Netanel Hershtik wears many hats but perhaps the one he is best known for is a soft, puffy headpiece known as a mitre, traditionally worn by chazzanim.
While the Teaneck resident is a former combat paramedic in the Israeli army and a graduate of both Israel’s Shaarei Mishpat College of Law and the University of Miami School of Law, it is his prodigious musical abilities that have made him a household name. Hershtik, the official chazzan at The Hampton Synagogue, has performed at numerous venues worldwide, delighting and inspiring countless people in both concert halls and synagogues around the globe.
Descending from a long line of cantors, Hershtik is a fourteenth generation chazzan, who began singing with his father, the legendary Cantor Naftali Hershtik, at Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue when he was just five and toured with his father through Australia, Europe and the United States at age seven. A graduate of the prestigious Tel Aviv Cantorial Institute, Hershtik has performed in prominent concert halls including Lincoln Center, the Sydney Opera House and Casino de Paris and was the first chazzan invited to perform at a United Nations Holocaust remembrance ceremony.
But for Hershtik, a regular participant in Kosherica’s popular cantorial cruises who has recorded two albums in addition to his many appearances, chazzanut is first and foremost about inspiring people in their prayers, not about performing.
“As much as these cruises and cantorial concerts are celebrated and successful, I still believe that in order to understand chazzanut and to appreciate it, one needs to listen to a real chazzan on a proper amud, accompanied by a good choir, where the chazzan is afforded the opportunity to open his heart and to daven properly,” said Hershtik. “To me, there is no way to truly be inspired as a congregation in prayer other than the use of music under the musical leadership of the chazzan. The strongest argument I can offer is the constant use of music in the Beit Hamikdashas a tool to elevate and focus people to their Father in heaven.”
Hershtik acknowledges that cantorial music is an acquired taste, but one that is well worth developing.
“Chazzanut is not easy listening,” explained Hershtik. “One should give it time and patience in order to love it, but the reward is far greater than any easy listening pop music. Let’s face it, classical music, jazz and opera are also in the same category and require some listening effort and openness to be truly appreciated.”
The 34-year-old Hershtik, who tries to incorporate contemporary musical styles including pop, jazz, Broadway and gospel into his traditional services, suggests that many of the negative associations people have with chazzanut are the product of poor choices by today’s chazzanim.
“I blame many cantors for not accommodating ‘younger ears’ with a shorter, less heavy davening and for not updating their melodies and style of davening to today’s world,” said Hershtik. “It is a pity they try to prove what great cantors they are to empty shuls. A great chazzan must feel his congregation at any given time of the service. It is the cantor’s greatest challenge to feel when people are with him and when they are lost or not paying attention. The cantor must immediately determine the right balance for that specific day in this specific congregation.”
A self-taught musician who plays several instruments, Hershtik loves to experiment musically as well as record in his studio. While he says his children are “extremely musical” he isn’t making plans for them to become the fifteenth generation of Hershtiks to daven for the amud.
“It makes me happy to see that they understand and enjoy all kinds of music. But it doesn’t mean they will become chazzanim. I do not push them to sing in shul just as my parents didn’t push me. It would be lovely if they chose to continue the family legacy of chazzanut, but I will be happiest if they feel fulfilled and accomplished in whatever profession they chose.”