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Golden Oldies

Rokhl’s Golden City: Jeremiah Lockwood and the revival of traditional cantorial music

Rokhl Kafrissen
August 18, 2022
photo: Alex Lopez
photo: Alex Lopez
photo: Alex Lopez
photo: Alex Lopez

Time has gone all funny the last few years, as I’m sure you’ve noticed: painfully slow in parts and then brutally, obscenely fast in others. Exactly a year ago I met Jeremiah Lockwood to talk khazones—traditional cantorial singing—over cherry pastry and iced coffee. Today it feels as if not one but 100 years have passed since that sunny afternoon outside the Hungarian Pastry Shop.

When we met last August, I was dreading yet another season of my own High Holiday ambivalence, now with extra pandemic anxiety sprinkled on top. Lockwood, however, was upbeat, deep in preparation to once again lead services as music director and cantorial soloist for Because Jewish, a nonprofit that brings innovative Jewish ritual and spirituality outside the synagogue. And he made a pretty convincing pitch to tune in to their upcoming Rosh Hashanah program. (Which, of course, I did.)

To spend any time with Jeremiah Lockwood is to be won over, sooner or later, by his passion for the cantorial tradition (and future). It’s the subject of his dissertation and forthcoming first book, Golden Ages: Chassidic Singers and Cantorial Revival in the Digital Era. My own relationship to khazones is rather ambivalent, as I informed him last year. I can vibe with some of it, especially when there’s a path in from Yiddish. Much, however, still seemed too fussy—safe music for people too scandalized by opera. To his credit, rather than flinging cherry strudel at me, Lockwood graciously continued the conversation.

As he describes it, the cantorial golden age (late 19th and early 20th centuries) was peopled by artistic rebels and visionaries, many of whom were considered scandalous by their own communities. They brought Jewish sacred music into vaudeville and concert halls and availed themselves of dangerous new recording technologies, becoming huge stars in the process. Taken together, Lockwood’s cantors can be understood as an aesthetic vanguard of Jewish modernity, privileging the individual performer over the group experience, something that would prove fatal to their legacy within the new call-and-response, group-sing-oriented American Judaism.

Indeed, in a 1954 address to the Cantors Assembly, Israel Goldfarb, avatar of the new sound of American Judaism, declared it so, saying of the most famous names of that aesthetic vanguard: “In the future the Kwartins, the Roitmans, and the Rosenblatts will be listened to as a novelty by lovers and connoisseurs of the old hazanic style. They will also be studied by students of hazanut as the basic sources of our liturgic music of past generations. But there will be no place for them in our modern synagogue of the present or the future.”

Our conversation last August convinced me that my problem was less with the sound of traditional cantorial music and more with my relative willingness to listen. That went for both golden age khazones and—with regard to my High Holiday ambivalence—Lockwood’s own radical, but historically informed, take on a High Holidays service.

Having read my own tarot cards right before the interview (I like to be overprepared), Lockwood brought to mind the Knight of Swords, the fastest moving of the Knights, sword aloft, eager to cut down all doubts in his path. The Knight of Swords knows (or thinks he knows) exactly where he’s going and without delay. It’s an appealing image for those of us who tend to trip on our own indecision. Naturally, I asked Lockwood to recommend some music to get me in the High Holiday mood.

One of the clips he sent me was from a 2007 Rosh Hashanah concert by his then-newly formed band, the Sway Machinery. The setting was the former Slonimer Synagogue on the Lower East Side (now the Angel Orensanz Center), the place where his grandfather Cantor Jacob Konigsberg’s debut cantorial concert happened in 1949. Lockwood was returning to the site with his own project, a concert program called Hidden Melodies Revealed.

