About this site

This website is based at Wesleyan University (Mark Slobin), and is a joint project with Hebrew Union College (Mark Kligman). The core mission is to present data gathered in the 1984-6 History of the American Cantorate project. Additions and links that build on that research extend and deepen our understanding of a profession that dates back to the seventeenth century in North America. We welcome contact about further connections to research and archival sources in this area.

Anyone who chooses to have their contribution to the data on this website removed should contact mslobin@wesleyan.edu.

THE HISTORY OF THE AMERICAN CANTORATE

From 1984-6, Mark Slobin served as Project Director and Principal Investigator for a large-scale project called History of the American Cantorate (HAC), funded generously by the National Endowment for the Humanities. The grant came to the Cantors Assembly (CA), the professional organization of Conservative cantors, under the inspired leadership of Hazzan Samuel Rosenbaum, its longtime leader, who wanted to advance the understanding of the profession.

The extensive findings culminated in Slobin’s monograph, Chosen Voices: The Story of the American Cantorate (University of Illinois Press, 1989), but the raw data itself appears publicly for the first time on this website.

Research Design
I understood the task to be in three parts: 1) the history of an ancient Jewish profession that became an American profession in the late seventeenth century;  2) the sociology and ethnography of the current cantorate; 3) the musical practice of American cantors. This required a variety of methods.

History. There was no prior history of the American cantorate to draw on, and even since the HAC, little has been added to our overall understanding of a profession that began in 1696 in the colonies.

Rabbi Abraham Karp, a noted historian, was the main consultant on historical matters and the cantorate’s connection to the rabbinate. Other historians were consulted, including Jacob Rader Marcus and Jonathan Sarna. Douglas Cohn served as the core researcher in the Hebrew Union College archives in Cincinnati, sending excerpts from primary sources.  Marcie Frishman conducted research in archives and libraries in New York.

Sociology and Ethnography. I designed a standardized interview format to fit a 90-minute audiocassette, and 120 cantors participated. Interviews were done by me, Lionel Wolberger and Marcie Frishman (Wesleyan graduate students), Rabbi Jeffrey Summit (then both a graduate student and the Hillel rabbi at Tufts University), and Louis Weingarden (a composer and former cantorial/rabbinic student at Jewish Theological Seminary). Most taping occurred at the annual conferences of the CA and the American Conference of Cantors (ACC), the parallel Reform Jewish organization. A set of interviews with members of the Women Cantors Network was undertaken by Sheyna Mueller. Also available was the bank of interviews that Jeffrey Summit had completed for his M.A. research on part-time cantors in Greater Boston.

The interview began with a question about biography and career path, especially including training, continued through the work environment of the synagogue, and moved to musical issues, such as source of repertoire, service-building, and improvisation, the last-named topic being most suitable for the older Conservative cantors who had trained partly or completely in the oral tradition. Wanting a question that would catch the interviewees off balance, I inserted this: “when you lead a service for the congregation, are you also praying for yourself?” This led to some frank responses that stimulated discussion of the cantor’s personal philosophy.

Questionnaires went out to members of the CA and the ACC, supplementing the interviews. A parallel questionnaire went to every congregation that employed a member of the CA at the time. While it is unclear who filled out that form, the answers enriched the findings from the cantors’ side. Rabbi Karp also supervised a mailing to selected rabbis about their working relationship with cantors.

Reports were commissioned by a number of scholars surrounding the core research, for example on Sephardic issues,  Quranic cantillation, and musicological details. Reports by Judit Frigyesi, Carol Merrill-Mirsky, and Lionel Wolberger are included on this website.

A core sample was selected to represent the performance style of the vast  number of liturgical text settings from which cantors construct a service.  After consultation with veteran cantors of the CA board, a letter went out to all its members requesting that they record and mail in a cassette (the technology of the day) of the 8 selected items:

1) Cantillation of the opening of Bereshit (Genesis); 2) the Haftorah called “Lech lecha,” 3) the Sabbath melody “Lecha dodi,” and the opening of the prayers 4)  ”Tzur yisroel” 5) “N’kadesh,” 6) “Yimloch,” 7) the “Ashrei” for Selichot, and 8) “Uvchen ten pachdecha.” Of the ca. 450 CA members, a much higher percentage than expected responded: 93 cantors.

A follow-up letter went to some cantors, asking them to specify the source and to detail other aspects of their version of some items; those illuminating replies form another branch of the data. Transcription and analysis of some of the data was done by Marcie Frishman and Lionel Wolberger. Wolberger also visited over 20 Conservative congregations and wrote his 1985 M.A. thesis on the construction of their Saturday morning service, a difficult task given the proscription on documenting Sabbath services.

The goal of the sample was to find some items that all or most cantors would agree upon musically, other pieces that would have a cluster of favorite tunes plus some individual variants, and at least one selection that would show a wide scattering of personal melodic preferences. In fact, the sample did break down in that way. The greatest uniformity came in the cantillation selections, the most diversity in the Selihot Ashrei opening.

The Sample of Cantors
Even in such an extensive study, it was not possible to cover the full range of the American cantorate. The Sephardic tradition was only lightly represented, as was the purely Orthodox. The CA, as the originators of the project and by far the lion’s share of full-time professional cantors at the time, dominated the data. Nevertheless, all positions along the spectrum of training, cantorial style, and professional placement came into the project’s purview.

In retrospect, the project came at an opportune time. We were able to include members of all generations: cantors born in the early twentieth century in Europe who trained through oral tradition and apprenticeship in the old style, senior cantors who were American-born, but trained by family or European cantors in the 1930s and 1940s, and younger cantors who had graduated from the institutional programs initiated in the 1950s among the Conservative, Reform, and Orthodox denominations at Jewish Theological Seminary, Hebrew Union College, and Yeshiva University. Unfortunately, a significant percentage of the HAC collaborators had passed on by the time I renewed contact with them in 2010.

The Book and its Accompanying Audio 

Chosen Voices: The Story of the American Cantorate, a finalist for the National Jewish Book Award, is still available from the University of Illinois Press in the paperback version of 2002, with a new Preface. After an introduction putting the American cantorate in its Jewish and American contexts, the book is laid out in three sections: “The Cantorate in American History,” “The Cantorate and the Workplace,” and ‘The Cantorate and the Music.” The book is filled with quotations from the interview tapes, but no cantor is personally identified. Instead, I chose a code of initials for quoted passages, starting with “A.A.”

The book came with an audiocassette, now out of print, which is available as part of this website, courtesy of the Univesity of Illinois Press and of Samuel Adler. The tape draws on two components: selections from the sung sample tapes detailed above and a commissioned set of performances to illustrate the range of pre-composed pieces that the cantor relies on to help structure a service. I decided to use the Barchu, the call to prayer for two reasons: it is short, and the text has been set by a wide variety of composers over time, so makes a very representative item of compositional technique. Thanks to Samuel Adler, we created professional-level performances of 15 Barchu settings from Salomone Rossi to Michael Isaacson, as recorded by a choir at the  Eastman School of Music. These audio samples are included on this website.

Credits. We would like to thank the generosity of ITS at Wesleyan, funding from Hebrew Union College, and the work of Alec McLane, Dan Schnaidt, and Marcie Frishman, an original 1980s team member who facilitated the wrap-up of this site.