Neil Manel Frau-Cortes' blog on music, Judaism and new technologies

Posts tagged ‘hazzanut’

Creativity as an excuse.

An apology to everybody for this time of silence: I have been wrapping up my dissertation and getting ready to defend it very soon! As I take a tiny break from higher education, I finished this post precisely about some disturbing trends in Jewish and secular education.

I was brought up in an educational system which, quite unfortunately, did not value creativity. One learned to draw by copying Freixa’s artwork to the smallest detail. One learned piano by playing Bach’s Inventions. Piano improvisation or creative drawing just was not for beginners: first you had to prove that you mastered the technique, then you’d be free to create. Far from me to sing the praises of an education that was frankly castrating, but I think that today we may have gone to the other extreme, emphasizing individual development and creativity up to a point where rules and hard-work learning are frown at. I think that this cartoon gives a good hint of what is happening:

The other day, one of my third graders was trying to play a new song on the recorder. He’s been playing for around seven months but is still unable to produce more than three basic notes. “Jacob, the left hand goes up and the right hand goes down” –I tell him. It is to no avail: Jacob answers that this is the way he plays, that it’s a lot easier than my way. “See? It works just fine!” –says little Jacob with a challenging, slightly impertinent tone of voice. I spend some minutes showing Jacob that, although his current fingering may seem to work fine for the few notes he knows now (from high C down to E), he will never be able to play lower notes just because using the wrong hand, his pinky will not be able to reach the lowest hole. We have been repeating this same dialogue for some months now and Jacob –otherwise a normal, intelligent kid– still does not change his mind. It is a phenomenon I observe very often in my music classes: in this boy’s mind, his way of doing things is as good as –if not better than– the teacher’s. Like most of my young American students, he doesn’t perceive any hierarchy between us. He sees me as a peer whose opinion can safely be ignored. As teachers, we are encouraged to let him learn at his pace, in his way, leaving nobody behind and not forcing our learning schemes on anybody.

Without any doubt, creativity and individual self-expression are values we ought to cultivate, cornerstones of personal development and education. However, they cannot be a good excuse for the lack of knowledge, for the bliss of ignorance. As my former composition teacher used to say, if you chose to ignore what the experts say, you may reach similar results –supposing that you are really lucky– , but not without having wasted a long time “reinventing the chicken soup.” Of course there are great composers that never took a class on counterpoint, but there’s no guarantee you’ll be one of them.

It may well be that the misuse of creativity as an excuse is a problem restricted to my area of teaching, but something tells me that it is a trend affecting not only our educational system, but also our synagogue life. Not so long ago, I was reflecting on the excessive use of creative midrash among lay leaders and even among a few rabbis and cantors. Confronted with the need of delivering a devar torah, it is always easier to come out with a creative midrash or some gematria interpretation than to ponder what Rashi and Sforno wrote about the text. The smaller our knowledge of Talmud, codes, and halachah, the bigger our recourse to creative allegories, pseudo-kabbalistic interpretations and the like.

Our tradition had always put high value on received knowledge and careful study. And yet, do we value Torah expertise today in our synagogues? We like to think that we do, but the changing reality might teach us otherwise. I have already posted a couple of times about the so-called Pediatric Synagogues, that is, shuls where absolutely everything turns around the children school and the benei mitzvah. How many shuls do you know where there is virtually no adult education? Aren’t we supposed to be a religion of lifetime learning? And yet, mysteriously, American families join a shul whenever the kids are of age and stay through the bar/bat mitzvah, only to disappear from active Jewish life soon after. Admittedly, the performance of the b. mitzvah kid looks brilliant, so nobody seems too concerned that he or she never learned Hebrew properly and just memorized a haftarah in transcription. Like in a day school, we put out beautiful displays of our kids’ works so that all parents can see it when they come for Open House night. Yes, it is true that we gave the kids all the pieces cut and marked so that  they only had to add a drop of glue, and thus learned near to nothing, but doesn’t it look dazzling?

At the same time, an increasing number of synagogues show a concerning trend when hiring a new rabbi or cantor: they essentially look for somebody who can teach haftarot to kids, say El Male in a funeral and chant a decent Kol Nidre. After all, the majority of their members will only be in shul in those very occasions. Of course, it will be a part-time job: the cantor or rabbi will only have to lead a couple services a week, teach children, and be available for funerals. What’s that? 6 to 10 hours a week? We don’t need more than that.

