”

Although the Maharil declares in his Sefer HaMaharil, compiled by his student Eliezer Ben Yaakov, that one may not change the nusach of a community, and most poskim have agreed that this applies throughout the calendar year, the tradition is slowly being lost.

“Music has a very strong power of association,” says Berson. “It is an integral part of our traditions. People today are so well educated and sophisticated, but there is a gap in their knowledge of how the music in davening is supposed to be done. It is important to do it the right way to keep our traditions alive. We are trying to make these resources accessible to everyone. The initiative is not just for professionals, but for all people because everyone at some point might lead davening.”