Mark Zborowsky was a valuable NKVD agent and mole who infiltrated the Trotskyist organization in Paris on behalf of the Soviet Union in the 1930’s. He was also an anthropologist and happens to be the great-uncle of my wife, Leah. In 1952 he co-authored the seminal book on the culture of the Shtetl, Life is with People. Apparently, Fiddler on the Roof bases its conception of life in the shtetl on Mark Zborowsky’s work.
I am no expert on Shtetl life and Yiddish culture. Unfortunately I never got to meet Leah’s great-uncle who undoubtedly was a fascinating man. But I completely agree with his concept, whether in the Shtetl, in Israel, or here in the United States: life is indeed with people. A shtetl was not the physical village where Jews lived in Eastern Europe, a shtetl was the community that lived there. While we may be proud of our synagogues’ beautiful architecture and enviable facilities, it is the community that makes a synagogue.
I came to be a cantor through community. I grew up in a somewhat typical, not particularly observant Jewish home. I went to Hebrew School (occasionally), became bar mitzvah, went to synagogue on the High Holidays, had a lovely Passover seder and lit lots of Chanukah candles. And, I have made music throughout my entire life. In high school, my academic work suffered more than a little due to my participation in music: I sang in two choirs, an acappella group and in musical theater; I played guitar and drums in a blues band, a rock/funk band and the school jazz band; I played cello in the orchestra and a string quartet; and I was program director of our radio station. Ever since I was a little kid people have often told me (beginning with my grandparents), “You should be a cantor!” My first impression of a cantor was the dramatic singer who almost always seemed to be crying to God. I wasn’t sure if that was for me. Only after speaking with my own Rabbi and Cantor as a young adult did I come to understand that to be a cantor, to be clergy, is really a community service position. Clearly music is central to what I do as a cantor: I lead joyful and spiritual services through affective music, I give concerts, I compose, I teach music to children and adults and I conduct choirs. But music is my medium, not the message. The message is community—sacred Jewish community.
Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “To attain a degree of spiritual security one cannot rely upon one’s own resources. One needs an atmosphere, where the concern for the spirit is shared by a community…It is the task of the Cantor to create the liturgical community, to convert a plurality of praying individuals into a unity of worship.” I couldn’t agree more! But Heschel wrote those words about fifty years ago, when the role of the cantor was almost exclusively as a leader of worship. A cantor now must work to create moving worship, but also help to build this shared community spirit through every aspect of synagogue life. I love that my role of cantor requires this breadth of experience and connection. For example, at my former congregation, I led a Shabbat celebration with several of our preschool classrooms every Friday morning. On its own, this seems like a simple (and fun!) task: sing Shabbat songs with adorable children. But this is just the beginning. Parents visit and share the joy that their children express while celebrating Shabbat. They see the connection between what we do in the classroom and what we do in the synagogue during Shabbat services. And many of them bring the songs and rituals home for their family observance of Shabbat. I have joyfully discussed issues of Jewish ritual and practice, Shabbat observance, musical participation and much more with dozens of families with young children. Last year, a divorced father of a 4-year-old (both non-Jews) became so moved by his son’s participation in the Jewish life of our school and synagogue that the two of them are now working with me toward conversion to Judaism. While I have forged a deep personal connection with this family, it is the combined efforts of our educators, clergy, staff and community members that truly made them feel so welcome and connected.
I am so thrilled to be sharing my love of Judaism and music with the Temple Israel community beginning this summer. I can’t wait to make music together, to learn together, to pray together and to share life together. The people I have already met, Rabbis Weiner and Nichols, many staff members and leaders of your community have already made Leah, our daughters, Maya and Sonya, and me feel so welcome. I look forward to your community becoming our community and to joining Temple Israel as its cantor.
Cantor Randall Schloss