An Interview with Cantor Bernard Beer, Head of the Belz School of Jewish Music
Cantor Beer has been on the staff of the Belz School of Music since 1967, and has been the head of the school since 1985.
DN: When were you inspired to become a professional hazzan (cantor)?
CB: I would say, in a way, I was almost born into it. I lived in Borough Park. In Borough Park in the fifties every synagogue had a hazzan. You were surrounded by some of the greatest hazzanim too, like the great Moshe and David Koussevitsky. At that time, people were very inspired by the hazzan. The majority of people who lived in Borough Park at the time were either from Europe or had parents that were European and grew up with the kind of prayer services that you don’t really hear in America today. There were great hazzanim and baalei tefillah who inspired people with their tefillot, and with their nusah (traditional melodies). I was raised in a home where my father was a well known baal tefilla, and he brought this kind of inspiration into our home through zemirot and tefilla.
DN: Did you have some sort of formal training? Did you learn your tunes from a specific hazzan?
CB: My father taught me how to lead services at my bar mitzvah, a rarity at that time in a large synagogue. I guess it sounded good to people; they made a great fuss over me. By the age of nineteen, I had already been the hazzan for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, even though, at the time, doing so was questionable because I was still young and unmarried [requirements for being a hazzan]. When I came to YU, it was only in my third year that I took classes in what was then called the Cantorial Training Institute. Once there, I saw a different world. I wasn’t just repeating melodies; I was learning about the musical and liturgical structure of prayer in an academic manner from top-notch teachers.
Dr. Karl Adler was director of the school at the time. He had been the head of a Music conservatory in Germany, and he was forced to flee during the Holocaust. When he arrived in New York in the 1940’s, he approached Dr. Belkin about starting a music department at YU. At first, he volunteered his services for a couple of years without salary, until the music department and Cantorial Training Institute were officially founded.
DN: You’ve mentioned the mesorah (the tradition) of the Belz School of Music, how about the mesorah of Jewish music? How old are some of the melodies that we sing?
CB: We don’t know exactly. They have been passed from father to son for generations. We know that during the time of the Maharil, a leading posek and also a great shaliah tsibbur in Germany in the 14th century, the state of music in tefillah was in disarray. He started the movement to return to the “original melodies.” He restored our old melodies codified our nusah. In a way, one could label the time as one of a great renaissance in the nusah of prayer.
There are some tunes, whose origins are very old, which we refer to as mi-Sinai tunes (melodies from Sinai). Many of the tunes that we sing during the high holidays fall under this category. Melodies such as Kol Nidrei, the various tunes for Kaddish, and the annual blessings for dew and rain. These melodies are referred to as mi-Sinai not because we absolutely know that they go back to the time of Moshe on Har Sinai. Rather, we treat the melodies as if they are so sacred that they go back to the days of Sinai.
In truth, the most authentic Jewish melodies in existence probably belong to the Sefaradic Jews. Their melodies may go back to the times of the Beit ha-Mikdash. This was proven by the famous musicologist Abraham Zevi Idelsohn, known to be the first person to prove the existence of Jewish music. In the early 20th century, he travelled around the world recording melodies of the various Sefaradic communities. Idelsohn proved that that many of the Gregorian Chants were borrowed from the music of the Sefaradic Jews.
DN: What are your thoughts on changing tunes or inserting new melodies into prayers?
CB: We do have a problem. People take any tune that they hear, and because it sounds nice, they insert it into prayer. We have fixed tunes. The mi-Sinai tunes we mentioned before are also sometimes referred to as “Skarbova” tunes. The word “Skarb” comes from the Polish word meaning “official.” These melodies, the ones we mentioned, and many others are the official tunes that can be used for prayer. These melodies are fixed, and you cannot change them.
You can’t do Carlebach for atah zocher [part of the High Holiday prayers]. Now, there is nothing wrong with Carlebach; he had some great tunes that really fit the words. But as the Maharil says “al yishaneh mi-minhag ha’ir afilu ba’niggunim– one may not change the custom of a community even as to its customary prayer melodies.”[i]
The Rav, in the 1970’s, commenting on the prayer mi-sod hakhamim criticized a hazzan for using simple tunes instead of the traditional nusah. The nusah that was handed down from father to son was meant to be an interpretation of the words of prayer. The traditional tunes and the meaning of prayer are lost when the melody is changed.
DN: How do you think music enhances prayer?
CB: Words without music don’t jive. It’s dry. You need music to inspire.
DN: It’s been said, that sometimes a beautiful tune will cause a person to latch on to the melody instead of the prayer’s words, do you agree?
CB: Carlebach was a great prayer leader, but if you look at his songs, they do not always seem to fit the words. People, in general do not concentrate on the words.
When we talk about the influence of music on prayer it’s important to understand that melody is meant to interpret the text. In other words, the text is supreme. You can’t sacrifice the meaning of a text for a nice Carlebach melody. You can sing congregational melodies for almost anything, but the melody should fit the nusah. That is what proper nusah is all about; it is about making prayer beautiful and understandable.
DN: To what do you attribute the decline of the role of the professional hazzan in tefillah?
CB: Most people feel that they can rely on capable volunteers to lead services. Many, in truth are relatively knowledgeable. They can sing nicely, and they can manage without the hazzan. Also, the generation that enjoyed hazzanut has dwindled.
But it is also indicative of a major sociological change. People today have no patience, and they are always on the move. Many just want to “get rid of davening” fast. Also, people do not like formality in the synagogue anymore and prefer a more informal davening.
DN: Do you think a return to traditional nusah would fulfill people’s spiritual needs in prayer?
CB: People are definitely looking for spirituality in prayer. They are looking for spirituality, but they are not focused in the right direction. People first have to learn the basic nusah , it’s structure and its historical development in order to appreciate and connect to prayer.
DN: Do you have a favorite melody?
CB: In the last 10 years, I’ve seen people going back to some of the old classic hassidic tunes. They are beautiful, intricate, and appropriate for the text; I guess those would be among some of my favorites.
DN: Do you have a favorite prayer moment?
CB: “Hineni.” It is the prayer that the hazzan recites immediately before Mussaf on Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. Granted, it’s not the most important prayer. It can even be omitted. According to some, only certain parts are actually recited out loud. The prayer is inspiring though. It is meant for the hazzan to humble himself before God, and to ask for the strength of mind and voice to properly represent the congregation in prayer although he feels unworthy.
DN: Any last comments to YU students?
CB: Today, people need to learn how to read and understand prayers properly. They need guidance to learn what proper nusah is, where it comes from, and what it means. It’s amazing. Nowadays, children need to be talmidei hakhamim by the third grade, but their yeshivot end up missing the basics. They don’t teach them how to pray properly. Knowing how to pray and to use one’s voice properly should be a goal for everyone. Just as Torah is not meant only for rabbis, but for everyone in the world, nusah is not meant only hazzanim, it is for every single Jew who wants to cultivate a meaningful and genuine connection to God through prayer.
[i] Shulhan Arukh; Orakh Hayyim, 619:1