Our Jewish friends are in the middle of some very important Holdy Days. This is a lovely human interest story for this time of the year. From the New York Times.
High Holy Days, and Cantors Are on the Road Again
Leah Nash for The New York Times
Published: September 6, 2013
On the eve of Rosh Hashana last year, as Lois Kittner was passing through security at the airport in Newark, a security screener halted her. He had a question about several strange items in her carry-on bag. One looked like some kind of animal bone; the other was a piece of metal that came to a suspiciously narrow point.
So Ms. Kittner set about explaining. She was a cantorial student at the Academy for Jewish Religion and was headed to North Carolina to help lead services at a synagogue there. The bony thing was a shofar, the instrument fashioned from a ram’s horn and blown to herald the Jewish New Year. As for that supposed weapon, it was a yad, a thin rod with a tip shaped like a pointing hand, which is used to follow the handwritten text on a Torah scroll.
“You don’t want to be that person in security who looks scared and uncomfortable,” Ms. Kittner, 56, recalled in a recent interview. “It didn’t even occur to me there’d be a problem. Friends tell me there’s never a problem with shofars when you go to Miami.”
Such are the vicissitudes of the traveling cantor, that phenomenon of the High Holy Days, which began Wednesday evening. Hundreds if not thousands of ordained cantors, seminary students and trained laity crisscross the globe to serve congregations without full-time cantors.
They play a role at once essential and short-lived. The liturgy of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur is built around some of the most famous melodies in the Judaic canon — “Kol Nidre,” “Avinu Malkeinu,” “Unetaneh Tokef.” The holiday’s mixture of penitence, remembrance and celebration rests on song.
Some of these itinerant cantors build ties over decades to one particular congregation. Others change pulpits nearly every year. All must appear reassuring and accessible and meaningful to worshipers who may never have seen or heard the cantor before.
“One of the challenges is trying to find common ground in prayer and study amongst this huge diversity,” Susan Caro, the former president of the American Conference of Cantors, wrote in an e-mail from Singapore, where she is serving a congregation. “This is further challenged because at the High Holy Days, people are looking for comfort and familiarity — but what is comfortable and familiar, what reminds each person of home, can be hugely different from person to person.”
Now in her 10th set of High Holy Days at the United Hebrew Congregation of Singapore, Ms. Caro embodies the more stable end of the traveling cantor spectrum. John Siegling, an operatically trained layman from Charleston, S.C., has sung for a Reform Jewish congregation in Tenafly, N.J., every year since 1973.
“I’m sort of the only person left from when I started,” said Mr. Siegling, 70. “I was there for the Yom Kippur war.”
Jack Falk, on the other hand, typifies the cantor as road warrior. Though he lives in Portland, Ore., Mr. Falk has spent all but one year since 1989 away from home, chanting the liturgy as far afield as the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., the Jewish Center of Kew Gardens Hills in New York, Congregation Kol Ami in Tampa and Congregation Kneseth Israel in Elgin, Ill. His son has dubbed Mr. Falk “a boxcar cantor.”
In that role, he once was put up in the converted viewing room of a funeral home near the Elgin synagogue. When he led congregants in Yakima, Wash., in the tashlich ritual of casting away bits of bread to represent their sins, the closest body of moving water to the synagogue was a drainage ditch. His wife, Reva, a teacher, has not been able to spend the holidays with him for 25 years because she cannot miss so many days of class.
“The fulfillment — I hate to sound corny — is to lift the spiritual connection in the room,” said Mr. Falk, 63, who grew up in a modern Orthodox family in Connecticut but is not ordained. “It’s to give people an extra boost to carry through the year, to provide the musical setting by which they can open their hearts.”
As for the peculiar challenges, Mr. Falk drew an analogy to his day job as a technical-writing consultant. “In the secular world, I have to go into a company and meet their engineers, their staff writers, and figure out what the client wants,” he said. “It’s much tougher doing that in a Jewish High Holy Days service. What is it that the rabbi is accustomed to doing? What is the mood of the congregation? What is the architecture of the building? Where are people sitting?”
Like many traveling cantors in the digital era, Mr. Falk auditions for jobs by providing congregations with links to his performances. He has found increasingly tough competition for High Holy Days jobs lately, with about four serious candidates for any given position.
Until mid-August, in fact, Mr. Falk looked to be without a gig this year. Then he heard from a longtime friend, a folk-dancing instructor in the coastal town of Astoria, Ore. For the first time in 53 years, since its only synagogue closed down, the Jewish community there intended to hold Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services. Could Mr. Falk lead them?
So he bleached out the wine stains that Passover had left on his kittel, the white robe often worn on the High Holy Days to symbolize purity. He found a room in Astoria throughairbnb.com. He packed up his grandfather’s tallit, the prayer shawl that Mr. Falk always uses in this season. And he helped return Judaic observance to Astoria in the converted living room of a local family — gentiles, as it happened — who just wanted to help the cause.
“After this many years, it’s a gift I’ve had to learn the liturgy and to make it come alive,” Mr. Falk said. “It takes on a different immediacy to have it on my shoulders. You daven” — pray — “for yourself. You daven for your family. And you daven for the community. There’s a lot in my life I don’t take seriously enough. I take this very seriously.”