Everyone is buzzing

Congregational Singing

It’s the “it phrase” for Hazzanim looking to get a good job out of school and the trend that veteran Cantors have needed to embrace in order to stay relevant.

It’s the title of a book by Joey Weisenberg, the musical director of Kehilat Hadar, a vibrant spiritual community in Manhattan. It’s also a movement that’s been around since the 1960’s, when the first Chavurah was established in Whittier, CA.

The whole idea of the Chavurah was to reject the large scale synagogue and its formalized worship with Cantor and Choir, which came to be seen as a performance and not engaging enough to the congregation. A staple of these groups was increased congregational singing.

Nearly 60 years into this paradigmatic shift, the synagogue service has become, in many places, a formalized version of the Chavurah.

Congregational melodies are central to the experience, and the Cantor usually davens without a choir, with few moments of Hazzanut, or ornamental and artistic renderings of the text.

But something in this great swing of the pendulum has been lost. What of the congregations whose musical life flourished under the traditional Cantor and Choir?

How did they “participate” before the days of commonplace congregational tunes?

It turns out they often participated without “singing” at all.  A tradition of accompanying the Hazzan with a drone of humming underneath has been practiced in shul for centuries. Dating to medieval Germany.

We did this on Rosh HaShanah. And at times, it was very very powerful. I sang long held notes, and you hummed the chords beneath me. You were the choir. A choir of 800!!

Change is good, change helps us grow. People love singing the tunes they know, I love hearing the whole sanctuary sing B’Rosh HaShanah together.

But we need all of ourselves in the communal davening. When we hum along, filling in the nusach, it’s magical and it keeps us all constantly present and engaged. Not simply waiting for the next familiar tune.

We have started something really amazing, or perhaps revived? I heard we used to do it at Beth El in the 50’s.

So as Yom Kippur approaches let us continue to buzz and to hum and tell each other, Hineni, here I am. I’m ALL IN, ready to give myself to prayer.

Shabbat Shalom

Hazzan Fradkin

Sent from my iPhone

Posted by Hazzan Asa Fradkin

Hazzan Asa Fradkin is the hazzan at Congregation Beth El in Bethesda, MD. He is a native of Baltimore.

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