The cantor’s perspective: For meaningful High Holidays prayer, preparation is key

By Jacob Kamaras/JNS.org

Click photo to download. Caption: Cantor Arik Wollheim of Congregation Beth Jacob of Beverly Hills, Calif., pictured, discusses High Holidays prayer with JNS.org. Credit: Beth Jacob Congregation.

LOS ANGELES—The holiest days on the Jewish calendar, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are largely spent in synagogue. Yet prayer isn’t usually the focus when Jews prepare for the High Holidays, observes Cantor Arik Wollheim.

“Hopefully people go through this process of repentance, and they give charity, but what about prayer?” Wollheim tells JNS.org. “People neglect that. How many people open the prayer book before Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and go over the davening?”

The answer, Wollheim says, is almost no one. But he is looking to change that. At Congregation Beth Jacob in Beverly Hills, Calif., where he is in his first year as cantor, Wollheim organized a sing-along preparation event in advance of the High Holidays, in addition to posting melodies on the synagogue’s website.

During this year’s High Holidays at Beth Jacob, an Orthodox synagogue, Wollheim will be accompanied by the Maccabeats, the popular Jewish a cappella group that burst onto the scene in 2010 with their hit Hanukkah song “Candlelight.” A student of famed cantor Yitzchak Eshel, Wollheim—formerly the cantor at Congregation Agudath Sholom of Stamford, Conn., retired U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman’s synagogue—sat down with JNS.org to give his perspective on the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.

JNS.org: What are the challenges of trying to engage a congregation in High Holidays services?

Cantor Arik Wollheim: “For the holidays, together with the regulars, the people who come every week, or several times a month, in every congregation you also have a number of people that come only for the High Holidays. And they are a little bit disconnected with what’s going on throughout the year in the synagogue.

Click photo to download. Caption: An illustration of Jews praying in synagogue on Yom Kippur. Credit: Maurycy Gottlieb via Wikimedia Commons.

“The challenge is [figuring out] how to create a service that makes everybody happy. My approach is to create a salad of styles and selections. And by that I mean, for instance, I use classical cantorial music, what I call ‘nice oldies’ that congregations sing, that everybody knows. I use Israeli songs. The most recent melodies that religious music and the yeshiva world provide. And I use every form of Jewish music, almost. My challenge is, what’s the balance between all those different components?

“Especially here in America, and also in Israel, not everybody understands all the text. Thank God we have prayer books with an English translation, but it’s not the same [as understanding the Hebrew], and people sometimes don’t bother to look at the translations. It’s not that they don’t want to, but you’re engaged already in the recitation of the prayer, you don’t have time to also look [at the translation].

“For the High Holidays liturgy, we have a lot of poems, and many of them were written during the Middle Ages. It’s very poetic, high language that is not that easy to understand. How do I create that inspiration? What can I do to make people engaged in the service, even though it’s very difficult? It’s a long day, they’ve been standing for hours, they’re fasting, they’re tired, and they don’t understand the text, in many cases.”

How does a cantor prepare for the High Holidays?

“I’m going through a tremendous amount of research in order to create that ‘salad’ that I spoke about.

“You have to understand what your objectives are. Do I want to do congregation singing? How much congregation singing do I want to do? What is the mood that I’m trying to create? There’s a connection between one [objective] and the other. It’s like one symphony. You have a theme, and a theme, and a theme, and then the fillers in between, and the question is: What do you do with those fillers? How are they going to work together?

“Preparation is huge. Every year we’re different. I’m not the same person I was last year. This is the day of judgment. I think every cantor feels a huge responsibility on those days, because we’re praying not only on our behalf, we’re praying on behalf of the entire congregation. It’s a tremendous responsibility, and you go through the text, and you try to figure out: How does it resonate with you? What is the meaning of the text? How can you make it relevant to you, to your life, to the lives of your congregants?”

Which prayers do you see as the highlights of the High Holidays service?

“I think without doubt, Unetaneh Tokef is one of the highlights. First of all, because of the text. [It includes] the description of the process that goes on in Heaven. It gives us an idea of how God examines each case, so to say. From a musical perspective, this is your chance as a cantor to really shine, to show what you can do, especially because the text is so moving. This is your moment to try to inspire people, to really get them to try to feel something.

“Number two, there’s a prayer called the Hineni. It’s the first thing that the cantor says before Mussaf. The cantor is the only one who recites that prayer. And basically it’s a prayer for the cantor, asking, ‘God, please help me in this task, and don’t judge them, my congregation, because of my sins. If I’m doing it wrong, don’t let if affect them.’ It’s really a personal prayer that reminds us cantors that at the end of the day, this is not about how we sing, and the music, and all that kind of stuff. It’s about this tremendous responsibility that we have of pleading on behalf of the congregation.”

What do you remember about the first time you led a High Holidays service?

“I was 14. It was a little synagogue in the town where I grew up in Israel, Azor (a suburb of Tel Aviv). I led the services with my dad. Obviously I was nervous, but I felt comfortable because I started leading services as soon as I was bar mitzvahed, so already I led services for a whole year prior to that. So I felt comfortable leading services, and I knew my dad was next to me.

“It was a congregation where everybody knew me since I was born, so it felt like [leading the service] amongst your family. It was a very supportive audience.

“I did that for a couple of years, and that gave me confidence later on, when I started taking on jobs elsewhere.”

What advice would you give about how to approach High Holidays prayer?

“The service is very long, we have a lot of text. If I have one recommendation to people for the holidays, it’s don’t take a prayer as something obvious, that we’ve done every year, and that’s it. Take the prayer book, take the machzor, and go over the text. See what it means to you. See what prayers resonate with you. Refresh your memory with some of the tunes. Read the English translation, so you’ll know what you’re saying.

“I can guarantee that if you do some preparation, you will get much more out of the service, and this is regardless of who is leading it.”

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Posted on August 14, 2013 and filed under High Holidays, Special Sections.