Synagogue Music in the Modern Era

Changes are taking place in the leadership, participation, melodies, and instruments that are found in the synagogue.

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In the following article, the author offers an overview of the many changes that synagogue music has undergone in recent decades. She intermingles the narrative with her own views on the reasons for some trends, and some scholars might dispute some of her conclusions. Excerpted with permission from Discovering Jewish Music (Jewish Publication Society).

The period following World War II saw major demographic and psychological changes in the American Jewish community. A new wave of immigration brought the remnants of war-ravaged Europe to American shores and closed the chapter on European leadership in Jewish music. Now it became necessary for American Jews to produce their own musical leaders. The seminaries that had been training rabbis since the late 19th century finally established schools to train cantors as well. Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion opened its School of Sacred Music for cantors of the Reform movement in 1948 [and originally was intended to train cantors of all denominations]; the Jewish Theological Seminary started training Conservative cantors in its Cantors Institute in 1952; and the Cantorial Training Institute at Yeshiva University opened its doors to Orthodox cantors in 1954.

modern synagogue musicThe graduates of these schools faced a Jewish community different from what their predecessors had known. Returning soldiers eager to resume their lives and start families led to the growth of suburbia and the proliferation of synagogues outside major city centers. These new congregations were started by young people with strong ideas about their role in the synagogue service and eager to play an active part in determining their spiritual destinies.

Difficult Transition

Unfortunately, the transition was not a smooth one. The cantorial training schools were dominated by faculty who had trained with the old European models. The 1954 reissuing of 25 volumes known as the Out-of-Print Classics of Synagogue Music reaffirmed the role of music by Sulzer, Lewandowski, and Naumbourg in the synagogue and the style of nusah [musical motifs]promulgated by Gerovitsch and others of the 19th century. The "high church" style of practice continued to dominate the training of Reform cantors, and the role of the cantor as not just soloist, but also sole purveyor--and conservator--of synagogue music in Conservative and Orthodox synagogues was pronounced from the ivory towers of the cantorial schools.

But the congregants in the pews wanted to sing, too! A second generation of Orthodox American Jews had already begun to establish "Young Israel" synagogues, where shelihei tzibbur [prayer leaders]taken from among the many male congregants capable of leading regular Shabbat and weekday services led their fellow worshipers in song, thereby replacing increasing numbers of traditionally oriented (and some felt, domineering) hazzanim [cantors].

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Marsha B. Edelman

Marsha Bryan Edelman is professor of music and education at Gratz College. She also serves as director of the Tyson Music Department and coordinates the college's academic programs in Jewish music.