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All Together Now

How congregational singing became the norm in American synagogues

Jenna Weissman Joselit
July 28, 2020
Kurt Hoffman
Kurt Hoffman
Kurt Hoffman
Kurt Hoffman

Lift up your voices in song, exhorts the Psalmist. Not so fast, exhorts Dr. Anthony Fauci. Singing, especially congregational singing, may be good for the soul, but, as we’ve come to learn, it puts us in harm’s way of the coronavirus and of one another. These days, we’re much better off singing in the shower than in the sanctuary.

Yes, there’s always Zoom, but even that much-vaunted alternative to the synagogue service is no match for the sense of solidarity, of community, that comes from people lifting up their voices at the same time and in the same place.

Those of us who attended services back in the day are keenly aware of just how indispensable full-throated singing was to the vitality and well-being of the synagogue community. But that awareness, that institutional commitment to congregational singing, took awhile to sink in; you might even say it’s hard-won. Earlier generations of American Jewish worshippers and religious leaders had entirely different, and often conflicting, ideas than we do about what made for a meaningful prayerful experience.

Putting their faith in orderliness and decorum, American Jews of the 19th century, especially those associated with the fast-growing Reform movement, favored a tightly choreographed, highly orchestrated prayer service with clearly delineated roles for the rabbi (or minister, as he was often called), the cantor, the choir, the organist, and the congregants. Sound was central to that spiritual enterprise. As Judah Cohen’s compelling and richly researched new book, Jewish Religious Music in Nineteenth-Century America, demonstrates, establishing a distinctly American Jewish musical culture that would find favor among both the elite and the grassroots took a lot of doing, underscoring the ongoing tension between tradition and modernity.

Religious services, of a piece with the grandly scaled, magnificent edifices constructed one after the other in the wake of the Civil War, were now meant to be equally grand and stately: inspirational rather than intimate, controlled rather than spontaneous. The organ thundered, the choir exulted, and the cantor trilled, while the rabbi displayed his erudition through a cascade of words, the more elaborate, the better. Those in the pews, meanwhile, were encouraged to be quiet and contemplative and to cultivate restraint in all things. No chatting, no turning their heads to look at who had just entered the sanctuary, and no singing, either.

Congregants—to be seen, not heard—were discouraged from breaking into song or even humming along with the cantor lest they hit a wrong note, mess up the melody, or upset its tempo. Age-old singing practices, now redefined as noise, were banished from the sanctuary, given no quarter by the proudly modern congregation.

It didn’t take long before the voices of critics, bellowing as loudly as the organ’s pipes, made themselves heard. For all its majesty and harmony—a word often bandied about by those 19th century American Jews who pushed avidly for reform—the modern synagogue service fell flat, charged disgruntled congregants as well as frustrated clergy. Worse still, it had turned into something cold, lifeless, even sepulchral. Today’s synagogue, declared the Jewish Messenger in 1878, “lacks heart.”

No wonder, then, that its delicately carved wooden pews were empty, bereft of worshippers. Even those who did attend on occasion were passive and inert. Mistaking amusement for uplift, they were inclined to treat the sanctuary as if it were a concert hall rather than an outlet for their divine devotions. Little about the service was conducive to a welcoming experience, generating apathy and indifference and leading to a “paralysis of prayer.” The synagogue of bygone days, critics pointed out, had “devotion and noise.” Its contemporary counterpart has “order and no devotion.”

Cleareyed when it came to identifying the problem, the synagogue’s detractors differed on who was to blame. Some made it seem as if acoustics were at fault. The synagogue space was so grand, they conceded, that only an organ could fill it properly. But that instrument’s fullness drowned out the human voice, precluding communal singing.

Others took the cantor to task for his elevated standards, for being overly concerned with the quality of the singing when, by rights, he should have been much more attuned to the congregation’s participation in it. His vocal extravagance and tendency to sing complex pieces and at too high a pitch, making it well nigh impossible for untrained voices to sing along, also came in for considerable finger-pointing.

Still others had it in for the choir, claiming that it monopolized the singing, leaving little room for congregational participation, and that its penchant for “preludes, repetitions, flourishes and fanfares” got in the way of more sincere, direct forms of expression. That most choristers turned out to be “non-Israelites” for hire didn’t gladden too many hearts either, prompting some critics to denounce the synagogue choir as a “sad caricature,” or, more damning still, as an “abomination.” While not everyone thought non-Jewish choristers a bad thing, hoping their presence might spread a feeling of brotherhood among men, others with louder voices claimed its putative ecumenism rendered the choir an “expensive kind of furniture” rather than an authentic vehicle of prayerfulness.

The melodies performed by the choir and the cantor also received quite a drubbing from critics who found them too showy, foreign, and Christian by half: too much Aida and other operatic selections, not enough of the old-school melodies that had both charm—a favorite word of traditionalists—and the patina of history. We run the risk of having “sailed far into the ocean of hymnology instead of keeping close to the shore of the Psalms,” cautioned the Jewish Messenger in October 1892, calling for the production and circulation of a more authentically Jewish hymnal.

Amid mounting public criticism, a torrent of ideas about how to ameliorate the situation swelled the pages of official cantorial and rabbinical publications as well as the American Jewish press. Some suggested the first order of business was to dispense with the organ as well as the choir. Others held out the possibility of supplementing professional singers with a volunteer choir composed of congregants, or better yet, of children from the synagogue’s religious school whose sweet and affecting voices would enliven matters.

And still others suggested a return to the simpler melodies of yesteryear by forming singing societies devoted to recovering the “good old tunes with which we are all familiar and which strike home to our hearts,” or so editorialized the American Hebrew in 1908 following a performance by the Choral Society for Ancient Hebrew Melodies, a group founded a few years earlier by Mathilde Schechter. “We have long enough been like deaf-mutes [sic] during our worship,” she lamented in a lengthy magazine article in the New Era Illustrated Magazine. “It is time we should no longer remain a mere echo, but become a voice.”

Of all the strategies that American Jews of the late 19th and early 20th centuries proposed, none were as popular and, potentially as far-reaching, as congregational singing. What would I do if were a rabbi? wondered an American Jew from Minneapolis named Westmoreland in the summer of 1890. The first thing would be to encourage the congregation to sing. “We cannot all be nightingales, but almost everybody is able to sing a simple melody, and what is more touching, more inspiring than the sound of many voices uniting in song?”

Drawing on the language of revival and restoration, of “old habits,” and of “go[ing] back in order to progress,” the champions of congregational singing harked back to an imagined past when everyone sang together as a matter of course. Though, arguably, the result was often off-key and closer to shouting than singing, it produced a “wonderful effect,” declared Mi Yodea, the imaginatively named columnist for the American Israelite in 1890.

A rebuke of as well as a corrective to modernization, rendering congregational singing an intentional practice, putting it back into active circulation, was increasingly hailed as American Jewry’s “salvation,” a seemingly surefire way to win people to the synagogue and fill its pews. No one at the time was under the illusion that it would be easy to get American Jews to surrender their passive role as auditors, as members of an audience, and, by actively participating in the service, to re-constitute themselves as members of a congregation. In fact, congregational singing only took hold after decades of fits and starts. Still, instituting at least some measure of singing tout ensemble was well worth trying. The future of Jewish religious expression and of synagogue-going rested on it. As one American Jewish observer put it in terms that are as timely now, in 2020, as they were back in 1892, “more melody, more devotion, more life.”

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.

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