|October 22, 2010
CREATING AN AMERICAN NUSACH
What is “nusach”? It is the given order of liturgy and musical modes derived from the tropes of the Torah, Nevi'im and Megillot. Designated variably for weekday, Shabbat, Festival and High Holy Day services these modes give each service their unique sound and feel.
I have been thinking about what a hazzan/cantor will mean to the Conservative synagogue of the future. It is my opinion we need to create an American Nusach for the American synagogue of the 21st century while at the same time maintaining the traditional “authentic” cantorial sound that we have inherited from our Eastern European Ashkenazic culture. The challenge is to maintain authenticity while introducing an accessible contemporary sound that is led by the hazzan but fully involves the congregation.
Many congregations gave up the traditional Ashkenazic prayer model of the Hazzan opening each paragraph, allowing the congregation to pray the rest and finishing with a “chatimah” (finishing phrase). They took “tefilah” (prayer) out of the equation and made it a sing song service without depth. This is not Conservative Judaism. Shall we pray only in English, perhaps? I think not. Hebrew is the language of the Jew and our connection to the holy land, Israel. Hebrew must be an integral part of the prayer experience.
I believe that our Sephardic brothers and sisters have been doing something for hundreds of year that we can learn. I was born a Sephardi in Athens, Greece but raised in the Ashkenazic tradition when I emigrated to the U.S In the Sephardic traditions people “daven” (pray) every single word of every service out loud in unison. As a result even the least traditional Sephardic Jew is able to minimally navigate his/her way through a service. Why can't we create a tune in the American Nusach?
Not by forgetting or abandoning our traditional modes of prayer but by utilizing them to compose a number of simple noble tunes that can be used creatively by the entire congregation . Within this context Cantorial improvisation, when appropriate, could occur along with compositions that the congregation could listen to with joy and love.
We would have to compress the service to its basic elements (“matbey'a shel t'filah”) and infuse it with contemporary sounding tunes throughout. With the clergy cooperating to help shorten the service from three and a half to two and a half hours we would have happy congregations. Our hazzanim would introduce these tunes into the curricula educational and youth programs. Thus, by utilizing this type of nusach any congregant who attends services regularly would learn the words of the prayers and memorize much of the text. I feel that the creation and implementation of an American Nusach would serve as one of the rallying points for the future of Masorti/Conservative Judaism.
Hazzan Alberto Mizrahi
Greek-born tenor, Alberto Mizrahi, one of the world’s leading interpreters of Jewish music, is Hazzan of the historic Anshe Emet Synagogue, Chicago. He has thrilled audiences worldwide in recitals, symphony concerts, and opera. His repertoire, spanning nine languages, makes his performances unique in the field.
He is featured on PBS television in CANTORS: a faith in song, and in the Hanukkah Special with Craig Taubman. He has performed for Presidents and recorded with the legendary jazz pianist, Dave Brubeck and his quartet (“Gates of Justice”) for the Milken Archive on the Naxos label, and with the great Theodore Bikel (“Our Song”) for Opus Magica. He has also performed with major symphony orchestras throughout the United States, Europe and Israel, including the Chicago, New York, Atlanta, Houston, Haifa, Jerusalem, Barcelona, NDR-Hannover, Lithuanian National, Radio Television of Spain, Krakow, Warsaw and others.
Cantor Mizrahi is an officer of the Cantors Assembly, on the Board of the Zamir Choral Foundation, Advisory Board of Genesis at the Crossroads and on the faculty of the H.L. Miller Cantorial School-J.T.S., N.Y. He lives in Chicago with his wife, Deborah, and they have one child, Belina, in her final year of graduate school at Yale.
Cantor Mizrahi will be a keynote speaker, choir leader and mentor at the 2011 FJMC Convention, July 13 to 17, Costa Meas, CA. Cantor Mizrahi has renewed his membership in the International Kiddush Club.
The opinions expressed in this Unraveller are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the FJMC.