I wish I was exaggerating, but after almost two years of applying to jobs, it is hard for me not to reach to this conclusion: as we are losing our emphasis on lifetime education, we are also losing our reverence for clergy as our sages and teachers.  It hasn’t been too long until the creation of fast-track rabbis. There are at least a couple of rabbinical training programs in the US for people who are too busy to learn. One single Skype meeting a week, and in a year you could call yourself a rabbi, with semikhah and all. Certainly, for El Male, Kol Nidre and haftarah teaching it is probably enough, but is it enough for adult education, pastoral care, serious Jewish learning, etc? To me, this is like learning 5 songs on the violin through the Suzuki method and then printing business cards that read “John Doe, violinist.”

Now you can think that there have always been funky ordination tracks and that they are in the fringes, not representing any generalized trend. I dare to differ: the curriculum of some well-established rabbinical schools is also being changed with the pretext that they are tailoring it to the needs of a 21st century synagogue. However, this does not account for the considerable reduction of admission requirements (lower Hebrew level, if any) nor for the elimination of scholarly subjects in favor of “more spiritual” and professional courses. In these new curricula we see a lot less Talmud, less Codes and Responsa, and more creative midrash and social activism. Rabbinical seminaries are feeling the crisis and they need to keep a steady flow of incoming students if they don’t want to close their doors. They are also competing with new rabbinical programs whose requirements are clearly lower. As a result, we will have more rabbis than ever, with less knowledge of traditional texts but with lots of creativity. If a serious congregant wants to learn Gemara, the rabbi may have to refer him or her to somebody else.

The value of higher Jewish education is in question. Whenever I apply to a job, any cantorial soloist is taken on equal foot as an ordained cantor like me. What is worse, any fast-track rabbi will be given preference over my degrees, since I don’t have an “R” in front of my name. Some months ago, when I complained about this subject on this blog, I received a quite vitriolic comment that deeply saddened me. Paraphrasing the message, this is what this person told me: “I am a part-time cantorial soloist with a day job as a college teacher; I don’t feel underpaid nor underemployed at my shul; stop complaining, go back to school, get a degree and find a real job; then you’ll be able to afford this lifestyle.” The “lifestyle” referred was simply  being a cantor.

For weeks I debated with myself what to do. I didn’t hit the “approve” button and the comment wasn’t published on my blog. It just laid there, hidden in my inbox, lurking and waiting for an answer. I was very ready to write a quite bitter response to this person, maybe even publicly in the blog. Then I decided that this –hopefully well-intentioned– friend didn’t know me from Adam, and assumed I was some uneducated bum. In a way, she was a victim of the very same trend I am talking about. This cantorial soloist saw herself as equal to an ordained cantor. Since probably she had invested very little money and time in her own cantorial education, she couldn’t see a need for a fair compensation. To her, this was a hobby, and being paid at all for something you enjoy and you would do anyway is the cherry on the pie. Like many others, this reader thought that being a cantor or a rabbi was not so much of a vocation –or a ministry, as other religions say– but some “lifestyle,” an occupation that can equally be done by lay individuals in their free time. What is more alarming: she didn’t see any added value on being a clergy person, of having spent five or six years in seminary.

Today, any lay person leads services; independent havurot pride themselves on being lay-led. Don’t get me wrong: every Jew should know enough to be a sheliach tsibur. However, sometimes you need an expert that can explain the rationale of it all and take you to the next step.  The rabbinical and cantorial placement lists of all denominations are probably at the lowest they have ever been. The vast majority of these jobs are very part-time. Meanwhile, in my opinion we may be losing the reverence for our sages and experts. We are holding our little plastic flute the wrong way, we smile and say: “see? It works just fine!”

 

Jewish Songs: the New, the Old and the Hidden.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are so many things happening in the field of Jewish music that sometimes it is hard to keep track, since –even in the age of the internet– excellent new books and recordings do not get the exposure and diffusion they deserve. If it is hard enough for us in the US to know what is being done opposite coast, what to tell about new publications in Israel or Europe. Today I would like to take some time to present four new books on Jewish music, the new, the old and even the hidden.

