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Not exactly the jazz singer: The purpose and power of a cantor

By Robin Caudell/Press-Republican, Plattsburgh, N.Y. (TNS) • Sep 9, 2018 at 8:00 AM

PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. — Rabbi David Kominsky will blow a shofar to mark the beginning of High Holidays at sundown Sunday at Temple Beth Israel.

He will be dressed in a white robe and white prayer shawl with black stripes.

The white is a departure from his usual colorful rabbinical attire because he's leading his congregation during a time of elevated holiness in the Jewish New Year.

For these services for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Cantor Shira Stanford-Asiyo travels from Vancouver, B.C. She recently relocated there from the Bay Area, where she was a program manager on the Union for Reform Judaism's Audacious Hospitality team, creating diversity and inclusion curriculum for synagogues and Jewish youth programs.

She also published essays in Torah Aura’s book, “God: Jewish Choices for Struggling with the Ultimate,” and collaborated with author Debra Jill Mazer to publish the “Open-Eyed Heart-Wide Haggadah.”

Cantor banter

“In the past, we have brought in a cantorical soloist who is someone who knows the music and can perform it but doesn't have the training,” Kominsky said.

“But it's basically a singer rather than a clergy person. A cantor has between three and five years post-graduate education. A cantor is someone as specialized in Jewish music as I am in Jewish text.”

Cantors and rabbis study many of the same topics at schools attended for rabbinical studies.

Stanford-Asiyo and Kominsky were at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College at the same time.

“But they get much more in-depth musical training,” he said. “Our school requires the ability to chant Torah, to produce the melodies for Shabbat services, weekday services, High Holiday services. Cantors, obviously, spend much, much more time and go into much greater depth than all of the things that we do.”

At large synagogues, the second clergy person is often a cantor.

“A cantor, in addition to leading service music, will very often be engaged in running a school sometimes teaching the kids and will very often do a lot of the bat mitzvah and bar mitzvah tutoring,” he said.

Cantors also work freelance and in other settings, like Stanford-Asiyo, who is a former executive director of JYCA-Jewish Youth for Community Action, a youth-led social justice organization in Berkeley, and a K-5 music educator at Pardes and Wornick Jewish Day Schools.

“What she brings as a trained cantor is knowledge of what melodies are going to work well for the congregation and can think about how we introduce melodies in a way that I kind of have a vague feel for, but it's not always something I think about,” Kominsky said.

“Even when I am thinking about it, it's not something that I necessarily think about well.”

Holiness soundtrack

Stanford-Asiyo and Kominsky collaborated on the service, which ends with Yom Kippur, "Day of Atonement," on the evening of Sept. 18-19.

“Some of it is me knowing what the melodies we have used in the past are and suggesting some of those,” he said. “In Judaism, each service has its traditional melodies. So the Shabbat melodies are different from the High Holiday melodies.”

In a traditional setting, a congregation would switch solely to High Holiday melodies, but Temple Beth Israel doesn't do that.

The rabbi and cantor know the High Holiday melodies, but most of the congregation only hear them, at most, twice a year.

“They know some of the greatest hits, so to speak, of the High Holidays, and we definitely do all those,” Kominsky said. “But we will be inserting some Shabbat melodies and some more modern compositions that may not be part of the traditional musical system at all but are congregationally singable as such.”

Want to hear the shofar?

Hear Rabbi David Kominsky blow a shofar and speak about its purpose in two separate videos online at www.pressrepublican.com.

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