I am addicted to my PDA. On a recent trip, my wife, Deborah and I were able to find our way in Berlin and Munich, St. Petersburg and Moscow using my Google Maps. How opportune in this modern age that we have tools such as these to help us find our way.
As a Hazzan (Cantor), for more than 40 years now, I felt a certain security in my path through the Siddur, Mahzor and even the Haggadah thanks to a a spiritual "map app" called “nusach Hat’filah,” that has been ours for over 1,000 years. This collection of modes musically, aesthetically and unmistakably identifies the religious service in which the liturgy is being chanted at any given time. These modes began as cantillation tropes for the Chumash, Nevi’im, and the Megillot and were transformed into what we still recognize as the prayer modes - NUSACH (shhh, do not say it out loud...it has become a “dirty” word).
The Orthodox movement has decided that most services should be chanted as quickly and amorphously as possible in a “nusach” that reminds one of the Penitential prayers of “Selihot” and sometimes “Tisha B’Av”. Yes, there are exceptions, thank goodness, but in general, a vast number of Orthodox friends have neither heard a real Hazzan nor care to spend the time doing so. Conservative and Reform still teach “nusach” in their Seminaries but, especially in the Reform, cantors are advised to sing mostly contemporary-sounding folk songs, preferably with guitar accompaniment. “Ech naflu hagibborim – How the mighty have fallen!” The grandeur of the music in the Reform synagogue has all but disappeared. Finally, I turned around one day and was shocked to find that my Conservative movement pulpit, Anshe Emet of Chicago, is one of the very few left in which snippets of real “hazzanut” can be heard.
Judaism is going the way of acculturation in the name of progress and “participation.” Hazzanut (cantorial music of the late 19th through 20th centuries) is all but gone. It is understandable, after the catastrophe of the Sho’ah, that our “audience” has been decimated. We are living in fast moving and ever changing times. Yet, we truly should be careful for what we wish; we might get it. As the awe and greatness in hearing Jewish words of prayer float to the heavens in beauty and sweetness give way to campfire songs, sung together, in perfect mediocrity, we may find that the answers to our problems have become the problem, itself.