A couple of months ago, Chazzan Emanuel C. Perlman was visiting the Vatican with his lovely wife, Janice. They toured St. Peter’s Basilica, the Sistine Chapel and other museums and Catholic holy sites, but the Chizuk Amuno cantor couldn’t help but notice an abundance of Jewish iconography seemingly everywhere there.
“I said to my wife, `This place reminds me of the Holy Temple,’” Chazzan Perlman told me recently. “All I saw were Jewish symbols, nothing particularly Christian, and I began to realize how sad it is that we Jews don’t appreciate what we have. Others do, but we don’t. We’ve run away from tradition and brought secular things into our synagogues. Why? Because we’re insecure.”
Manny Perlman is a warm, friendly, engaging man, but he’s also a passionate and indefatigable crusader for tradition. In particular, he considers himself the preserver of the chazzanut, the grand style of cantorial music and performance as typified by such “golden age” cantors as Yossele Rosenblatt, Leib Glantz, Richard Tucker and Jan Peerce.
The essence and art of being a chazzan is something very dear to Cantor Perlman’s heart. It’s in his blood and in his soul, and it’s something that he promised those who came before him – like my late friend and neighbor, Cantor Saul Z. Hammerman – that he will cherish, perpetuate and fight for.
And even if that kind of synagogue worship music is not your particular cup of tea, you can’t help but be impressed and inspired by Chazzan Perlman’s intensity, commitment to integrity, and devotion to keeping this part of our musical heritage alive and strong.
Everywhere in shul life today, we see this style of music being discarded, jettisoned and denigrated. Younger people, we’re told, don’t want an operatic kind of performance at synagogue; they want music they can relate to, something they can sing along and clap with, whether it be Jewish summer camp music, folk, rock, reggae, ska, jazz and even rap.
Chazzan Perlman says he enjoys and appreciates those kinds of music, too. But he says they have their place, and synagogue worship services ain’t one of them.
“I love the Beatles!” he told me in his office, with a great sense of urgency and frustration in his voice. “I’ve played their music in a band with my brother, I’ve taught a class on them. They’re wonderful! But they’re not my God, and they don’t belong in shul! And that’s next, Alan! You’ll see, people will want to bring the Beatles into services!”
(Hmmm, I’m trying to imagine “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” played at Shabbat services.)
“We live in an era when Yankee Stadium isn’t even the same place where Babe Ruth played,” Chazzan Perlman continued. “People want to move on and remove and repackage. We grew up with Cracker Jack, and you loved that toy. But now, that toy would be just a throwaway.”
He employs yet another analogy: “Upstate New York is one of the most beautiful places to drive through in the world. But some people would rather fly to upstate New York than drive in the autumn and look at all of that gorgeous foliage and just enjoy it. People want shortcuts today. But sometimes you have to say no, to yourself and others. … We’ve become a society where there’s 500 channels and nothing on. People are constantly changing the channel. We want what we want right now.”
The diminishing interest in chazzanut music and the growth of the “Kumbaya” shul mentality reflects a major change among Jews today in general, he charges. It reflects a lack of knowledge and appreciation of our heritage and legacy.
“We need to become more Judaically and Biblically literate and embrace our heritage,” Chazzan Perlman says. “People can tell me who they’re favorite singers are off the top of their heads, but who’s your favorite prophet? Your favorite Biblical figure?
“I feel we have to go back to the virtuoso days of cantorial prayer, to explore where we came from.”
While listening to the chazzan on this subject, I couldn’t help but think about a mega-church in suburban Chicago I visited a few years ago. This church looked more like the Mall of America than a house of worship, and its membership may have exceeded the population of France. One of the secrets of its success, I was told by the church’s leadership, was that the old hymns and liturgical music – considered antiquated and uninspiring by these Baby Boomers—were thrown out for a decidedly more hip, contemporary Christian rock sound.
At one point during my visit there, I sat down with a group of four or five 20-something males who belonged to the church. Several of them had tattoos and nose rings, as well as ripped jeans and T-shirts bearing the names of various mainstream hard-rock bands. All of them were quite courteous, respectful and highly enthusiastic about the church and its impact on their lives.
But when I asked them if they enjoyed the church’s weekly rock music performances and selections, they looked at each other and fell silent.
Intrigued, I pressed on. After all, the Christian rock performances that were an integral part of the worship services there were supposedly tailored for young guys like them. And everyone knows that music of all types can be a great portal for spiritual discovery and growth.
Finally, one of the young men said to me, “Um, we like it OK but it’s really for the, um, older people here.” (Translation: fossils like me.) “Don’t get me wrong,” he said, “we all like rock and hip-hop and stuff like that. But we listen to it all the time – at work, at home, in the car, in our social lives. We just wish that when we were in church, we could hear the old-time hymns and music that’s been around for so long. That’s what we want to hear in church, not the same old stuff in our daily lives. In church, we don’t want to rock out. We just want to be inspired and moved. We want to feel something.”
Chazzan Manny Perlman couldn’t have said it any better.