Is Chazanut in Decline?


An Interview with Akiva Zimmerman
By Elie Delibe

A few months ago Mr. Zimmerman visited London on his return from the States to Israel. He stayed with the Rev. Moshe Dubiner, and several chazanim were invited to meet him. I have used this opportunity to interview Mr. Zimmerman on the subject “What is the status of the chazan today in the world”. Akiva Zimmerman is well known among chazanim in many countries. His interest in chazanuth is not merely a hobby, but it stems from a deep love in everything which is connected with chazanuth. He is personaly involved in affairs connected with chazanuth and is in contact with many chazanim all over the world. He takes a keen interest in the development of cantorial music, and is a regular participant in the annual conference of the Cantors Assembly in the United States. Mr. Zimmerman is also a writer in this field, he has written articles on the subject of chazanuth in the latest Encyclopeadia Judaica, and is a regular writer in some Newspapers on Cantorial events.

Q. What news is there today in the world of Chazanuth, is there a decline in the standard of chazanuth or rather a static situation?

A. I am rather depressed because of the general situation concerning Chazanim. I have a feeling that there is a rapid decline in the standard of Chazanuth in many countries with large Jewish Communities. In particular I see a decline in the United States.

Q. Why do you think it is so, are there no more excellent Chazanim of high standard of whom we can be proud, and in whom we may see the continuation of the traditional Chazanuth?

A. Fortunately there are still such Chazanim, but only very few whose performance and interpretation in prayer would bring his listeners into an ecstasy, or into a spiritual uplift.

Q. Can you explain why, do you think there is a decline in the standard of Chazanuth, what are the main reasons for this?

A. It seems to me that there is a general lack of interest in chazanuth everywhere, this is probably the main reason why there is a decline in the development of good chazanim. The other reasons are as I see them, that the chazan is called upon to do many duties within his community, and he is not occupied enough in singing. Very few Synagogues now engage full time chazanim, the Cantor in the United States in particular has no status as it used to be years ago.

Q. Why do you think the status of the chazan today is not what it used to be?

A. It is a proven fact that so few chazanim these days occupy full-time positions. Therefore they have to make a living from other sources,
and cannot devote their time to singing and to the study of music. In the U.S. the regular Cantor is always engaged in a number of duties. In practice the task and the duties of the so called Cantor in the U.S.A. is similar to that which a Chazan used to be in the middle ages, namely; he is a Melamed, a Mohel, a Funeral attendant, and a functioner of all kinds of communal duties, in addition to his main task as Chazan.

Q. Well, a chazan could do all these duties, and still be a good Chazan?

A. That is possible, but in fact it is not so, in the States the Chazan today unless he is an outstanding singer, he has no status. He is subjected to the dictates of the Rabbi, the Wardens, the Sisterhood. They are confmed to a limited time for their services, they have no free hand and free reign in the programme of the service, to express their feelings in singing, so the service becomes standard.

Q. If a chazan is obliged to finish at a certain time, it is not such a terrible thing to limit himself and define his singing within the time available?

A. Today a Chazan is limited to a time table, he is obliged to finish the service at a certain time, regardless if he has enough time left for the Mussaf prayer. I believe that this is limiting the scope of any chazan to develope. Of course some Congregations are more strict than others in these matters, nevertheless, this is the general situation today.

Q. Are there any Schools or Seminars for Chazanim in the United States?

A. Yes, there are Seminars, or as they call them ‘Cantorial Schools’ which were established by all three streams of Judaism in the States. In most cases, where the Chazan is a young man who just finished his training he is in the hands of the Rabbi whose instructions he must follow and certainly would not have a chance to develope his talents.

Q. Are there any new Chazanim today who posses special talents and good voices?

A. Yes, I am glad to say that Israel is not yet devoid of good Chazanim thank God. There are some chazanim of quality in several countries, and especially in the U.S.A. and if they had a chance, they would have certainly become the greatest Chazanim of our time. For instance, Chazan Paul Kovarsky, who was a pupil of the late Shlomo Mandel and Leib Glantz, is serving in the Beit Tsedek Congregation in Toronto. In his profession he is a solicitor, if he was working in Chazanuth only, I am sure he would become a great Chazan. There is also Chazan David Lefkovitz who is serving in the Park Avenue Congregation in New York. His father was a well known orthodox chazan a “Menagen” and composer, so the young Lefkovitz grew up in an environment of Chazanuth, and could have become a great Chazan if he was not limited in his services. A new star among Chazanim is Benzion Miller who is serving at the Beth-Eil Synagogue in Boro-Park in New York. Chazan Miller is a Chassid of the Bobov Chassidim, he possesses a beautiful tenor voice which is very similar to the voice of the late Moshe Kussovitzky. He has a special talent to emulate Kussovitsky in his singing.

David Kussovitzky is still officiating in the Temple Emanuel, where he is serving for the last 35 years. Almost every year he appears in Israel in Concerts. Chazan Vigoda who reached the age of 87 is still singing in concerts and has recently published a book about Chazanim and Chazanuth. Moshe Taube, who is in my opinion one of the very few Chazanim par-excellence, is serving in the Beith Shalom Congtgation in Pittsburgh. Chazan Taube learned a lot from the style of Leib Glantz, he has a beautiful and cultured voice. He teaches voice production in a music school and also chazanuth privately.

Q. From all that you have said, I am not yet convinced that Chazanuth is in decline, as you mentioned before?

A. Well, I still think that in spite of all that I have said to you about Chazanim in the States, Chazanuth in general is declining, mainly because there is no more challenge to the young and talented Chazan. He feels no necessity or need to continue to study, to develop his musicality, and to inspire his congregants, because there is no demand for it. In those Congregations where they engage Chazanim, either as part-time or just for the High Festivals, they would not make any demands on the young Chazan. As long as he has a pleasant voice and knows how to lead the Congregation in prayer it is sufficient for them, and I think this applies to every country.

(Taken from The Cantors’ Review, September 1982)