 

First for the new songs: some months ago Shalshelet published its 4th International Festival of New Jewish Liturgical Music 2010 Festival Songbook and accompanying CD’s. Like the preceding volumes, this is a must-have for cantors, lay shatz and shul musicians. You will find numerous musical settings that fit the needs of religious services, educational venues and formal music interpretations by choirs and soloists, from quite elaborated contemporary music to congregational, simple tunes that work very well in most synagogues. The book is organized by subjects: psalms, songs of love, songs of memory and healing, etc. Among my favorite melodies I will mention Aaron Blumenfeld’s Song of Songs, Jessi Roemer’s Ahavat Olam, and Marcia Dubrow’s Va-tikach Miryam. There is a wide array of styles, from folk to jazz, pop to Hasidic and mizrachi. Musical creativity in the Jewish world is alive and well! A number of the musical pieces are recorded in a double CD, that is sold separately, but unfortunately the recordings do not cover the whole collection, so it is well worth getting both items, and thereby supporting Shalshelet‘s great task. By the way, the songbook includes a piece of yours truly, Shachar Avakeshka, in a jazz style for choir and piano.

 

The other three books I want to introduce to you are written by the same author and, in my opinion, form an impressive collection that any person seriously interested in Jewish folk music will enjoy. The author is Liliana Treves Alcalay, and the titles are Canti di corte e di juderia, Melodie di un Esilio, Canti della diaspora, all published by Giuntina in Italy. Do not let the Italian text scare you out: they all come with abundant music transcriptions, original lyrics, a CD that contains a selection of the analyzed melodies, etc. Canti della Diaspora [Songs of the Diaspora] is a short, well-written book that serves as a good introduction to the variety and richness of Jewish folk song. After a brief exposition of the major trends of Sephardic and Ashkenazi musical traditions, Liliana Alcalay offers a very nice selection of songs in Ladino and Yiddish, accompanied with Italian translations (although without any music transcriptions).

 

In Canti di corte e di juderia [Songs of Court and Jewry], Alcalay focuses on the origins of Sephardic music and tries to establish the features that make it different from non-Jewish Iberian folk-song. The author compares a number of Sephardic songs to their “original” (for lack of a better term) Iberian versions. It is very interesting to see how both cultures elaborated the same melodies and lyrics according to their own idiosyncrasy. After some chapters of delimitation and contextualization, Alcalay exposes the different treatments of seven musical and literary themes, such as tragical deaths, forbidden loves, lullabies, etc. One of the assets of Alcalay is that –unlike other musicologists that assume a nonexistent medieval “Spanish” cultural unity– her research includes the exploration of the Aragonese-Catalan tradition. For instance, the book contains a comparative analysis of the Catalan song La dama d’Arago and La bella in missa, a romanza from Salonica.

 

In Melodie di un esilio: percorso storico-musicale degli ebrei e marrani spagnoli [Melodies of an exile: a historic and musical survey of the Spanish Jews and the Marranos], Alcalay offers part of her field work among Cryto-Jews, while intending to establish if there is an actual marrano musical tradition, a subject that is highly controversial. In my opinion, this is the most interesting book of the series, although due to the nature of the subject it is prone to be contested, and even more when the author does not go into the academic minutiae but rather tries to expose broad concepts. To begin with, how would a hidden minority make public display of a distinctive musical tradition? How could we “sound different” in a society that punishes the difference? Furthermore, most Crypto-Jewish communities have received the modern influx of music from mainstream Jews, thus making very complicated to establish what is Crypto tradition and what is something brought in only recently. The book opens with some chapters on the history of the Iberian expulsion, immigration of marranos to the New World, and an analysis of the Crypto-Jewish religious practices. If in Canti di corte Alcalay presents a detailed analysis of how Sepharadim have “de-christianized” the traditional Iberian romanzas, most of the affirmations of Melodie di un esilio regarding Crypto-Jewish music are somehow conjectural, although that does not hinder from the high value of the book and CD.

 

Nice work if you can get it: on placement offices.

