Guest Blog

Revival of Cantorial Music in Jewish Life

– by Jeremiah Lockwood

April 4th, 2018

Editor’s Note: Since 2012, The Concentration in Education and Jewish Studies (EDJS) at the Stanford School of Education has been a home for the creation and enhancement of research that spans the social sciences, humanities, and education. The Concentration is led by Professor Ari Kelman. In this Guest Blog series, “Shaping the field of Jewish education,” we hear from three current students in the program pursuing their PhDs. 

During my time at Stanford I have been fortunate to work with a group of scholars who have sharpened my skills as a listener to music. Through working on social science research as an assistant to Dr. Ari Kelman, coursework in musicology, performance studies and Yiddish folklore, I have come to understand music both as a creative discipline and as a discursive tradition with the potential to expose unique insights into historical and social questions. Furthermore, studying music from an education standpoint has clarified for me the way the world of sound serves as a primary aspect of enculturation, both for performers and listeners.

In education literature, the sensory and non-verbal facets of experience are undervalued and underexplored resources in the construction and reproduction of culture. I am especially concerned with studying the intersection of musical experience and the process of enculturation.

I came to Stanford with a vague sense that I wanted to study transmission of musical culture and that I wanted to delve even more deeply into the cantorial music tradition I was involved with as a creative musician. As I began my research I was surprised and delighted to find that there was a cantorial music revival taking place in Brooklyn, just around the corner from where I used to live, both figuratively and literally.

The past two decades have seen a remarkable revival of early 20th century cantorial styles among Chassidic Jewish singers. Chassidic Brooklyn is a conservative and inward-looking community that is marked by an ambivalent attitude towards the importation of “art” aesthetics into prayer practice. A young cohort of Chassidic cantorial singers is achieving star status in the world of Jewish music. For Chassidic cantors the bi-cultural sound of cantorial music, rooted in folk prayer practice and Euroclassical music, offers an opportunity for achievement in the realm of aesthetics and self-expression. My thesis, tentatively titled Golden Ages, explores how young Chassidic cantors in Brooklyn have claimed the music and culture of the “Golden Age” of cantorial music as a touchstone for the formation of their own aesthetics. The guiding research question around which my current research is organized is: How do musicians address the challenges faced in reviving a largely forgotten music genre to forge a successful path as a professional artist?

This question will be approached from the specific vantage point of Chassidic singers and will draw into focus the advantages their cultural background gives and the unique challenges they face. While my project is not framed as a comparative study, the learning and career formation issues faced by young Chassidic cantors bare a close relationship to issues faced by artists in other music revivals. Like the blues revival of the 1960s, or the current avante garde jazz scene, the cantorial revival is organized around a recorded music legacy genre that it seeks to extend into the present.

My central research question provides room for discussion of the ways in which the culturally syncretic history of cantorial music provides sonic and emotional resources that are resonant for contemporary Chassidic artists. The history of bi-cultural expression that is written into the cannon of cantorial music is pungently relevant for Chassidic singers whose home culture is organized around opposition to the dominant non-Jewish culture. For the artists I am writing about, genre revival of cantorial music offers a platform from which to speak about deeply felt issues including: aspirations for personal self-expression; theological and anti-theological probing of religious ideas and emotions; defining a sonic aesthetic that is emotionally and intellectually satisfying and relevant; expressing ethnic and class identity.

As I begin to transition from doing research and taking graduate seminars to teaching and writing my thesis, I look back on the journey I have undertaken at the Stanford Graduate School of Education Concentration in Jewish Studies with a great deal of excitement and satisfaction. I can see now that the tentative questions I began my research with have solidified into a stream of ideas and research concerns that I am thrilled to be engaged with and look forward to addressing over the coming years. These interests include exploring the relationship of history and creative musical careers, the interweaving of “folk” and “institutional” transmission of musical traditions, and the connections and disjunctions between group identities and the individual paths of artists.

Jeremiah Lockwood is a PhD candidate in the Concentration in Education and Jewish Studies at Stanford University. While engaged in his scholarship, Jeremiah continues to pursue a busy career as composer and performer in the bands The Sway Machinery and Book of J.

Read the first blogs in the series, here and here.

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