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Jewish Music

 Cantor Jessica (Fox) Epstein

Cantor's Notes: January 2001

Every once in a while someone will ask me, "Cantor, what exactly is Jewish music?" Iím sure you get the same query from time to time. It's an innocent, obvious question. Deceptively simple. In fact, it was the first question asked at my first cantorial class in Jerusalem. Eli, being Eli, didn't give us an answer. He simply said the problem was "extremely complicated" and proceeded to lecture tirelessly on Jewish music for the next eight months. The class ended in the following spring. By then, my classmates and I felt we had a clearer understanding of the history, use and development of Jewish music - but we still didn't know how to define it.

How does one define what is ephemeral? Music, unlike the other arts, is created and then destroyed. There is sound and then silence and therein lies its power and its mystery. The New York Philharmonic can play Beethoven's Ninth Symphony again but it won't be the same masterpiece as before. The cantor and choir can sing the Kol Nidre again year after year - but it won't be the same prayer. It won't be the same for the singers and it won't be the same for the listeners. What we hear is determined by who we are. Perhaps that is why Torah is read over and over again. Originally, only a few select scholars could read or study the written text. The majority of Jews just gathered around the marketplace to hear it. They listened to the same stories year after year. How many years do we have to hear the same story before we understand it? How many times do we have to sing the same prayers before we begin to absorb them into our souls?

We cantors know in the marrow of our bones that Jewish music, especially liturgical music, is more than notes and rhythms. Itís why we canít quite express how we feel about music with people who donít "get it." The discussion is based on the wrong premise. It's not about the style of the music. Itís not about who sings which prayers, or even why or when. It's really a question of how. How do we listen? How do we pray? It's natural, if misguided, for the Ego to categorize worship into "me" and "not-me." If the choir sings, some people feel they are being shut out. If the cantor sings, others wonder when their voice can be heard. If the rabbi sermonizes, when can they discuss? These are legitimate questions. They are also constructs brought on by a society constantly telling us to protect ourselves. Play it safe. Shut-down and avoid being hurt. Don't become vulnerable. Don't be too open, read weak. Isolation is the most rampant disease of our age. When we bring this sense of ego into our prayer service we shut ourselves off from the very essence of prayer -- receiving.

How do we open ourselves and receive from the Other - be it God, man or woman? Personally, I struggle to allow myself to receive compliments or praise from other people. I have to bite my tongue from saying, "What, this schmatte?" or "I've sounded better." I don't. I've learned not to. Such remarks would be both selfish and ungracious. What matters is to allow people to share what they feel and to permit myself to enjoy their appreciation. Sometimes I think that if I have to struggle to accept well-deserved praise from people about whom I care -- how can I learn to accept the miracles that surround me every day in the world that God created?

Our tradition, as always, shows us the way. Abraham easily accepted God's promise of a new land and myriads of descendants. He answered God with the words, "Hineni -- Behold me, I'm open to you." Trouble is, m ost of us aren't Abraham. Jacob had to wrestle with God before he received a new name and a new purpose. Only then he was able to open his arms to accept his estranged brother Esau who ran to him and embraced him. Remember, he didn't run to Esau. More importantly, he was open to Esau's remorse. He became vulnerable in the moment of reconciliation. I would guess that some of us are like Jacob. Lastly, Moses responded to God's call with "Hineni." But, like a lot of us, he had low self-esteem. "Who am I?" he wondered, "I can't even speak properly. Please God, send someone else." He tried again and again to evade God's command. Finally, after God negotiated his brother Aaron into the deal as a partner and helper, Moses decided he would do as God commanded. What a beautiful model for vulnerability before the Eternal. If we ordinary Israelites stand together, as we did at the Sea of Reeds and at Sinai, we can learn to receive the gifts that God bestows to us erev vavoker, vatzohoraim.

At its deepest level, singing our prayers during the service is the way we spiritually, and often physically, stand together with our congregation. Ideally, our worship is informed by give and take from cantor and congregation. Each is energized and inspired by the other. Listening is balanced by singing. Inhalation is balanced by exhalation. Many voices are balanced by one voice. Sound is balanced by silence. Maybe the reason I am ambivalent about the new trend towards of pseudo-Chassidic worshiptainment is not its musical form, but its unspoken goal. For me, it lacks balance. Itís all about giving. Giving people excitement. Giving people a chance to get pumped up. Giving people something different. Giving a new sense of "spirituality." It is easy to give. It is difficult to receive because it takes humility. Shouldnít it be about putting the Other first? Maybe God's presence is found not in the "giving" of our prayers and songs at all, but in receiving each other in the fullness of Buberís "I-Thou" relationship.

So how can cantors define Jewish music to those who donít get it? Sometimes I think the most beautiful prayer in our service is the one we do at my shul at the very beginning of Kabbalat Shabbat. It doesn't have a melody or a text. All we do is greet each other and say "Shabbat Shalom." The rabbi and I hug. Congregants shake hands. People embrace -- in socially acceptable ways, of course. We look into each otherís eyes and acknowledge what we share. Then we sing.