For These Cantors, It’s Not the Same Old Song — Except When It Is

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An inside look at how three area cantors get ready for the High Holidays.

For a cantor, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services are about much more than a memorable vocal performance; they are prime opportunities to engage the congregation, not just for the New Year, but for the following pages of the calendar as well. In order to make sure they are up to the task, cantors begin getting into High Holidays shape months in advance by practicing late at night with choirs, taking vocal lessons and even doing yoga.   
 
For Jessica Roemer of Leyv Ha-Ir, a Reconstructionist congregation in Center City, getting ready for the New Year begins with reminding herself of the importance of her role as a spiritual beacon for her congregation.
 
“The Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav said that each person has a note inside them, and the job of the chazzan is to tune into the note in the heart of each person and allow that note to ring,” Roemer said. “So it’s not so much about conveying something; it’s more about trying to be authentic enough in my own prayer to coax out the music and prayer that is already in other people’s hearts, and encourage those notes to ring together in the room.”
 
Roemer said melodies play a big role in keeping the congregation involved; to do so, she uses a mixture of Ashkenazi congregational melodies, Middle Eastern piyutim (sacred poems set to music), and songs by Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach and other contemporary Jewish composers. She looks for ones that are easy to sing and can create an emotional moment in the service, whether it is mournful, joyful or meditative.
 
This year, she has been working with a Chasidic melody called “Rachamana,” the Aramaic text of which translates to: “O, Compassionate One, who answers the poor, answer us! / O Merciful One, who answers the broken-hearted, answer us.”
“Singing it repeatedly helps me to adjust my channels to the High Holidays frequency; I can start, again, to prepare for the task of requesting forgiveness on behalf of an entire community,” she said. 
 
She worked with a small choir for several years, but this year, she also held monthly community singing circles to engage more of the congregation. 
 
 “At this year’s High Holidays, the entire congregation will be the choir,” she said. 
 
David Tilman has no small amount of experience in leading both choirs and congregations.  Tilman, the chazzan emeritus of Congregation Beth Sholom in Elkins Park — he served as chazzan and music director of Beth Sholom Congregation for 36 years — is the conductor of the choir at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park. 
 
“The music of the High Holiday season communicates the messages of the liturgy on many levels, way beyond the ideas that are transmitted from a mere cursory reading of the words,” Tilman said. “The music brings the congregation together.”
 
Tilman said he looks for “infectious” melodies to encourage congregant participation. He uses music from traditional synagogue composers and, this year, is adding some from more contemporary composers, including “Areshet S’fateinu” by Cantor Yossele Rosenblatt. He said composer Craig Taubman’s version of “L’dor Vador,” which was added five years ago, is a favorite at the shul. 
 
Howard Glantz, the longtime cantor at Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park, also believes in the importance of working different styles and eras into his High Holidays repertoire. He uses many songs composed and/or arranged by his teacher and predecessor, Chazzan Charles Davidson. But, he has also introduced several new pieces to the shul, including the Kaddish based upon Abraham Baer’s interpretation, known as the Chasidic Kaddish. 
 
“These have become understandably quite near and dear to the heart of our congregation,” Glantz said. “Members look forward to hearing these pieces and they sing along strongly. The volume of the congregants easily overpowers the amplified choir and organ.” 
 
As chazzan and music director of Beth Sholom, Tilman faced many challenges in his preparation for the High Holidays, but his role at KI is quite different. Cantor Amy Levy, organist Andrew Senn and Tilman begin discussions in the late spring about last year’s High Holidays and decide what musical changes need to be made. As he did when he worked at Beth Sholom, he schedules two private voice lessons with his vocal teacher James Longacre every week for two months prior to the beginning of the High Holidays.   
 
Tilman starts rehearsing with the choir on the first Tuesday evening in August and does breathing drills, vocal exercises and warm-ups derived from the High Holiday repertoire. Additionally, part of the schedule includes time for Jeff Miller, who plays both shofar and trumpet during the Rosh Hashanah service. 
 
Glantz said he is always practicing and there likely isn’t a month where he has not opened a Machzor, or High Holiday music book. He meets weekly with choir director Robert Ross and Rabbi Rachel Kobrin and begins practicing with the choir in late July. 
 
“There is a lot going on during a service and making people comfortable is key,” Glantz said. “I am always hopeful that the inflection I will give or the cry (kvetch or krechtzt) on a certain word or phrase will cause someone to investigate the meaning in the Machzor. I try to visualize the possibility that someone in the congregation could be inspired to come to synagogue at least a few more times during the year.”
 
All three cantors said their families are used to them being home very little around the High Holidays.  
 
Tilman said his wife Ellen understood the pressure of the High Holidays and never invites company for Rosh Hashanah until the second-day luncheon, after his work was complete.   
 
Roemer said preparing for the High Holidays becomes easier as her children Hannah, 10, and Nati, 7, get older. While holidays and Shabbat are normally spent with family, cantors are usually very busy, she said. She experienced this dilemma herself as a child, when her mother, Sue Roemer, was the chazzan for 25 years at Temple Beth Ami in Gaithersburg, Md. 
 
“As a parent, I try my best to do my prep while the kids are asleep and to spend as much of the actual holidays with my family as I can, but the upshot in our family is definitely that mama works a lot before and during the High Holidays, and daddy pulls a lot of kid duty,” she said.
 
As they are on their feet for long hours during the services, being prepared physically is crucial. To that end, Roemer swims, dances, practices yoga and attempts meditation. 
 
“Getting a lot of exercise beforehand and throughout helps me to attain the calm, focus and stamina I need to be present as a davening leader,” she said. 
 
“I love this moment in the Jewish calendar,” Roemer added. “As a kid, I loved the food and community. I still love that as an adult. I find that the liturgy and melodies reflect all of these things, and when they are co-created live in a roomful of people with the intention of celebrating awe and wonder, the result can be magical.” 
 
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0747
 

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