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Finding the Right Note for the Holidays: Cantors Pack Their Bags

Finding the Right Note for the Holidays: Cantors Pack Their Bags

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Cantor Aryeh Leib Hurwitz gets ready for the high holiday prayer services.
Cantor Aryeh Leib Hurwitz gets ready for the high holiday prayer services.

Aryeh Leib Hurwitz of Brooklyn, N.Y., started getting his voice ready for the High Holidays months ago. A cantor who has spent the past seven years singing at different synagogues around the United States, he typically begins his prep up to three months ahead, first with daily voice exercises.

“I do it every day, so when it comes to the High Holidays, I can sing at the fullest of my capabilities,” he says.

Hurwitz, whose credits include leading packed Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services at Chabad-Lubavitch centers, uses a preparation regimen that also includes drinking teas with honey and planning a variety of tunes for different prayers. Characterized by intense supplications before the Almighty, the High Holiday services are so different that synagogues use different prayerbooks than those used for the rest of the year.

“Every year, I learn more and more,” says Hurwitz.

He’s one of a number of men, young and old, some with families and others without, who pack their bags as the holidays arrive in order to lend their voices to communities large and small. Ahead of the holidays—they start with Rosh Hashanah, which begins the night of Sept. 16—message boards used by Chabad House directors light up and phones start ringing, as sought-after singers receive calls from places they’ve sung at before and people who’ve heard their names on the circuit. Some are regulars, having established themselves at one location year after year. And a number are just starting out, given the task of tailoring a service for a community they’re meeting for the first time.

Hurwitz started out small, and in time his name got out. This year he’s returning to Chabad of Dix Hills on New York’s Long Island, where he expects a crowd of 800 people or more.

“The chazzan definitely sets the tone for how the services take place,” he says, using the Hebrew term for people in his profession. “I hope they’re happy with their Rosh Hashanah day, that they feel their prayers were represented well.”

(To find a High Holiday service near you through Chabad.org’s worldwide directory of events, click here.)

Yoel Wolf, who will split his time this holiday season between Miami Beach, Fla., and a suburb of Philadelphia, comes from a family that loves to sing. His two uncles are cantors, and he’s sharing his musical passion with relatives and their own communities: a sister’s Chabad House for Rosh Hashanah and his sister-in-law’s for Yom Kippur.

“I have many friends who do this,” he relates. “I have many friends who lead the prayers and a few friends who are actual professional cantors, because all the Chabad Houses need somebody to lead the prayers.”

Cantor Aryeh Leib Hurwitz
Cantor Aryeh Leib Hurwitz

Wolf buys CDs of more famous cantors performing traditional melodic prayer, and practices them over and over, improvising where necessary. He also develops his own stamina and vocal ability for a job that will see him singing nearly nonstop for hours.

“There’s a lot of technical practicing,” he says.

As a shy child, Wolf let singing “take over [his] shyness,” and when he was 18, he started traveling around the world as a cantor. A rabbinical student who recently got married, he looks at singing as a privilege to help out, even though he doesn’t see it as a likely career choice.

“I want people to have a meaningful prayer service, so that hopefully they get inspired by the heartfelt chants,” he says. “I hope they’ll have more concentration on the things that they’re asking for, whatever’s on their minds and in their prayers.”

Rabbi Levi Blesofsky was 17 when he started singing at synagogues for the holidays. Now 34 and co-directing a Chabad House in Yorba Linda, Calif., he sings at his own synagogue by default.

“You’re more of a novelty when you travel,” he explains. “Here, they hear me every week. It’s still a new bunch of people, though, that come in for our High Holiday services.”

Blesofsky aims to send people home with the urge to come back; it helps if they find attending synagogue to be an interactive experience. In that vein, he and his friends always speak ahead of the holiday season about what tunes work and what people like.

“People like to do new things, but they mostly like things they got to know over the few years that you were there,” says the rabbi. “Then they feel comfortable; they feel more a part of being in shul.”

Blesofsky still gets calls from other rabbis looking for cantors, even though he’s no longer on the circuit. He notes that the market, due to more Chabad Houses and more Jewish singers, has expanded in unexpected ways. Where there used to be one website that served as a matchmaker of sorts between cantors and synagogues, there are now a handful. Cantors have their own websites, no less, complete with samples and auditions for download.

Says Blesofsky: “A lot of people want to be part of this.”



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