Feeling the full dimensions of prayer

Feeling the full dimensions of prayer

NEW YORK — Cantor Azi Schwartz does not consider himself a soloist.
“The role of a chazzan,” he says, “is similar to that of the first violinist or the conductor of an orchestra. A chazzan’s main task is not to perform in a vacuum, but to inspire by guiding the service and revealing the totality of the liturgy so as to enable the congregation to explore, feel and participate in the full dimensions of prayer.”
When I heard him for the first time on Rosh Hashana, his voice seemed somehow familiar, evoking a sensation of warmth, of being transported into my parents’ and grandparents’ world in pre-Holocaust Eastern and Central Europe, with all its pathos, its joy, its solemnity, its anguish. After a few moments, I closed my eyes and recognized more than echoes of another chazzan, the great Moshe Kraus, who had been the first Chief Cantor of the Israel Defense Forces from 1949 to 1951 and before that had been the cantor and secretary of the Rabbinate in the displaced persons camp of Bergen-Belsen where I was born. After his liberation at Bergen-Belsen on April 15, 1945, Kraus remained with the survivors to help them return to life, as did my parents. They became close friends. Kraus’ voice has always been, for me, the embodiment of authentic Jewish prayer. Through him, I felt a connection to the past, my past, the same connection I now sensed in the melodies Schwartz offered to us and to God.
Except that Schwartz is only 28 years old. Born in Israel, he attended the Har Etzion Hesder Yeshiva and completed his military service before graduating from the Tel Aviv Cantorial Institute. He served as cantor in a number of prestigious Orthodox synagogues, officiated as assistant cantor of the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem, and has performed in concerts around the world. He has also studied classical music extensively, and received a master’s degree from the Mannes School of Music in New York. His wife, Noa, is finishing her medical studies at the Hadassah Medical Center, and they send their 2 1/2-year-old son, Yonatan, to a preschool for Jewish and Arab children at Jerusalem’s YMCA.
There is nothing staid or old-fashioned about either Schwartz or his music. Charismatic with a ready smile, he looks far more like the Israeli army veteran he is than a superb exponent of the often improvisational liturgical traditions and rhythms of Polish, Hungarian, and Czech synagogues and Chasidic prayer rooms.
Schwartz came to Park Avenue Synagogue, the largest Conservative congregation in New York City, as interim cantor following the retirement of the illustrious David Lefkowitz, who had been our senior cantor for 33 years. Schwartz’s strong lyric tenor voice blends perfectly with the beautiful soprano of Cantor Nancy Abramson and Elana Cohen, who was invested as a cantor by the Jewish Theological Seminary of America this past May. Under the spiritual leadership of Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, the atmosphere of our synagogue has been steadily changing, becoming warmer, less formal, more intellectually challenging, less predictable. Schwartz’s presence is intensifying this process.
“I am certain,” he says, “that Judaism and its internal harmony will continue to develop, rooted in the past but always conscious of diversity in the present and future. Building on the extraordinary legacy of Cantors David Putterman and David Lefkowitz, I want to be a part of that future at Park Avenue Synagogue, to help shape it.”
For Schwartz, a critical element of liturgy is improvisation, a sense of almost jazz-like spontaneity. “Prayer must never become routine or mindlessly repetitive,” he insists. “We are engaged in a conversation with God, and must always anticipate the unexpected. Jewish music must be a living organism, not a historical relic.”
Throughout the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe, we joined him in prayers we did not know we knew. We waited for the next melody, the next nigun, not knowing where it would take us, what emotions it would evoke. At one point, our daughter Jodi, now herself the mother of 10-month-old twins, turned to me and said, with a twinge of sadness, “This is now the synagogue to which I always wanted to belong when I was a child here.”
Schwartz is deeply conscious of his identity as the grandson of Holocaust survivors. Whenever he prays, he explains, and especially when he evokes the memory of the victims of the Shoah in the El Maleh Rachamim memorial prayer, he sees in his mind “the letter my grandmother gave me with instructions to open and read it while standing in her barrack at Auschwitz. I see the number on my grandfather’s arm. I remember all the murdered composers and singers, all the melodies that were destroyed. I also hear the sound of sirens during an air raid. I think of my father who was wounded escaping from a burning tank during the Yom Kippur War. I feel the tears of the mother of a friend who was killed defending the State of Israel.”
Kraus, who now lives in Ottawa, once heard Schwartz sing and was impressed. “He reminds me of cantors I knew before the war,” Kraus told me.
I only hope that Schwartz will inspire our grandchildren, Hallie and Jake, and other Jewish children of the 21st century with the musical heritage of our vanished past the way Kraus has inspired me and at least two generations of Jews born in the shadow of the Holocaust.

(Menachem Z. Rosensaft,a New York-based attorney and columnist, can be reached at menachemr@thejewishchronicle.net.)