In the Jewish faith, the cantor’s role is to lead communal prayers in the synagogue – to be the congregation’s messenger. He “speaks” to G-d on behalf of those assembled. He “gives voice” to their prayers.
The siddur, a Jewish prayer book containing a set order of daily prayers, compiled over millennia, has traditional music attached to each prayer. But, the melodies vary significantly according to each community’s musical tradition. European cantors borrow from the Hasidic tradition and also the European classical and operatic musical modes.
The United States too has a unique tradition of Jewish cantorial services. For instance, I discovered at the convention that Leonard Bernstein and Arnold Schoenberg, each individually, was commissioned to compose for synagogue services in the early 1900s. Since World War ll, the US has created a tradition of participatory singing in the synagogue borrowed from folk-singing, with star names such as Shlomo Carlebach, Debbie Friedman, and Joey Weisenberg.
The video below showcases one of the most familiar prayers in the Jewish canon, sung only once a year on the Jewish New Year, on Rosh Hashannah.
Cantor Paul Heller of Belsize Square Synagogue in London sings the traditional words of Unetaneh Tokef at the European Cantors’ Convention open-mike concert. He begins by saying that this prayer is particularly appropriate to the new year’s beginning (January 2020). In hindsight, it almost seems prescient.
“As a shepherd seeketh out his flock and causeth each one to pass beneath his crook, so dost Thou G-d, review, number, and visit every living soul appointing the measure of every creature’s life and decreeing their destiny.”
On Rosh Hashanah, it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur, it is sealed.
“How many will die and how many will be born. Who will live and who will die. Who after a long life and who before his time. Who by fire and who by water. Who by sword and who by beast. Who by famine and who by plague. Who will be impoverished and who will be enriched. Who will be exalted, and who will be degraded…
But teshuva/reconsideration, tefillah/prayer, and tzedaka/righteous actions, have the potential to annul the severity of the decree.”
Note how the audience can’t help but join him in the familiar final refrain of teshuvah, tefillah and tzedaka, which comes to remind us that our future depends not only on G-d but also on our own behaviour – reconsideration, prayer, and acts of righteousness.