If this crisis has taught us something, I think is has been that Jewish organizations in general are in an urgent need of reinventing themselves. I have already written here about what I perceive to be a disconnect between Jewish institutions and the real Jewish community and its needs. Federations and JCC’s, for instance, seem to be programming activities that obeyed to the needs of the Jews of previous generations, who were not allowed to join gyms and social clubs, for instance. Today, instead of changing or eliminating those outdated activities, they go crazy trying to raise money to keep the machine running. In this new post I would want to reflect on the future denominational placement offices.

For those of you not acquainted with them, I’ll tell you that every Jewish movement –including some trans-denominational clergy associations– have placement offices of their own so that they can connect their rabbis or cantors seeking a job with the congregations that belong to that movement or with those shuls that –after paying a fee– decide to list with that office. Placement offices have rules for the congregations, particularly regarding the contract details. They also have rules for the clergy: rabbis or cantors that belong to that association are not allowed to contact synagogues directly but through the office; they cannot apply for congregational jobs outside of the office’s list; they can only be officially looking for jobs after telling their current synagogue that they want to leave, etc.

Of course these rules were formulated for a particular “echo-system” where there was a balance between clergy persons looking for jobs and congregations that were hiring. However, new factors have changed this landscape. As the Jewish population is getting older and smaller, fewer synagogues can afford to hire full-time rabbis. Some of these shuls struggle to keep their doors open, and many cannot afford membership in the denomination, so they become non-affiliated. Other shuls are mere lay-led chavurot and will not hire a religious leader. Bigger synagogues that in the past had a rabbi and a cantor now need to reduce staff and they just hire a rabbi. Finally, who needs to pay a fee to placement office when any shul can advertise a rabbinical job online for free or at a very low cost? On the clergy’s side things are changing too: today there are a number of non-denominational rabbinical and cantorial schools whose graduates are not subject to any of these rules and restrictions. In the case of cantors, there is a proliferation of the so-called cantorial soloists: anybody who can play some guitar and lead a service can fill cantorial positions, and they often do it for a lower salary or even as volunteers. The rabbinical and cantorial schools of all movements are graduating more people that needed. Some schools try to derive new graduates to non-congregational positions such as chaplancy, teaching or social activism, even if the salaries in these positions are so low that make very difficult to pay-off the student loans.

Although some placement offices may be aware and concerned for these changing circumstances, many others seem to prefer to dwell in the golden past. Their job –they tell you– is not to recruit new synagogues looking for rabbis and cantors, but to put both parties in touch and to oversee the process. We may be failing to see that in the current market situation, the hiring process often happens out of circuit and with no supervision. And yet, what are placement offices doing to enlarge their listings? In a world where congregations can list whenever they please, with so many independent seminaries and private ordinations, and even with non-denominational label becoming an added value, how are we going to maintain denominational placement offices?

Again, I don’t have an easy solution but I think that if we do not talk about the elephant in the room then the necessary brain-storming to solve the situation just can’t happen. If there will still be denominational placement offices in the future, they will have to learn to reinvent themselves. For one, we may have to acknowledge that monopolistic practices are a thing of the past. On the other hand, offices have to invest on staff that will bring about a more aggressive and effective marketing to increase the number of participating synagogues. One of the keys for “selling their product” would be rethinking what makes the denomination, movement or association unique. What can they offer their “clients” that they will not get elsewhere? Yes, there are many rabbis and cantors, but are they all from accredited schools? All rabbis have some sort of smicha, all cantors know some nusach, but have they received a solid pastoral training? What is the added value of having a Reconstructionist cantor or rabbi? What makes us unique?

Reenactments of death: Kippur, prostration and judgment day

I scribbled this post right after Yom Kippur but then I told myself that all this talk about death was just not too coherent with the happy Sukkot season we were about to enter. Today, when we approach the end of the Tishri frenzy, some shocking and very sad news brought the subject back to my mind: two days ago my graduate-school friend Cantor Jason Goldberg passed away of a sudden heart attack at age 34. May his memory be a blessing.

