Jewish Studies & Education graduate student Jeremiah Lockwood attended the 50th annual conference of the Association for Jewish Studies held at the World Trade Center in Boston, MA on December 16-18, 2018
On December 17, 2018, I presented a paper based on a thesis chapter at a panel at the conference for American Jewish Studies in Boston. The paper was entitled “Jewish Music: Past and Present,” chaired by Professor Olga Gershenson, and also featured presentations by Assaf Shelleg and Amanda Stein. The panel was attended by leading scholars in the field of Jewish musicology, including Kaye Shelemay, the 2018 honoree of the Society for Ethnomusicology.
My paper offers ethnographic details from my field work with young cantors in the contemporary Chassidic community of Brooklyn, NY. In my paper, I propose that young singers use the sounds and image of the classic cantorial tradition to instantiate careers for themselves as expressive artists. The specific cultural context of ultra-Orthodoxy places limitations on the kinds of genre engagements young musicians can pursue. Cantorial music in the early 20th century was a syncretic art form that derived both from older forms of synagogue chant and from Euroclassical music. This specific history of synthesis resonates profoundly in the musical choices of young cantors today who revive older forms of Jewish litrugcial music. By singing music with a lineage in European Jewish history before the Holocaust, singers have greater freedom to create identities as artists that blur community boundaries. The choice of cantorial singing as a career path is in marked contrast to the contemporary pop-influenced Haredi pop sound that is the mainstream form of music in the ultra-Orthodox community.
Despite the rootedness of classic cantorial music in a remote era, I argue that cantorial singing functions for revivalists as a new and generative practice, not an exercise in musical nostalgia, and self-evidently not a direct form of musical continuity within Chassidic culture, where cantorial music has never been a mainstream practice. Young cantorial revivalists offer a critique of the sonic world of ultra-Orthodoxy. The retrospective glance that seeks aesthetic authority in classic khazunes specifically creates distance from the norms of contemporary Haredi music. Instead, cantorial revivalists instantiate creative identities through reference to the bi-cultural musical synthesis that the work of Golden Age cantors represents.
The paper presentations were followed by a lively conversation, and many informal conversations among scholars after the panel presentation was finished.