A Cantor’s Tale

Directed by Eric Greenberg Anjou

Video, 95 Minutes, 2005

If the hills are alive with the sound of Julie Andrews’ music, then Cantor Jacob “Jackie” Mendelson would have viewers believe that Brooklyn is once again to be alive with the sound of Chazzanut.

Mendelson – championing the unlikely banner “Chazzanut is in the air” – sings duets with butchers, bakers and just about anyone else (albeit no candlestick makers) who, if not willing, is at least receptive to being bullied into a take of the High Holiday “Hineni” or “Sheyibaneh Beis Hamikdash.”

But watching “A Cantor’s Tale” at the Washington Jewish Film Festival at the DC JCC, I was immediately struck by the uncanny feeling that my brave companion and I were just about the only two audience members under the age of 50. I am not about to say how much under 50, but suffice to say that this Brooklyn, in which the documentary tried to map Chazzanut, is not one I recognize. Sure, I’ve been known to down my Dr. Brown’s Cel Rey soda as quickly as the next guy, but vinyl records, punch ball and talking of the Brooklyn Dodgers over blintzes at Ratner’s, all the while looking classy in hats and humming “Moshe Koussevitzky,” is hardly the Park Slope hippie, Chassidic reggae scene that I have come to know.

The documentary is like the rules of baseball to the uninitiated. I am by no means a student of Chazzanut, but I saw Neil Shicoff perform his Chazzanut-inspired Eleazar in the Metropolitan Opera’s revival of “La Juive,” and I heard Jackie Mason’s little Chazzanut rendition in his recent “Jackie Mason: Freshly Squeezed” (both previously reviewed in this column). I am sure this makes me atypical of my generation in my exposure to Chazzanut, which begs the question: Is Chazzanut here to stay?

Mendelson’s answer is decidedly positive, if he has any say in it. To an old gentleman behind a Brooklyn bakery counter, with thick plastic glasses on his nose, coffee urns over his left shoulder and challah in front of him on the counter, Mendelson says, “Prove my point, baby,” as the man sings “Hineni.” In the Shem Tov Bakery, Mendelson gets a man in beard and Yankees cap, with a counter full of danish and other pastries, to render in freygish, “Shir hamaalot mimaamakim.” At Schick’s Gourmet Bakery, Mendelson orders a world famous black-bottom chocolate chip cheese cake, as he listens to a man with a beard and a black hat sing “Sheyibaneh Beis Hamikdash” from behind the counter.

Other “victims” of Mendelson’s efforts to take Chazzanut back to the streets are an IDF soldier with an M16 slung over his shoulder, a group of Israeli yeshiva bochurim, and even his own director of the documentary, whom Mendelson calls “schmendrick” when he fails to correctly render a song. “It’s a good thing it’s 2003, `cause in ’57 you’d be smacked in the face,” Mendelson assures him.

Although he sounds, the prophet of doom, you may see him with a tattered signboard outside the ballpark crying, “Because Chazzanut is not in the air today, I have to put it in the air” and “Then, the lay people had style; today, the cantors don’t have style”. Mendelson is not entirely playing the part of Henny Youngman’s “good old day routines”, mourning a past that can never return. He is, however, haunted by memories of a time when Chazzanut emanated from cabs and when waiters sang it in the delis. “The waiter in my father’s delicatessen sang Chazzanut idiomatically correct; he was good,” Mendelson says. “He didn’t have much of a voice but he could sing Chazzanut. He would be waiting on tables, `Eylu devarim sheayn lahem shiur,’ [in singsong] would you like some ketchup; `hapeyah vihabikurim,’ sorry I spilled it on you.”

In an interview on the film, Alan Dershowitz echoes, “Borough Park was the `mecca’ for Chazzanut; everybody had their favorite chazzan and the one I wouldn’t go to hear, if he was the last chazzan on the face of the earth.”

Mendelson would later convince Dershowitz to sing “Kadmaniot” and “Chaverim Kol Yisrael” and would get an affirmative, backhanded compliment from Jackie Mason. One thing is certain; this man is not about to give up and sing Kaddish at the grave of American Chazzanut, which he considers alive, well and certainly kicking.

