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Message from Hazzan Steve

Updated: Jun 29, 2021

June 30, 2021


“I had to take Pastoral Counseling, two semesters of it, and two semesters of Biblical History and Civilization, and ...."

I might begin that way to answer a question I have been asked more than once: “Hazzan Steve, how could it possibly have taken you six years of study to become a cantor?” A better answer is that the Aleph Ordination Program, the seminary of Aleph: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, from which I received ordination as hazzan (cantor) in January, trains the cantorial students to serve as “kol bo”. That means having the skills and knowledge to lead a Jewish community, including all the musical and liturgical ability you would expect, plus pastoral care, life cycle events (weddings, funerals, baby naming and brit milah (not the cutting edge of that, though), bat and bar mitzvah, adult bat and bar Torah, and so on), adult education, homiletics, and more.

I have the immense good fortune at CBI to serve the community along with Reb Lisa, allowing me to focus most of my energy most of the time on only a subset of the kol bo skills. But I am here for all of you when you need me, especially when Reb Lisa is on vacation as she is now until August 1st. You can contact me directly or through the office.

Back to what goes into the making of a cantor. I looked the other day at the list of classes I took over the last six years and was surprised to find more than fifty. Not counting learning to sing (I had barely a clue when I started, so I studied voice here in Chico with the wonderful Daun Weiss), or the four weeks over two years of DLTI, the Davvenen Leadership Training Institute (which teaches the art of leading public prayer).

There was plenty of liturgy and music, of course, including the classical Ashkenazi nusach (modal music of prayer) for Shabbat, weekdays and all the holidays. Some Sephardi and North African music. Maqam, the Arab modal music on which much of nusach is based. Jewish music history. Pedagogy of tefillah (how to teach prayer to adults and children). Chassidut (Chassidic thought) and another course about a broader slice of Jewish mysticism. Jewish history. Deep Ecumenism, which was of great importance to Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, one of the founders of Jewish Renewal and the teacher of my most important teachers. Another class devoted to Reb Zalman’s writings. Some Mishnah, Talmud, Torah and Midrash, but nowhere near the level of engagement in rabbinic thought and Jewish law required of the rabbinic students, including Reb Lisa. Tehillim (Psalms) and piyyutim (paraliturgical, mostly, songs) and niggunim (wordless, mostly, songs). Eastern European Jewish music in various forms, including songs, klezmer, theater music, and high cantorial music of the Golden Age of cantors in Europe and the United States. Biblical and siddur Hebrew (actually, I satisfied this requirement without having to take the courses, but I still work on this on my own). And lots and lots of hazzanut (cantorial music) with Hazzan Jack Kessler, in summer master classes, semester-long courses, and one on one on Zoom or at odd times at conferences and student gatherings.

The Talmud (I thought it was from Pirkei Avot, but it turns out to be from Taanit, the tractate about fasting) quotes one of the rabbis speaking about learning. He says he learned much from his teachers and more from his colleagues, but most of all from his students. I know this to be true, and I look forward to learning from all of you as I share some of what I have learned over the last six years.

With blessings for a happy and healthy week,

Hazzan Steve

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