There is something intrinsically wrong with being stuck in Hollywood, FL an extra day while most of the rest of the nation, especially the mid-west, gets socked by one of the strongest snow storms of the 21st century. Be assured, I feel neither guilty nor unhappy about it. As Debbie and I wait for our flight back I think back to an energizing, if tiring, few days as scholar-in-residence of the Cantors Assembly Florida Region conference.
Kudos are owed to Hazzanim Luis Cattan and Elaine Shapiro who brought together cantors from both the Conservative and Reform movement to study, sing and share camaraderie in the pleasant atmosphere of Beth Torah Congregation, North Miami. The quality of voices and styles was truly encouraging. Both male and female cantors distinguished themselves in their coaching sessions and I look forward to repeating the experience in the future.
Perhaps our most challenging speaker was Rabbi Jack Riemer whose sober assessment of the state of the Conservative Movement and the future of the cantorate gave us much to think about. Rabbi Riemer and I go back to when I was his hazzan in La Jolla, CA many years ago. He is a brilliant thinker and writer and I was reticent to disagree with him in his prognosis that “nusach” is dying or perhaps even dead. In the end, we decided that we are on the same page when I averred that “nusach” is critical to the Conservative movement especially if we are to retain integrity in our prayer services.
The Orthodox seem to be descending into a general minor sounding mumble for their nusach (except in concert when all the “greats” repeat the glorious sounds of our cantorial tradition). The Reform will find it difficult to turn the corner back from having escaped “nusach” in favor of folk song in Hebrew and English which to me sounds like much of the music we hear on televised mega-church services. (A short note to say that I believe folk-type song does have a place in the modern “traditional” service as congregational singing. But, many rabbis, especially in the Reform Movement, insist that be all that is sung…that the entire service need be a sing-along.)
The Conservative Movement is restructuring its leadership and will not only survive but serve as a model of what a service for the 21st century must sound like if we are to continue the chain of musical tradition that has been alive for over 2,000 years. “Nusach” will be the chain that binds us to the sounds of our ancestors while modern, accessible and mostly joyous tunes will (and in many congregations already do) allow Jews of all ages to feel welcome and comfortable in our services. There is much to do, both by rabbis and hazzanim, in developing the service of the future. But, dispensing with tradition in favor of a hootenanny is not the answer.
Let us anchor our beautiful musical tradition in modernity and carry the torch of “nusach” with pride.