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December 05, 2003 - Image 44

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2003-12-05

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Let Melody Ring


ou can't imagine how I felt
as I walked down the aisle
of Temple Emanuel in
New York, the "cathedral"
of Reform Judaism.
It was a sacred convocation com-
memorating the 50th anniversary of
the founding of the American
Conference of Cantors. I was one of
two founding members in atten-
dance; as a past president, I was
honored to be an active participant
in the ceremony.
With the demise of the centers of
Jewish learning after World War II,
there were no institutions for the
training of cantors anywhere in the
world. So in 1948, the Hebrew
Union College opened its School of
Sacred Music at its New York cam-
pus. This was the first school in the
Western Hemisphere for the train-
ing of cantors.
From time immemorial, our peo-
ple have sung to God: songs of
praise, songs of yearning and prayer,
songs of mourning, of hope and,
most importantly, songs that
emanate from our souls. As old as
the Jewish religion is, so, too, is the

Cantor Harold Orbach is retired from
Temple Israel in West Bloomfield.

history and foundation of our
Jewish musical heritage.
Even the word chazzan is derived
from the old term for caretaker or
groundskeeper of the ancient tem-
ples. Eventually, the chazzan was
entrusted to care for the worship
services, becoming revered for his
knowledge of psalms, piyutim (the
service liturgy), his ability to pray
for the congregation and, of course,
for the quality of his voice.
Chazzanim are still caretakers of the
liturgy today.

More Than Caretaking

Caretaking is not enough; with each
new age have come new innova-
tions to the repertory. Romanticism
and atonalism were highly influen-
tial in the last century. More recent-
ly, jazz, rock, pop and folk have
been fused into our musical her-
But our heritage also addresses a
need for musical continuity: a way
to remember and honor our ancient
past and to welcome our eclectic
"Sing unto God a new song, sing
unto all the earth." These are words
we're encouraged and commanded
to do throughout the Book of
Psalms and it -is how we cantors and
congregations have learned to sing.

Beginning in the 1960s,
and deep humility.
the face of American
To become a Reform cantor,
Judaism began to change
one goes to college, studies
voice, Hebrew and Jewish his-
Social and cultural
tory and, upon graduation,
upheavals brought on by
applies to Hebrew Union
the Vietnam War, the civil
College. When accepted, one
rights movement and
faces five years of study leading
women's rights resulted in
to the degree of master of
major changes in our
music. The first year of
approach to Jewish wor-
place at the
Communi ty
ship. Peace in our world
The dedica-
and in our personal beings
tion, scholarship, talent and
became a major theme.
creativity of those who have gradu-
The new social awareness couldn't
ated over the past 50 years have
help but influence the musical
been responsible for the dynamic
choices we formulated for worship.
changes that have taken place in
The liturgical palette became more
American Jewish life.
complex as it was no longer strictly
I am extremely proud that more
tied to traditional nusach, or formal-
than a minyan of my students have
ly composed pieces.
attended and graduated from the
With the relaxation of formalism
School of Sacred Music. I'm espe-
came the embrace of folk idioms
cially proud that since 1975,
and the introduction of guitar and
women have joined the ranks of the
other instruments to the bimah. For
cantorate. Recently, the Union for
many clergy, the changes wrought
Reform Judaism honored the
by the 1960s and 1970s were not
American Conference of Cantors on
welcome. But numerous cantors and
its 50 years of dedicated service to
rabbis were eager to be at the fore-
American Jewry. The American
front of a new era.
Conference of Cantors presented to
As a retired cantor, privileged to
the 6,000 attendees a two-CD vol-
have served over five decades, I look
ume, featuring cantors from each of
upon the past, the most dynamic
the last five decades. I can only
and creative period in the history of
dream about what the future has in
the cantorate, with a feeling of awe
store for us. ❑



Gay Marriage Diversion


hat's shaping up as
the biggest issue in
the 2004 presidential
and congressional

Forget the war on terrorism, the
deepening quagmire in Iraq, the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict; forget
corporate scandals, the soaring
deficit or the impending crises in
Medicare, Medicaid and Social
No, opportunistic politicians and
self-righteous televangelists tell us,
those threats pall in comparison to
gay marriage and what they call
the "homosexual agenda." The

James D. Besser is Washington correspon-
dent for the Detroit Jewish News. His e-
mail address is: jbesser@att.net

12/ 5


result: The hottest issue on Capitol
Hill next year and in campaigns
across the country will be so-called
"defense of marriage" measures, an
issue that will produce a surfeit of
self-righteousness and an utter lack
of substance.
That distraction from the very
real concerns of the nation is one
of the reasons Jewish groups, with
a few notable exceptions, are trying
hard to stay out of the fray.
Simply put, many Jewish leaders
worry that while the issue does
raise important civil liberties and
moral issues that need to be
addressed, what we will get —
intentionally — is a political and
quasi-religious circus that will
serve mostly to deflect attention
from the much more pressing
problems facing the nation. The
diversionary spectacle was well

under way before the
tion getter. The politicians
explosive decision on Nov.
and evangelists have been
supported by trash-talking
18 in Massachusetts that
endorsed the right to mar-
conservative talk show hosts,
riage for gays and lesbians.
whose rage against homosex-
uals and their civil rights
Many major Evangelical
agenda would be called
ministries and political
vicious bigotry if aimed at
groups, including the
any other group.
Christian Coalition and
The Massachusetts
the Traditional Values
Supreme Court decision,
Coalition, have made the
Commentary and the already-in-progress
fight against gay marriage
effort by leading Republican
and even new domestic
lawmakers to pass a constitutional
partnership arrangements a top
amendment defining marriage as
priority in recent years — higher
the union "between one man and
even than the fight against abor-
tion, which many leaders of that
one woman" thrust the issue right
into the middle of the 2004 elec-
movement believe has gone about
tion campaigns.
as far as it can pending a major
change in the Supreme Court.
GOP Strategy
The fight has been enormously
For the Republicans, it's an issue
popular with their constituents —
a sure-fire money raiser and atten-
that serves multiple purposes,

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