The kicking might signify a new life and redefinition, or a musical form, choking on its last breath. Jackie Mason calls Chazzanut “Part of the soul of the character of the Jew,” and many of the interviewed personalities on the documentary arrive at a consensus that their favorite cantorial music – the music that they heard blared over WEVD – has a lot to do with the Holocaust. The music sounds like wailing (Mendelson compares it to a person in the desert reaching out thirstily for water) and it has a Blues, “bad-things-happening-to-good-people” feel to it.

It comes as no shock that the very cantors who now are mostly quarantined in their influence, to circles of the initiated, used to find themselves immortalized. They walked about, flanked by “groupies,” all the while wearing capes and patent leather, shiny shoes, hats and canes. “The public – we call them the olam – became fans, and it was like ballplayers”; Mendelson explains, “there would be fights in bars over who was a better chazzan… `what do you mean Rosenblatt? It’s Hershman!'”

Dershowitz spoke of the two great debates: Duke Snider versus Mickey Mantle and Moshe Koussevitzky versus his brother David Koussevitzky. Dershowitz and his pals once even tricked their cantor into blessing Jackie Robinson in the hopes that he would get a hit, utilizing the Hebrew name Yakov for Jackie, and capitalizing on the “ben” part of Robinson to designate “the son of.”

But baseball no longer accommodates cantorial music. Instead, it resides somewhere between “Yo ya” booming over loudspeakers, and the kosher hotdog stand at Baltimore’s Camden Yards, with talk of the three Jewish players on the field – at once – for the Boston Red Sox this past year: Kevin Youkilis, Adam Stern and Gabe Kapler.

The evaporation of baseball from the cantorial blend is hardly its greatest crisis. Chazzanut is simply not an Orthodox gig anymore, with few noted exceptions. Cantor Benzion Miller of Congregation Young Israel Beth El in Borough Park and Jackie Mason have a few critiques of contemporary Chazzanut. To Mason, much of the contemporary cantors’ music “doesn’t sound personal (`poysenal‘), doesn’t sound like the tragic story of the Jew”; instead, more closely mimicking the “sounds like an opera singer who is interpreting a song that he doesn’t understand.”

Miller sees a dilution of the potency of the Chazzanut, pure cocktail in “women cantors”. “A woman cantor has her place”, Miller acknowledges, but he locates that place in an all-women minyan, “but not singing our repertoire.” To Miller, the many female cantorial musicians (more than half the cantorial student population) never succeed in capturing the proper sound. The endeavor resembles “giving a tenor aria to a soprano at the Met; it just wouldn’t sit right [for] even if sung in the proper key, the character of the piece is missing.”

But as long as we have Mendelson to speak of Oysher and of the acoustics of Congregation Young Israel Beth El that bring the sounds of the sea with bumble bees, and as long as Cantor Alberto Mizrachi asks, “How do you dare train someone today; how do you dare not train someone today?” there is still hope for some form of cantorial music.

Mendelson is, in part, so successful because he is such a great teacher. Though he talks of his difficult childhood, from getting beaten up by the Erasmus Hall High students on his way home from Brooklyn Talmudic Academy to his enrollment and premature departure from New Utrecht High School; and from his job in a handbag factory, to his family problems that led him to launch a failed horseracing venture, Mendelson used Chazzanut to order his life. The film shows Mendelson in the classroom, instructing his students to learn the detailed “ethnicities” of the cantorial music.

It is precisely Mendelson’s past – his old-hat component, in a way – that allows him to connect to his students. Cantorial music can be modern and relevant, as Yossele Rosenblatt demonstrated in his singing “El Mole Rachamim fur Titanik” for the “anshei titanic shenivu bayam” (“the passengers on the Titanic that drowned in the sea”). The satirical Jay Berkson presentation of Louis (Leibele) Waldman in “A Cantor on Trial” (the film clip is copyrighted MCMXXI), which depicts a round table of angry gentlemen debating whom to hire for the High Holidays (a Litvak or a Galitzianer) finally shows the group agreeing on a modern cantor who sings “Kol Nidre” with two step melody and “Hallel” and “Yismach Moshe” in ragtime.

Clearly Chazzanut won’t evolve that much; it couldn’t, while still remaining Chazzanut. But just as it used to present an escape from the bustle of the weekly work environment in a new world that was a distinctly Jewish space, it can once again fulfill that need. Mendelson doesn’t have Carlebach’s payos and beard, but his mission to keep “Chazzanut alive in some way” might not be too ambitious after all.

Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com. He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.