Many years ago, even before I thought of attending cantorial school, I applied for a job with Macy’s department store in New York City to be an associate in the
division responsible for the Thanksgiving parade. As part of the interview process, I was told how planning for the parade goes on year–round, with the next year’s parade preparation beginning the day after the current parade concludes. The giant helium balloons are just barely in their crates, the marching bands aren’t even back on their planes, and the Thanksgiving festivities are being organized for the next year!
For many of us who lead services, the planning of High Holidays is a similar venture. True, there are no marching bands and giant helium filled balloons, but the preparation for these Yamim Noraim– the Days of Awe – is a continuous, ongoing process. As a cantor, I am constantly reviewing new music, thinking of new liturgical possibilities, and along with the rabbis envisioning how to bring the message of the High Holidays to our community in ways that will enrich all of our lives and touch our souls.
One of the challenges cantors face in the planning of our High Holiday services is the incredible wealth of musical material from which to choose. The palette of
Jewish music is ever widening and broadening as each year new compositions are composed. One of our roles as shalichei tzibur – messengers of the congregation- is to determine which musical settings of our prayers meet our needs and the congregation’s in best portraying the text. An ongoing question as I
prepare for the High Holidays is: “Does this setting of this particular prayer meet the specific needs of my community at this moment in the liturgical arc of the High Holidays?” This requires that I cull through many musical settings of these prayers always attempting to find balance between tradition and modernity, contemporary music and Mi Sinai tunes, the familiar and the unknown.
At the present time, I serve as the cantorial representative to the CCAR’s editorial committee for a new High Holiday machzor. This new High Holiday prayer book will feature substantial changes from Gates of Repentance and is the first High Holiday prayer book written for the Reform Jewish community in over a generation. Based on the layout of Mishkan Tefillah, the new machzor features the now familiar multi-vocal approach to prayer by featuring Hebrew text, an English translation, interpretations of the prayer, and in many cases additional explanation and illumination. The new CCAR machzor not only presents modern interpretations of many of the High Holiday prayers, but it also includes many traditional ancient and medieval liturgical poems (piyyutim). As a member of this committee, I am constantly aware of not only of the theology and philosophy presented by the editors and authors of this new machzor, but I try to imagine what will the services actually sound like. As part of this project I wonder: How does the addition of new text and new prayers affect the sound, the music, and the melody of the High Holidays? Are we as cantors prepared to meet the musical, artistic, and liturgical challenges that a decidedly 21st century machzor proposes?
An illustration of these very real challenges is manifest in the presentation of the text for Avinu Malkeinu. Gates of Repentance includes some of its verses, but the new machzor attempts to include more of the traditional text as it informs the liturgical and theological movement from Rosh HaShanah through Yom Kippur. How will we adapt the much loved and familiar setting of Max Janowski’s Avinu Malkeinu to a new machzor, for example?
Will this traditional interpretation of Avinu Malkeinu fulfill our needs as a community of worshippers alongside contemporary interpretations of the same prayer?
Will comparatively new settings of Avinu Malkeinu better serve our needs as a congregation as they present a different view of the text?
Perhaps an Avinu Malkeinu that mixes traditional melody with contemporary harmonies will be an Avinu Malkeinu that provides the mystery and majesty we seek during these Days of Awe.
We as a community of clergy and congregants need to not only explore the musical settings currently available, but we need to encourage a new generation of composers to share with us their interpretations of our hallowed prayers. The new CCAR machzor will pose both considerable and exciting challenges to our High Holiday worship, and as a community we will meet these challenges by re-imagining tradition while considering the new. As we look forward to publication of the new machzor perhaps the words of Rav Kook may serve to guide us: “May the old become new and may the new become holy.”
- Avinu Malkeinu, by Max Janowski. Sung by Cantor Lisa Levine. From Gems of the High Holy Days.
- Avinu Malkeinu, traditionalmelody, arranged by Elliot Z. Levine. Sung by The Western Wind with Cantor Alberto Mizrahi. The Birthday of The World, Part II: Yom Kippur (WW 1872).
- Avinu Malkeinu. Composed and sung by Cantor Meir Finkelstein. From Sh’ma Koleinu.
- Avinu Malkeinu. Composed and sung by Cantor Ramon Tasat. From Teshuva Liturgical Explorations for the Days of Awe.
Cantor Evan Kent, a 1988 graduate of the HUC Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music, has been the cantor at Temple Isaiah for twenty-five years. Evan is also on the faculty of HUC-LA and is a doctoral candidate at Boston University where he is studying how music at Jewish summer camps helps to inform Jewish identity. In July 2013, Evan and his husband, Rabbi Donald Goor, will be fulfilling a life-long dream of making aliyah to Jerusalem.
Learn more about the new CCAR Machzor. For more information about participating in piloting, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
This blog post appeared previously on the URJ Ten Minutes of Torah.