“Shema Koleinu (Hear our Voices): The Cantor Through Time” was the topic of Lilah Sugarman’s presentation at the CGOH Brotherhood Breakfast-and-A-Speaker Program event on Sunday, April 2. Since Fall 2015 Ms. Sugarman has served as cantorial intern at Temple Gates of Heaven, Schenectady. In 2016 she received her master’s degree in Sacred Music from the Debbie Friedman School at Hebrew Union College, Jewish Institute of Religion. On May 7 Lilah’s five-year program is scheduled to culminate with her ordination as a cantor.
Ms. Sugarman recounted the history of the cantorate, beginning with the Talmudic period, circa 500 CE, when the cantor, or ‘chazzan,’ was caretaker of the synagogue. The chazzan, always male, announced and often led services, and played many roles in the synagogue. The Talmudic period gave rise to the Geonic period, featuring reduced congregant literacy in Hebrew, establishment of the Hebrew service liturgy, and enhancement of the cantor’s leadership role in the synagogue and community. Jewish calendar determined the liturgy, and its melodies were used reciprocally to mark calendric events, such as holidays.
In the Pre-Reform period the liturgy was exclusively a capella, that is, voice-only, throughout the Eastern European world of Jewish towns, known as shtetls. Famous chazzans were popularized, for example by the first ‘talking movie,’ The Jazz Singer, in 1927. Its theme was a son’s defiance of his father’s edict that he become a cantor.
Instruments came later, in the Reform movement, originating in Germany and influenced by the Christian church, most notably with the addition of organ and choir. With waves of immigration, the Reform movement spread to the U. S., where it added contemporary sounds including the guitar, and folk, rock, and protest themes.
American cantorate education began in New York City with Reform movement’s first school, Hebrew Union College, in 1948. This was followed by the Conservative establishment of a cantorial program in the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1952, and by Orthodox Yeshiva University establishing a cantorial program in 1962. These schools prepared only men to become cantors. Hebrew Union College was the first also to ordain women as cantors and as rabbis. Ms. Sugarman’s current class at HUC has nine students, of whom seven are women.