The Cantors and Their Problem


By Rev. N. Abramson: President, Jewish Cantors' Association

The problem of the cantor or professional chazan may be summed up under three heads : the trial performance, the short-term contract and the congregational politician. These are the three evils which beset the path of the cantor and their baneful influence is not only the cause of his dejection and humiliation, but also very often the cause of his degradation. It must be borne in mind that the cantor combines both the artist and the religious functionary and that the ill-treatment to which he is often subjected not only debases his art, but also degrades his communal dignity.

The trial performance, in its last analysis, is nothing else but a kind of petty graft indulged in by many of the congregations at the expense of the cantor. A congregation has a vacancy to fill. Naturally, it will not engage a cantor without hearing him first. The cantor does not receive any remuneration for the trial service. The congregation has lost nothing and consequently is in no hurry to consummate the bargain. The following Saturday another cantor is heard, on trial, and the process is repeated for many weeks. This means virtually a saving in salary, which the congregation would have had to pay to an engaged cantor. Taken in its entirety, the profession is thus losing thousands of dollars annually.

The remedy is very simple, it is the duty of the cantor to insist on payment for the trial service. This would, in the first place, accelerate engagements, and in the second place, do away with the other evil mentioned above, the short-term contract of which I shall speak presently.

Among the many time-honored traditions of the Jewry of the old world, the relationship of the Jewish community to its chazan was surely one most worthy of emulation. The chazan was almost always a highly respected member of the community and always took his seat among the learned and pious of the town. Once he was given his contract and his name was entered in the "Pinkus, " he retained his position for life. Moreover, his widow received a pension after his death and if his son happened to be qualified for the sacred office, he had the "Chazakah1' or first claim to his father's place.

To the great regret of those in the profession, this beautiful tradition was discontinued in the new world, and the dismissal of a cantor from his congregation is no more thought of than the discharging of an operative from a tailor shop. The short-term contract is now the custom in almost all of the orthodox congregations, and the cantor never knows when he will be compelled to fold his tent and start out once more on the vicious round of trial performances, endless negotiations, bickering with congregational officials and the humiliating maneuvers for procuring a new "job".

The most influential factor in maintaining the onerous custom of the short-term contract is the congregational politician, or as he is more popularly known, the "kohlsher mācher". Generally he is the flunky of the all powerful president and uses his influence for personal aggrandizement. He is not very discriminating. He profits from all congregational transactions, whether it is the engagement of a rabbi or the renovating of the vestry rooms. This man is the deadly enemy of the cantor. He takes care that the cantor shall not gain too many admirers in the congregation, because this may lead to a renewal of the contract, without his benign intercession. His weapons are those of guarded slander and petty persecution. And he persists in them till he dislodges his man and then starts the game all over again with the new incumbent.

Sometimes the congregational politician is replaced by the congregation itself. In this case, the. money is not exacted for personal use. As a rule it is asked for the purpose of defraying the costs of some particularly heavy expenditure of the synagogue ; the paying off of part of the principal on the mortgage or the repairing of the edifice. In other words, the congregation makes the unfortunate candidate meet a liability which the members assume and are unwilling to face.

The Jewish Cantors' Association, which was organized about fifteen years ago, has been striving hard to do away with all these evils. It insists, in the first place, that its members demand payment for trial services and fortunately it has found willing ears, at least, among the more prominent and self-respecting members of the profession. The Association is also ready to act as intermediary between the cantors and the congregations, to bring them together for their mutual benefit. The cantor would receive better treatment and more advantageous terms through the elimination of the congregational politician ; the congregation would be guarded against a host of interlopers, whose musical qualifications, knowledge of liturgy and religious conduct are below the accepted standard. There is no doubt that if the congregations of this country would avail themselves of the services of the Association whenever they have a vacancy to fill, that it would ultimately improve the condition of the cantor and, incidentally, that of the congregation.

The project of founding a seminary for the training of cantors was fostered for many years by the Association. The aim was to supply the needs of American Jews by training young men for the profession, instead of relying, exclusively, on the "finished product" coming hither from the old world. The project ultimately materialized, and a cantors' seminary was opened. But the curse that has blighted many a worthy undertaking in this community, soon overtook this one also. The seminary was closed for lack of funds.

Naturally this phase of the problem, as well as the general situation confronting the cantors of this city, must be dealt with from the community point of view. A strong cantors' association may accomplish much. The solution of the problem, though, rests mainly with the community as a whole. Fair treatment for the cantor cannot be secured without fair treatment for the rabbi or for any of the other religious functionaries. It will require a radical change in the mental attitude of the community to its public servants. A cantors' seminary is in reality the business of the community, surely much more so than the business of the cantors themselves. The elimination of the congregational politician is also a larger piece of work than any individual cantor or group of cantors may hope to handle successfully. Only the enlightened, well organized community may cope with the entire situation successfully, and the coming of such a community is the hope and the salvation of the Jewish cantor in this city.


Website: The History
Article Name: The Cantors and Their Problem
Researcher/Transcriber Miriam Medina


BIBLIOGRAPHY: The Jewish Communal Register of New York City 1917-1918; Edited and published by Kehillah (Jewish Community of NYC) 1918; Lipshitz Press, 80 Lafayette Street, N.Y., N.Y.
Time & Date Stamp: