A Timely Reminder of the Power of Music

Just a few evenings ago, my synagogue in Forest Hills formally installed Hazzan Henry Rosenblum as its new Cantor. Having just concluded a lengthy tenure as the Dean of the H. L. Miller School for Cantorial Music at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, Hazzan Rosenblum is both a friend and a mentor to countless young Hazzanim, and a precious colleague to those who have served as Cantors for many years.

The proof of the esteem in which Hazzan Rosenblum is held by his colleagues was evident on Sunday night, when ten of his dearest friends- each a cantorial superstar is his/her own right- came to Forest Hills to celebrate his installation in the only truly appropriate way- with music, of course. Along with a brief installation ceremony and a few comments by our synagogue’s leadership and me, the program was all music.

I am no stranger to the world of serious Jewish music. In fact, along with Hazzan Rosenblum and many others, I will be singing in Carnegie Hall on Sunday afternoon, October 31, as part of the fiftieth anniversary concert of the Zamir Chorale. I understand and appreciate how great music can carry you away to another place entirely, and I have enormous respect for that.

But I dare say that when people walked into our sanctuary on Sunday evening and were handed a program featuring eleven Hazzanim singing, there were more than a few of them who cringed inside- just like they would if they saw that there were ten Rabbis speaking. I’ve often joked with my wife that I already know what should be inscribed on my headstone. Date of birth, date of death, names in Hebrew and English, and an inscription reading “He tried to be brief.” Very few people enjoy being imprisoned in their synagogues by either Rabbis or Cantors going on much too long. Eleven cantors? Could it maybe be too much of a good thing?

Well, maybe it could- but in the most dramatic and remarkable way possible, it wasn’t. From classical Hazzanut to Broadway and opera, one Cantor after another just blew people away with the power and the glory of his or her artistry. Some pieces were whimsical, others dramatic… it really didn’t matter. No matter what the nature of the music was, we were treated to a performance that left everyone in attendance feeling cheated because there wasn’t an encore! I, too, felt that it was difficult to get out of my seat afterwards, the way I feel when a performance in a theatre or concert hall has just overwhelmed me. What an evening of music! And the quality of the music, which was all tribute to our new Hazzan, served also to make the evening the ultimate “welcome to our community” party for him. By evening’s end, it felt as if Hazzan Rosenblum had been in our community for years. What an amazingly successful program!

Of course, my joy at this success is primarily rooted in Hazzan Rosenblum’s warm and memorable introduction to his new position. Sometimes programs succeed beyond your wildest expectations, and it’s not always possible to predict when that will happen. But I am completely sure that this particular program owes its success to the power of great music, and the artists who bring it to us, to carry us away to a much higher and more exalted state of being than merely seats in an auditorium of sanctuary.

That’s what happened in our synagogue last Sunday night. I wish it on all of us!

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.