 

While leading Yom Kippur services this year, I was meditating on what I call the Kippur reenactment of death. This is a very strange holiday, with ancient and a little obscure rituals. If you think about it, the whole idea of Kippur is to play dead. Many of the details prescribed by the ritual correspond to a metaphoric death: like the deceased, on Yom Kippur we wear a white kittel and no leather shoes. All of our attire is white, the color of purity and that of shrouds. Just like the dead, we don’t eat, drink or have sex, all actions that define the quotidian of living beings. We are, in a way, like the angels of Service, spending the whole day in prayer and praise to Ha-Shem.

 

It is not by chance that this day is also named yom ha-din, the Day of Judgment, because that is what we actually enact. Think of U-netane Tokef and its words: this day is full of awe and terrible, a time to come in front of the divine presence. The Book is opened and our destiny is now sealed: who will live and who will die, how exactly will the dead perish, who shall prosper and who shall not. A mighty shofar is blasted, but only a still small voice comes out, calling us to teshuvah. At that time of the day, I can’t avoid thinking of those who are aged or sick. I wonder how many will not be here next year for Kippur. It hurts to imagine that Jason may have had a similar thought when he sung that same dirge-like melody some weeks ago, with his limpid tenor voice, for what would be the last time of his life. Death –and even more when it is untimely and sudden– always falls on us with the cold shine of a knife.

 

One of the strangest aspects of the High Holidays, and particularly of Kippur, is the ritual prostration. Jews do not ordinarily kneel or prostrate when praying but we have this one time when we do. It is a humbling and deeply spiritual experience that –unlike some people think– it is not reserved to clergy. Next year, give it a try and you’ll tell me! I read somewhere that the prostration in itself is another reenactment of death: instead of falling flat at once, we slowly bow down, kneel and move to a full prostration. We are slowly breaking down and dying, falling back to mother earth’s womb. However, we are in front of the King, who has the power to raise the death, so lifne Melekh we suddenly raise back to life, like the earth revives in its cycle of seasons.

 

I am not an anthropologist, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the origins of prostration are in fact reenactments of death. Bowing down and prostrating to the sun is probably the oldest form of human worship, as if our ancestors where telling the sun: “ we acknowledge that you are very powerful, that you give life to the plants and that you even can burn us to death if left in the desert for some time; see? just one stare from you and we drop dead!” Since the tribal king –as later the pharaoh– was often a personification of the sun, it comes as no surprise that the ancients begun to bow down to him as well. Many ancient religions –and even modern Islam– have fasts that last only as long as there is daylight. Somehow, maybe they “play dead” so that the solar god don’t see them “alive and eating”.

 

Wherever we look in the Yom Kippur machzor, there are constant reminders of the metaphoric death. There is a Yizkor service, probably the central one in the year. We have a long recitation about Jewish martyrs in history –modernly including those of the Shoah– with very graphic details of their death. A number of times we repeat piyyutim like be-yom din. Finally, there are a number of confessions: remember that the vidui is not only something we recite several times on Yom Kippur but also the prayer we are supposed to say at the time of our death. This text not only permeates the viduim of the Avodah service, but also many other places such as the end of Neilah.

 

And yet, Yom Kippur is a reenactment of death so that we can enjoy another year of life. No matter how we feel, life goes on. By “playing dead” in a way we try to conjure death once again. At the end of Neilah the mighty shofar blasts loud and clear, a sharp contrast with the shofar described in U-netane Tokef, and we respond with relief and with joy, already making plans to celebrate it in Jerusalem, next year. May we all indeed be there to celebrate.

 

Future of Judaism, again.

These days I have been thinking a lot about the future of Judaism, particularly in the US. It is obvious that we are in transition; we just don’t know to what new models! What is sure is that synagogues, Jewish institutions and even Jewish culture itself will be something radically different in twenty years. We can live in denial or begin to work to adapt ourselves. The blogosphere and other media offer so many interesting opinions on that subject that it is hard to keep track. Just yesterday, I was reading two extremely different online articles.

The first one was Daniel Pipes More about the future of Judaism.”After analyzing recent studies and statistics about the evolution of American Jewish population, Pipes reaches to the conclusion that the future is in the hands of Orthodoxy. Two major factors point out to this trend: they have a higher birth rate –and thus a younger population– and a supposedly stronger vitality that helps combat the general trend towards assimilation. Quoting Norman Lamm, Daniel Pipes thinks that in the future the Reform and Conservative movements will be history, an interesting but failed experiment. We will be back to that mythical time when –as Orthodoxy chooses to believe– there was only “one Judaism.”

