Synagogue Music in the Modern Era

Changes are taking place in the leadership, participation, melodies, and instruments that are found in the synagogue.

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In the Conservative and Reform movements, young people empowered by their affirmative experiences in denominationally affiliated summer camps rejected the notion of trading their summertime active participation for docile subservience to a cantor and choir back at their home synagogues. The Conservative movement was the first to attempt a response. The Cantors Assembly published Zamru Lo, a three-volume anthology of "congregational tunes" designed to increase the participation of worshipers in the synagogue service, while still maintaining the traditional nusah.

Composers Take Note

Composers also started considering the needs of congregants when writing for the cantor and/or the choir. "Singable refrains" allowed congregants to take an active role in at least part of a composition chiefly scored for cantor and/or choir. Max Wohlberg (1907-1996) was singularly successful at writing cantorial recitatives as well as longer settings that remained faithful to traditional nusah while also providing an opportunity for the congregation to sing.

The music of Chicago-based Max Janowski (1917-1991) had a similar effect on the music of Reform synagogues. The Hasidic-style lilt of his largely unison Yismehu is a favorite of many congregations; the unison refrain of his moving Sim Shalom enables the congregation to take an active role in its presentation; and his lyrical, strophic ve-Shomeru enables the congregation to sing along with the melody, even as the choir intones its lovely harmonies.

There were certainly composers who followed Janowski's example. Canadian composers Srul Irving Glick (1939-2002) and Ben Steinberg (b. 1930) were especially successful at writing music that welcomed congregational participation. Inaddition, composers from Herbert Fromm (1905-1995), to Samuel Adler (b. 1928), to Stephen Richards (b. 1935) have arranged well-known composed melodies and mi-Sinai tunes for congregational singing.

Blurring the Boundary

The border between popular song literature and the music of worship was effectively breached. A succession of popular American artists began (or, like Debbie Friedman and a more musically sophisticated Michael Isaacson, continued) to contribute music that was just as successful in the synagogue on Saturday morning as it was in concert on Saturday night. Not surprisingly, the Reform movement led the way in this more liberal musical style. The guitars that dominated American folk and popular music were welcome in many Reform synagogues and even replaced the organ as the instrument of choice in congregations moving away from the decorous classical style of Sulzer and Lewandowski to a more inviting and participatory "warm Reform" service.

The Orthodox movement continued to eschew instrumental accompaniment, but many congregations were equally active in adopting some more contemporary sounds into their services. The Orthodox also borrowed tunes that had been written originally for non-liturgical presentation but that inexorably crept into synagogal use. The common preference among Orthodox synagogues to utilize lay shelihei tzibbur (as opposed to seminary-trained hazzanim) also contributed to the random utilization of contrafacted melodies from among popular Israeli and American songs.

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Marsha B. Edelman

Marsha Bryan Edelman is professor of music and education at Gratz College. She also serves as director of the Tyson Music Department and coordinates the college's academic programs in Jewish music.