As I wrote last year, “Lockwood doesn’t just sing Cantor Konigsberg’s melody, he embodies it in a physical act of ancestor worship. The result is one of the most astonishing performances I’ve seen this year, live or recorded.” The text he sings in the clip is from Unesanah Tokef, whose unforgettable imagery contains the lines “who by fire, who by sword.” The text is one of abjection and awe, but Lockwood’s musical setting is propulsive and sexy; “who by sword” meets the Knight of Swords. It’s a fitting contradiction for Lockwood, an artist who embodies the multiple musical traditions of Piedmont blues and Ashkenazi khazones. As he told me recently, he sees Jewish liturgy in its potentiality: both functional ritual and “point of expansion into art,” without the burden of contradiction.

When I caught up with Lockwood again this August, he was about to bring out another piece in his ongoing work, an album called Golden Ages: Brooklyn Chassidic Cantorial Revival Today. While he was still in graduate school, he became aware of a number of young Hasidic singers who had independently discovered the treasures of golden age khazones and were teaching themselves to sing that repertoire. After spending time at their Brooklyn khazones jam sessions he decided to make a recording with them. After a long pandemic delay, the album is finally available, on vinyl and as digital download. I’ve been listening to it for the last two weeks and it is, indeed, absolutely gorgeous.

“I felt a great deal of kinship with what they were doing,” Lockwood told me, “young artists interested in these old records … who have taught themselves to sing in this style. The thing I related to was less in my relationship to cantorial music and more the way I felt about old blues records … where I had listened to them over and over again, and taught myself how to play in that style … they had done something similar … and they sound so good. Their bodies have changed, they’re able to do this incredibly virtuosic work. It’s very magical and moving.” And a perfect listen for the pre-High Holidays season, when, as Lockwood pointed out, “the cantor’s ritual performance is vital [and] the music is more complex … This record speaks to that role of the cantors, the ones who can project authority, but not authority to do something to you but rather for you.”

The Golden Ages repertoire also speaks to a time before the post-Holocaust institutionalization of the professional cantorate in the United States and the subsequent systemization-codification of synagogue music. In this earlier period, you were likely to hear cantors performing, as Lockwood explained, “composed pieces of music that were in a recognizable Jewish style, but that were not necessarily tied to a conservative concept of correct and incorrect music for the service … Each of the cantors had their own style, their own repertoire of pieces, their own improvisatory approach.”

Intellectually, I understand the changes involved in the evolution of the American synagogue, even if it’s a place I don’t visit very often. But what absolutely did surprise me is discovering that these young Hasidic singers had to affirmatively transgress their own communal norms to reclaim this style and these tunes. That is to say, the golden age mode of cantorial performance is just about as alien to contemporary Hasidic shul goers as it is to the suburban American temple member. Lockwood’s theme of Hidden Melodies Revealed loops back around yet again, showing us unexpected places of connection, the hidden spots where radically dissimilar Jewish communities may yet find common ground.

I wasn’t at the Hidden Melodies Revealed concert in 2007—which is kind of strange, because I was in that neighborhood all the time for Jewish music shows, whether at a club like Tonic (down the street from Angel Orensanz) or elsewhere. But I very much did not get what Sway Machinery was doing at the time. Nor did I care for what I perceived to be Lockwood’s anti-klezmer stance. To paraphrase Don Corleone: You come into the middle of my klezmer revival golden age and ask me to listen to Ashkenazi music without a single fidl or freylekhs? That is not justice.

Hidden Melodies Revealed was staged on the first night of Rosh Hashanah in September 2007. As Lockwood writes, the program was “conceived as a concert version of the holiday liturgy, reconfigured through the sounds of 21st-century rock and international popular music,” encompassing storytelling, experimental animation and “an orientation towards pleasure and community.” It sounds a lot better than what I did for Rosh Hashanah in 2007, which, according to my email archive, was spent at a very boring Upper West Side synagogue I didn’t even like.

September 2007 was a particularly hard time for me. It was the end of the first three months of mourning for my mother. She had passed away after suffering with a terrible illness for many years. I had been avoiding live music during those months, doing what I imagined a mourner was supposed to. I was in so much pain, and had been for so long, it would have been impossible in any case to see myself in the audience for a program promising “pleasure and community.”

