Five Cantors and How They Got Into the Soul Business [WSJ]

June 05, 2015 4 min read


The men have a deep respect for each other’s talents and for their Jewish musical heritage

By Ralph Gardner Jr.
June 3, 2015 8:47 p.m. ET

You’ve no doubt heard of the Three Tenors. But how about the Five Cantors?

They would be Avraham Fried, Netanel Hershtik, Yanky Lemmer, Joseph Malovany and Lipa Schmeltzer.

And on June 16, they’re giving a free concert of cantorial and contemporary Hasidic music at SummerStage in Central Park. It’s part of KulturfestNYC, a weeklong festival of Jewish performing arts.

I met with the quintet—I don’t know whether it’s appropriate to call these superstar cantors a quintet any more than it would to pronounce Plácido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and Josè Carreras a trio—at Lincoln Square Synagogue on the West Side.

With the exception of Mr. Malovany, the cantor at Fifth Avenue Synagogue and a professor of liturgical music at Yeshiva University, none of the men conformed to my button-down conception of what a cantor—the person who sings liturgical music and leads prayers at a synagogue—should look like.

Not that I held strong convictions on the subject.

However, Mr. Schmeltzer, at least his wacky eyewear—not to mention his yarmulke decorated with colorful M&M’s—was positively arresting. And it sent a message: Maybe I needed to reconsider my stale stereotypes.

“I have a crazy thing for glasses,” said Mr. Schmeltzer, 37 years old, who is considered a Hasidic pop star, though I never thought I’d use those words in the same sentence. “I have 20 pairs.”

Explained Zalman Mlotek, the show’s music supervisor: “Each artist represents a different style, a different tradition.”

“It’s like Pavarotti and Michael Jackson,” said Mr. Schmeltzer, referring to himself and the 31-year-old Mr. Lemmer, who was dressed in a short-sleeved white shirt and had on uncontroversial wire-rimmed glasses. However, he quickly amended himself. “For Yanky to perform with me, it’s like Pavarotti and Christina Aguilera.”

It might seem as if getting these cantors, with their different styles, on the same song page would be like herding cats. But they all seemed to have a deep respect for each other’s talents and, more significantly, for their common Jewish musical heritage.

Meaning no disrespect, I had wondered aloud if their voices were that good—I had yet to hear them either separately or together—whether they were tempted to go pop and pursue the big bucks, perhaps playing Madison Square Garden or even Las Vegas.

“Quite a few times I’ve had directors suggesting I go to the world of opera,” said Mr. Malovany who has toured with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, among others, and appeared at Avery Fisher and Alice Tully halls.

“I look at the cantorate as a calling. I’m a religious man and I’m here as a cantor not necessarily to entertain but to express the feelings of the worshipers, to interpret the prayers, so the prayers become more meaningful to the congregation.”

Mr. Fried agreed. “Words are the pen of the heart. Melody is the pen of the soul,” he said. “All of us here are in the soul business.”

Mr. Hershtik, whose father served as the chief cantor at the Jerusalem Great Synagogue, explained the liturgy encompasses much more than words and music.

“That music carries with it the Jewish life of hundreds of years,” said the cantor, who looks like the Israel Army combat paramedic he once was. “The calling is there and I take it very seriously, and think there’s a calling to take the old and renew it.”

However, Mr. Hershtik said his dad preferred he not go into the family business.

“My father pushed me not to be a cantor,” said Mr. Hershtik, 37, who also has a law degree. “He always told me I need a profession. Singing you do for fun.”

At the risk of sacrilege, I asked whether celebrity cantors enjoyed the fruits of musical stardom in the same way rock stars did. The stretch limos, roadies sorting out the brown M&M’s and, of course, groupies.

Mr. Hershtik
said he met his wife on a cruise where he was performing, though it sounded like a relatively chaste affair. “It was a cantorial cruise in the Caribbean,” he recalled. “My father used to run the cruises.”

And cantors Lemmer and Schmeltzer said the notion of groupies didn’t even apply in their ultraorthodox universe.

“I had an arranged marriage,” Mr. Schmeltzer stated.

“Same here,” said Mr. Lemmer.

After our meeting, I was chatting with Mr. Hershtik and preparing to leave when we heard the sounds of song in the sanctuary. On the bema, the podium where services are led, cantors Malovany, Schmeltzer, Fried and Lemmer had started to harmonize, with Mr. Schmeltzer providing the rhythm section by clapping along.

Mr. Hershtik drifted down the aisle to join them, as if drawn by an invisible force.

The song was the Ba’avur Dovid, the music sung when the Torah is returned to the ark.

This wasn’t a rehearsal. They’d just spontaneously started singing together for the sheer pleasure of it. And they sounded great.


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