Cantor Janet Roth calls her colleague, Cantor Richard Nadel, “a living archive of the golden age of synagogue music.”
What she means is that he grew up singing the great traditional works of Jewish liturgy — written by such composers as Lewis Lewandowski and Cantor Moshe Ganchoff — and he had the opportunity to sing with cantorial greats like Louis “Leibele” Waldman, Arele Diamond, and Abraham Veroba.
Nadel will be the Shabbat artist-in-residence at Congregation Ohr Shalom-Summit Jewish Community Center, where Roth is the cantor, Feb. 28-March 1. Through Shabbat davening, and together with the synagogue choir, he will explore a range of synagogue music, including, on Friday night, the folk influences of Craig Taubman and Shlomo Carlebach; classical hazanut and choir compositions at Saturday morning services; and, during Minha/Maariv and Havdala, Israeli music of the 1950s.
“Here is a cantor who is keeping alive this great musical tradition and heritage,” said Roth. “And at my shul we are teaching it to the choir, the kids, and then the congregation.”
Nadel, 58, is the former cantor at Temple Beth Ahm Yisrael in Springfield. He has been singing since he was about eight years old, he told NJJN in a phone interview, which took place just as he was about to send a composition to Roth that he wrote for the two to perform, as a surprise.
Asked to name his biggest influence, Nadel cited first his father, and then famed cantors Moishe Oysher and Ganchoff. His father, Abe Nadel, was a prominent synagogue choir leader who could often be found at the Pines Hotel in the Catskills, or leading choirs at a variety of congregations in the younger Nadel’s native Brooklyn.
“Singing was just a way of life in our household,” Nadel said. “We didn’t know anything else. We were always singing what I thought was just beautiful music.”
Once household names, the stars of hazanut’s golden age have largely passed from communal memory.
The tradition, said Nadel, “flourished during the time that, if Jews wanted to hear music, shul was the place to go. Now, we just press a button, and we can hear all kinds of music.” He acknowledged that the 300-year history of hazanut is really a short time in the arc of Jewish history, but it saddens him to think about its loss. “It’s very rich music, and we are losing something that will never come back,” he said.
He posited a few other reasons for the demise of hazanut. “We no longer have people who have the talent to be stars. Maybe our talented people are going into other professions. Maybe they have beautiful trained voices but they are not trained to sing traditional hazanut,” he said. “This is not a generation familiar with persecution who could listen to the hazan cry as he sang and the music would find its way into their hearts.”
The Jewish way of prayer has also changed.
“Fifty years ago, Jews knew the text. In many cases, they even knew what the text meant. When there was a really good hazan who could interpret the text with musicality and richness, and gut-wrenching emotion when the text called for it — that was very saleable,” Nadel said. “As a general principle, people increasingly don’t understand the text, and they want something to hold onto. Their means of holding on is to sing along with the cantor.”
As result, the role of the cantor has changed. “Jews do not go to synagogue to hear a virtuoso cantor, but to sing a catchy tune that repeats, that is easy to learn to sing, and they’ll sing along,” said Nadel. “That has become the manner of prayer and expression. It’s not good or bad, but it is the reality. And what we need is to engage people and get them to pray. Why else are they coming to synagogue?”
Many of these changes have come at the expense of the profession of cantor. Nadel’s successor at TBAY, for example, is an associate rabbi. While she is trained in music and is responsible for leading prayers, she also heads the synagogue’s religious school and Teen Institute.
Although no longer in a pulpit position, Nadel continues to teach at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where he is quick to tell his students, “It’s nice to know what happened before and to learn traditional hazanut. But you’ll use it for a concert. Don’t even think about using it for a service.”
In the meantime, he hopes the congregation at Ohr Shalom will enjoy and appreciate what the choir sings. “If they listen carefully, I hope they will hear that the harmonies are very rich and the sound is beautiful. It would be nice if people could get turned on, even if it’s just a sample.”