Celebrating a Passionate Underground Brooklyn Jewish Tradition
A hundred years ago, some of the biggest rockstars in the world sang in synagogues.
They were competitive. Many of them went on concert tour. A global audience bought their 78 RPM records. Yet those cantors weren’t just raising their voices in stock renditions of centuries-old repertoire, otherworldly and inspiring as many of those songs are. Pre-WWII artists like Gershon Sirota, Zawel Kwartin and Yossele Rosenblatt energized their fan bases with their unique interpretations of ancient traditions.
While cantorial performance has tragically fallen into a steep decline in recent decades, a new generation centered around a mostly underground performance scene in Brooklyn is bringing it back. The new vinyl record Golden Ages: Brooklyn Chassidic Cantorial Revival Today – streaming at Bandcamp – focuses on six cantors leading the way.
As you would expect, vocals are front and center in this collection: the musical backdrop is typically limited to spare, resonant organ, played by David Reich and Jeremiah Lockwood (better known as the firebrand guitarist in the Sway Machinery). First on the mic is Yanky Lemmer of Lincoln Square Synagogue on the Upper West Side, who takes his time through a soaring, impassioned, dynamically shifting version of the imploring Yom Kippur nigun Shomea Kol Bichiyos.
Shimmi Miller, of Temple Beth El in Borough Park, contributes his own mystical, melismatic anthem for the blessing of the new moon, Yehi Rotzon, anchored by Reich’s low-key but emphatic piano and a rousing choir of his fellow cantors.
Yossi Pomerantz sings a calmly determined version of V’aly y’dey Avodecha, a declaration of faith by legendary cantor Sholom Katz, who sang his way out of being murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust.
Yoel Kohn takes over for a soulful performance of the Shabbat theme Kulam Ahuvim over Reich’s spacious piano. Lemmer returns to the mic for an insistent, breathtaking performance Moron D’vishmayo, a global hit for Kwartin. Then Kohn takes over again, rising to a gripping falsetto for the album’s most vast, spacious number, L’olam Yehey Odom, from the catalog of the great Hungarian cantor and Holocaust survivor Yehoshua Wieder.
Yoel Pollack delivers an expressive, thoughtful, operatically-tinged recording of Yossele Rosenblatt’s somber 1920 hit Shomer Yisroel, a requiem for the victims of World War I with Reich on harmony vocals. Then the pianist moves to the mic for Eso Eynay, a triumphant setting of Psalm 121.
Miller’s second song is a pensive version of the Rosh Hashanah song Habeyn Yakir Li. Lemmer closes the record with a fervent, viscerally angry a-cappella take of Tiher Rabi Yishmael, a Yom Kippur tribute to martyrs.
It’s also worth remembering that today we are on the brink of this year’s Hanukah celebration. But the annual Festival of Lights is not just about piety: it’s a celebration of transgression, a single night’s worth of lamp oil divinely multiplied to last for eight days of defiance in the face of tyranny. As that story goes, there is divinity in noncompliance. On this particular evening, Jews and non-Jews alike would do well to give that some thought.