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It may seem at first counterintuitive, but being a member of the Jewish clergy can be a most diverse and exciting career. The star of a Jewish clergy member can chart many courses, only some of which land him or her on the bima (worship platform). Jackie Mason interspersed so many jokes in his sermons that he eventually went on to charge “a cover and a minimum“. Then there is the story of the “Jazz Singer” starring Al Jolson in 1928 and Neil Diamond in 1980 remake which tells the mildly fictionalized story of a young boy Jolson, then Asa Yoelson, who must defy his father’s cantorial dreams for his son to achieve stardom.
The May 21st 2009: “Cantors Do Broadway” concert hosted by Cantor Ben Sharpe skillfully fa-mish’d (mixed) together all the aforementioned components into a well received, beautifully performed production. The concert featured Cantors Ben Sharpe, Eric Moses, Ben Silverberg, Marshall Loomer, and Laura Wolfson. Many of the cantors were given to bouts of stand up comedy in their introductions. There was a jocular banter between the cantors reminiscent of the “Three Tenors” Concerts. Comedy again showed up in a parody of Irving Berlin’s “Anything I can do” which Judaically morphed lyrics like: “I can get a sparrow with a bow and arrow” into “I can bake a challah, while singing the havdallah”.
The concert featured pieces showcasing pure chazzanut (Jewish liturgical singing) as well as more modern Hebrew songs such as “Hamilchamah Hachrona” (The Last War) — touchingly delivered by Cantor Ben Sharpe — which is a soldier’s promise to his little girl that there would be no more war. The staple of the concert were the songs of Broadway which were all sung with great talent and occasional peppering of cantorial coloratura. The cantorial peppering was not out of place in the Broadway tunes as many of the composers were themselves Jewish. In fact, when gentile Cole Porter set out to write show tunes in a field dominated by Jewish composers, Richards Rogers, of composing fame, asked Porter how he planned to achieve success. Porter replied simply, “I’ll write Jewish tunes“.
The concert was hosted by the Beth Jacob in Hamilton and had a warm hometown feeling. Hamilton, it turns out, is not only famous for steel but has also forged many a fine Chazzan (Hebrew/Yiddish for Cantor). Most of the cantors had ties to and origins in Hamilton and extended heartfelt appreciation to the city which had given so many of them their start. Notably, Cantor Ben Silverberg, now of the Shaar Shalom Synagogue in Toronto, had his first tenure at the Beth Jacob. The cantors recalled audience members who had given them a home on a Shabbat (sabbath) night, offered them a delicious meat loaf meal, or who had a friendly Werther’s candy on hand whenever needed. Love for Hamilton poured out from the cantors who had come to love the city that had come to love them.
The love was reciprocated by congregants who had taken these cantors into their hearts. Entre-act there was a ‘Secondary Audio Program’ provided by the audience members behind me discussing how cute and adorable the given cantors were. They provided running biographical commentary: This one was married, that one was single, one just had twins, but I never found out which one because, just then, the cantors burst back into song.
This love of cantors comes from their greatest charm: Despite some notable exceptions, most cantors are not national celebrities, but instead local heros. The can have an almost celebrity status yet they remain accessible. As such, they are not judged merely on their musical talent but also upon their ‘menschlachkeit’ (being of upright moral composition). The standing ovation at the end of the concert was an expression of both these sentiments for the assembled cantors with emphasis directed at host Cantor Ben Sharpe who concludes his tenure at Beth Jacob this summer.