The second article is Patrick Aleph’s “How do you approach a future of Judaism.” Aleph’s overview of the current state of the Jewish community is, in my opinion, quite accurate: we are keeping a huge number of anchylosed institutions that are essentially duplicate offers targeting an already over-marketed collective. JCC’s gyms and day-cares try to compete against their non-Jewish counterparts; in any given city you have a Hillel, a Birthright Next, plus the youth programs of the JCC and of each one of synagogues competing for a pool of increasingly disengaged young Jews. For Patrick Aleph the trend towards dual-identities (BuJews, HindJews, etc.), interfaith households, and non-theism is rapidly transforming Jewish life, from our prayer to our pastoral care. Patrick Aleph’s opinion is that the future of Judaism is in humanistic, secular, non-theism.

I am not sure if denominations are soon going to be history, but definitely they have a somber future, Orthodoxy included. Otherwise, we would not have so many Conservadox, Reformative, Reconstructionewal or “just Traditional” Jews (not to mention the closing of seminaries, increasing number of non-affiliated shuls, etc). Diversity is a sign of our times: if historically there never was a “one Judaism,” today each of us chooses its unique identity that is in constant osmosis and evolution, a well balanced cocktail of Jewish-Catalan-American-Progressive-Queer-Recon-yoga-traditionalism. David Pipes is right to declare that Orthodoxy is growing, but I don’t think this goes beyond mere statistics; I am not sure how much retention there is in this growth, nor do I see any particular signs of vitality. If this was true, Israel –and not America– would be the motor of Jewish culture and renewal, the think-tank of Jewish future. Quite the opposite, wherever Orthodoxy is the majority –like in Israel and in my own country of origin– it is exerting an asphyxiating power and influence in the rest of the Jewish community. There is no innovation, no flexibility, no realistic outreach, little adaptation or concern for contemporary issues, and very little intellectual honesty. Everywhere I look, I see insularity, blatant hostility to potential converts, hijacking of Zionism, and less than ethical political lobbying. We will be a handful but boy, will we be kosherer-than-thou! Religious fundamentalism may be a popular global trend in this day and age, but does it inspire any constructive changes for the future? (Disclaimer: I am talking of cases and places where Orthodox are majority, not of individual Orthodox persons).

We have to think outside the box, reinvent Jewish infrastructures. Carthago delenda est. However, unlike Patrick Aleph, I don’t think theism is our contemporary Carthago. The interest for spirituality is not decreasing at all, although the approach to this spirituality is more individual, less group-oriented

and definitely less institutional and standardized. Our concept of the divine may need updating, and we need to be attuned to all forms of spirituality, theistic or not. However, there is still plenty of space for a theistic spiritual community; we will have to figure out what will this community look like.

I agree that Jewish federations and JCC’s are less and less relevant for most people, and that there is a trend to connect with horizontal groups and minyanim rather than with vertical, institutionalized synagogues. Unfortunately, I have more questions than answers, more concerns than excitement about this trend. To begin with, there is a danger of atomization: we can create a number of new collectives whose new tradition is so different that it is just not recognizable to the rest of the Jews. At a certain point in history, the Latin spoken in Italy and the one spoken in France became so different that, in fact, they spoke two languages, French and Italian. I am not advocating for a chief rabbinate to decide who is in and who is out –a solution that never made much sense and that now is just anachronic–, but I’m not sure how are we going to hold this together.

My second concern is how much effort and money do we really want to invest in these well-needed new Jewish venues and structures. While I am a strong believer in horizontal communities and equality, I am also concerned that a trend towards independent minyanim may hide an unwillingness to pay for a synagogue membership or for a rabbi/cantor salary. It is great that people take responsibilities, learn to lead services, teach what they know to others; but sometimes we need a better-educated person to help us go the extra mile. A professional clergy can expose the minyan to things they never heard about. An unfortunate example of the opposite is the present state of hazzanut: it is nice that so many people are knowledgeable and feel empowered to present themselves as cantorial soloists. What would a synagogue hire a more-expensive ordained cantor if this volunteer can do it? As a result, so much of our musical tradition is just lost. You may not even know there is a nusach for the holidays, since we all sing Shabbat modes for Shavuot. Those of you who know me, know that I am the last person to advocate for an five-minute operatic cantorial recitative. I am more for spirited singing and clapping, but I also deplore the fact that people think there is only one melody for Salm 92.

