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‘I’m A Chazzan, But I Don’t Put On A Broadway Show’: An Interview with Lincoln Square Synagogue’s Cantor Sherwood Goffin


Sherwood Goffin has had a storied career. The cantor of Lincoln Square Synagogue since 1965, Goffin started his musical career as a folk singer. From 1961-1995, Goffin sang on major stages worldwide, recorded six albums, and was known as the “Voice of Soviet Jewry,” singing at all the major Soviet Jewry UN Solidarity Day rallies from 1964-1991.

Today, Goffin is a faculty member at Yeshiva University’s Belz School of Jewish Music, principal of the LSS Feldman Hebrew School, and honorary president of the Belz School-affiliated Cantorial Council of America (CCA) – the only exclusively Orthodox cantorial organization in the world – which will soon celebrate its 50th anniversary with a Shabbos Chazzanus on Memorial Day weekend.

The Jewish Press recently spoke with Cantor Goffin about the CCA and the fascinating history of Jewish liturgical music.

The Jewish Press: What is the CCA’s mission?

Goffin: To educate the Orthodox world on the proper way to daven.

What do you mean by “the proper way to daven”?

There are halachos and traditions that must be maintained.

The modern idea is: If a guy knows two Carlebach niggunim, he’s a chazzan and can do whatever he wants. But imagine if a guy got up on Kol Nidrei night and, instead of singing the traditional tune, sang the latest Carlebach melody. How would you feel? It would destroy your entire kavanah, and that is assur. The Shulchan Aruch rules that one cannot change a community’s customs, even its melodies, because the people will become confused and upset.

Most people know better when it comes to Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, but the same halacha also applies to the shalosh regalim, Shabbos, even weekdays.

But is there really one “proper” way to daven? Aren’t there many different variations of traditional tunes among different communities?

Yes, there are variations. But, as you go up in kedushah – from weekday to Shabbos to shalosh regalim – there are more and more things that are fixed. In Ne’ilah on Yom Kippur almost every paragraph has to be done a certain way.

Are you talking about specific tunes or something else?

We have seven modes of music. Modes are like colors or textures, and every single paragraph of tefillah has its own musical mode. Each mode gives a certain feeling and aura. For example, you can’t do Kaddish before Mussaf in minor; it has to be in major.

If you know how to daven properly, you raise the level of the tzibbur’s kavanah. I tell all my students that the kavanah of your tzibbur rests on your shoulders.

Where did today’s tunes for davening come from?

From the Maharil, Rabbi Jacob Moelin (1365-1427), who was the chief rabbi of the Rhineland, where the majority of Jews lived at that time.

He was concerned that the melodies of the Troubadours, Minnesingers and jongleurs – early European folk singers – were infiltrating into shuls and that chazzanim were copying church melodies. He was afraid that a whole tradition that went back to the Beis HaMikdash was getting lost. So he took it upon himself to standardize the nusach, and we follow it to this day. (If you look at Hilchos Tefillah in the Shulchan Aruch, you will see the Rema constantly citing the Maharil.)

The Maharil took this matter very seriously.

Yes. One of the Maharil’s students records that the Maharil once went to another city or country and changed the nusach. The local people said to him, “Rabbeinu, we don’t do it this way here,” but he didn’t listen. Two months later he went home and found that his daughter had died while he was away. According to the Maharil, his daughter’s death was punishment for changing the nusach in that city. That’s how strongly he felt about it.

You said earlier that the Maharil believed traditional Jewish music to have originated in the Beis HaMikdash. But wouldn’t the music in the Beis HaMikdash have sounded more Middle Eastern?

Yes, but it became Europeanized. Did you ever play telephone when you were a kid? You line up ten kids, whisper something in the first kid’s ear, and it comes out different the other end. But there’s a chain that connects them. The Maharil was trying to maintain that chain.

I should add that among the musical modes we use in davening is Freygish – the Arabic Hijaz – which you don’t find it in any Western mode in the world. It’s Oriental [which demonstrates a linkage to our Middle Eastern roots].

How do Sephardim daven today? Do they also use different musical modes for different paragraphs?

No. They have one mode for each Shabbos, depending on the parshah. If the parshah is sad, it’s a sad mode; if the parshah is happy, it’s a happy mode.

So whose tradition is more accurate: ours or theirs?

Probably theirs. For instance, the Yemenites were shut away for 15 centuries and were forbidden by their rulers from having any communication with the outside world. So they really kept their minhagim [faithfully], and they claim their niggunim go back to the Beis HaMikdash. Now we can’t prove that, but it’s interesting: The Gregorian melodies of the Catholic Church – standardized between the years 400 and 600 – were also reputed to have come from the Temple in Jerusalem, and Professor Avraham Tzvi Idelsohn, the great Jewish ethnomusicologist [died 1938], found in quite a number of places that Yemenite melodies and Gregorian chants were almost note for note the same.

Switching topics slightly, what do you say to those Orthodox Jews who dislike chazzanus because they view it as a performance rather than tefillah?

Look, I’m a chazzan, but I don’t put on a Broadway show. I don’t repeat words and I don’t sing long cantorial recitatives. That world has gone. Even the most professional chazzanim today don’t do more than one or two long pieces on a Shabbos. When I was a kid, Moshe Koussevitzky did maybe 12 or 15.

What changed?

The chazzan is a reflection of his shul. Koussevitzky davened until 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon because that’s what his congregants wanted. It developed in Europe when the Jews couldn’t go to the opera. So they brought the opera into their shuls by asking their chazzanim to expand and become more elaborate. But that world has gone.

Is that good or bad?

I don’t know. But the most important thing is the nusach – the proper way to daven – not the cantorial recitatives.

Why, then, is the CCA holding a Shabbos Chazzanus on Memorial Day weekend?

The chazzanim are going to reflect the CCA’s philosophy; they will daven properly. People will certainly hear chazzanus, and there is a grand concert Sunday evening, but the davening won’t be overly repetitious or over the top.

The rest of the convention – Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday – is dedicated to education about nussach ha’tefillah and sessions on congregational singing, the future of the chazzan, and other matters.

About the Author: Elliot Resnick is a Jewish Press staff reporter and author of “Movers and Shakers: Sixty Prominent Personalities Speak Their Mind on Tape” (Brenn Books).


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