But it could’ve been worse. In my stumbling misery, I had allowed myself to be courted by someone I knew was untrustworthy: a flailing narcissist who, unsurprisingly, only heaped more anguish on the darkness. According to an email I sent to my best friend about our High Holiday 2007 tickets, the flailing narcissist didn’t end up coming with us, having bravely decided to mope in his apartment if he couldn’t find the perfect spiritual environment for High Holiday davening. Thank god for small blessings.

New York City of 2007 might as well be another century. Tonic, The Stone, and many other beloved downtown Jewish music spaces are long gone. I didn’t realize how much I missed them, and that time, until I wrote and presented a new talk this past May for the Yiddishland Pavilion project. My talk was called “Mapping the Impossible in the Capital of Modern Yiddish Culture.” In producing it, I spent many late night hours traveling back in time and space, to the Lower East Side of the early-mid 2000s, including the Hidden Melodies Revealed concert at Angel Orensanz, the music which had spoken to me so powerfully, so many years later.

Researching that talk was the closest I think I’ve ever gotten to a Russian Doll-style psychic fragmentation. Even though I had received extraordinary care and comfort from my dearest friends, looking back, all that remained of that time was the weariness of isolation, a state which felt both intolerably heavy and spiritually untethered. Why had I said no to all the wrong things and yes to so few of the right ones?

Life is not like prestige television, and unlike Russian Doll, I can’t go back and gather the broken pieces of the past. There is only going forward and, as noted at the top, the treacherous flow of time, right through our fingers. Even so, sometimes events echo forward in unexpected ways.

It’s been 15 years since the initial performance of Hidden Melodies Revealed. On Sept. 25, Lockwood will revisit the program, made even more ambitious this year. There will be an animated parsha, narration by Debra Winger (!), and even, yes, some spectacular klezmer fidl, courtesy of one my faves, Jake Shulman-Ment, leading his “radical traditionalist” band, and more.

So, is it maybe possible to get a redo on the past?

In Ashkenazi folklore, the unsettled past sometimes comes back in the form of dybukim, wandering spirits who take over living bodies and speak through them. There’s an appropriately haunting story of a cruelly dismissed cantor who comes back as a dybbuk in Avrom Rechtman’s memoir of his time with the Ansky ethnographic expedition, The Lost World of Russia’s Jews: Ethnography and Folklore in the Pale of Settlement.

The old cantor’s voice had deteriorated, leading him to be callously dismissed by the community he served. A new, young cantor was engaged to take his place. Erev Rosh Hashanah, the old cantor dies of bitterness. The following day, right before musaf, the young cantor begins to sing his own tune for Hineni, “Behold me of little merit, trembling and afraid!” But when the young cantor opens his mouth to sing his own tune, it is the old cantor’s which emerges. A dybbuk!

Eventually, the young cantor is brought to the rebbe and the dybbuk is exorcised. How? By having both cantors, young and old, sing his, the rebbe’s, own melody for “Behold me of little merit, trembling and afraid!”

“Now, purified ghost, return at once to your rest. This melody shall open all gates for you and loosen all bolts. Your soul will receive its full redress and I assure you that you will merit to sing this melody before the righteous in paradise!”

There are many possible interpretations to this strange story. What struck me upon rereading it was that regrets are like bitter ghosts. They will destroy you if given the chance. But it is possible to hear them out, to teach them new songs, and, with the right intent, send them on their way.

ATTEND: Hidden Melodies Revealed at 15 at Brooklyn Bowl, Sept. 25.

ALSO: Have you been keeping up with the amazing programming and projects around the Yiddishland Pavilion? You can now watch my May lecture for the pavilion on their YouTube page. You can also register for Jeffrey Shandler’s upcoming lecture, “Imagining Yiddishland,” on Aug. 24 … YI Love Yiddish Fest ’22 will present the YidLife Crisis boys in YidLive in Boca Raton, Florida. Sept. 4, get your tickets hereFolksbiene’s wildly popular production of Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish is coming back to off-Broadway with a seven-week run at New World Stages, Nov. 13-Jan. 1, 2023. Get your tickets now.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.