So here it is: wish I had innovative ideas to expose. I think that the motor for change is our willingness to not take anything for granted. We have been changing and evolving for centuries and this is just another step. Let’s all get involved and excited about it, keeping an open mind and a passionate heart.

Fallacies of part-time jobs: a hopefully constructive perspective

No matter how qualified I am, for one reason or another I only work part-time. Actually, my picture should appear under the word “part-time” in some dictionary: last Fall I held four part-time jobs; this Fall, only two, although I still hope to get additional income somehow. With my many jobs, I can’t say I could survive on my own without my spouse’s income. And as you know, “part-time” also means “without benefits.”

Believe me, I respect my employers’ choices. These are hard times. Furthermore, I work in a field particularly prone to part-timeness (I should definitely register this word). I wear many hats, but they all are very small: I am a musician, a hazzan, a church organist, and a teacher. I could go on and on about the social consequences of a poor job market but, instead –and risking to sound bitter about my own situation– I want to focus on the role of part-time clergy.

A quick look at sites like JewishJobs.com shows two new realities: first, with so many schools and so few pulpits, there are very few jobs for rabbis and even less for cantors; second, almost all of these positions are part-time. As in the case of organist jobs, cantorial job descriptions are often astonishingly detailed and demanding. Eventually, you will be in charge of Tot Shabbat services, leading Kabbalat Shabbat and Shaharit Shabbat prayers, chanting Torah and Haftarah, maybe directing a choir, teaching benei mitzvah, and of course being available for funerals and weddings, whenever, wherever. They may insist that you need a masters degree, an ordination, and even police clearances. Of course, in theory you will be doing all of that in… 5 to 10 hours a week. There is no mention whatsoever to preparation time.

It is unclear how do they figure out this number of hours, but something tells me this is the exact amount of time they usually get to see you working. It is like the old joke: what does the rabbi do when she is not writing her sermon? Upfront, most synagogues will not even revise your job application if you are not local. After all, who will ever move across country for a 1K salary with no benefits and no relocation money?

The trend that had long affected hazzanim is quickly spreading to rabbis with the aggravating factor that cantors are more dispensable and, confronted with the choice, it is seemly better for a synagogue to have a rabbi than a cantor. Some rabbinical associations like RRA insist that half-time working doesn’t mean to work “only” every Friday and Saturday, but rather to work every other Shabbat. It is not clear if congregations are getting the hint… or just hiring people who are willing to work more for less. I can name half a dozen of enthusiastic young rabbis in my own area who work full time for a part-time salary, maybe in the hopes that the shul will eventually grow, but often just out of the goodness of their heart.

Given the situation, the role of sheliach tsibbur is often left in the hands of well-intentioned but poorly prepared soloists. A “real” cantor, however, is much more than a voice: a hazzan is a both shatz and a Torah teacher; sometimes a preserver of centuries-old musical traditions and sometimes the person who introduces you to new music and new forms of worship. A hazzan will not only rote-repeat some nusach: s/he will teach you the why and the how of our prayers, and will instruct you in ritual halakhah. Often, the cantor is –much like a rabbi– in a role of pastoral care giver, somebody who is there at your simchas and when you are mourning.

To me, the problem is of an ethical nature. No matter how hard he or she works, you will probably only see your cantor on Shabbat and holidays (assuming that you go to shul on a weekly basis which, unfortunately, is not so common). Almost a 100% of cantorial and rabbinical positions will look part-time to some people, because such is human nature. Judaism, however, teaches us to honor our teachers and Torah scholars. It also commands us to be fair with our employees and to not retain their salary.

With all my love, with all my respect and understanding for your present synagogue’s economic struggle, next time you are involved in writing a job description for your shul’s new cantor or rabbi, please ask yourself if it is realistic, and specially if the balance between demands and compensation is actually coherent with your Jewish values. Ask yourself if the future of Judaism isn’t worth an extra effort to sustain those who teach us Torah day after day.