Cantorial Pedagogy in the Wild: Judith Berkson’s online khazones class

17 min read

by Jeremiah Lockwood, Research Fellow
Lowell Milken Center for Music of American Jewish Experience

In an independent cantorial training studio, composer and cantor Judith Berkson invokes histories of sacred music.

In a zoom room, composer, vocalist and cantor Judith Berkson leads a small group of students through a guided a cappella improvisation. She gives the group a small group of pitches, outlining the first five notes of the minor scale, encouraging the participants to work with them slowly, hearing the special relationship of the notes to each other and the gravity of how they pull towards or away from each other. She sings for the group to warm up the exercise, demonstrating how to play with the notes, subtly ornamenting the pitches with idiomatic cantorial inflections. Then each student takes a turn singing, encouraged by Berkson to take their time and invest the pitches with a prayerful reverence and to find melodies in the small group of pitch options.  “Each note is like a pound of gold. Feel its heaviness. The heart of the note is traveling.” Her tone as instructor is inclined towards the numinous, attuned to the ethical and spiritual import of the music of prayer, and deeply supportive of the experiments and endeavors of the students, most of whom have backgrounds as professional musicians. Berkson identified the pitch group under examination not as the minor scale, but rather as the Magen Avos mode, a cantorial professional term for a pitch group and associated motifs used for performing certain prayer services, such as the Friday mariv (Evening) Shabbos service, or the opening of the Shabbos shakhris (Morning) service. The Shabbos shakhris would be the primary focus that would organize the curriculum of the class over the next few months.

Judith Berkson has had a varied career as a vocalist and composer working across genres. Her performance of lieder and her imaginative compositions drawing on the cantorial cannon have brought her to international audiences and prestigious collaborations with artists including the Kronos Quartet. In recent years, Berkson has explored the legacy of the khazentes, women cantors of the early 20th century. She completed an MFA at Wesleyan where she worked developing new microtonal music for electronic and acoustic instruments. Berkson is currently a Fellow at CalArts, where she continues to compose and pursue a performance career. She also works as a pulpit cantor. Berkson’s engagement with cantorial music runs towards extremes: she identifies the music as containing a kernel of modernist radicalism that she seeks to appropriate into her creative work; at the same time, she is a preservationist carefully studying the work of the great historic cantors, reproducing the fine details of their vocal performances in her own singing.

An episode of Center For The Arts Radio Hour, featuring recent compositions by Judith Berkson.
Berkson performs her setting of V’shamru, in collaboration with klezmer clarinetist Michael Winograd

Beginning in January 2022 and running approximately bi-weekly through April of this year, when Berkson decided to pause due to conflicts with her other professional activities, Berkson offered a class to a small group of students, including myself, in the practices of Ashkenazi Jewish prayer leading. Over the course of four months, Berkson employed two primary pedagogical methods: 1. a practice of deep listening to khazones (Yiddish, cantorial art music) and performance transcription of recorded sources from the early to mid-twentieth century, and 2. the study of elements of normative professional cantorial prayer leading associated with the culture of American synagogues in the post-Holocaust era. This latter musical approach to Jewish liturgy is familiar as the soundscape of Conservative synagogues, like the one Berkson experienced growing up as the daughter of a professional pulpit cantor, Thomas Berkson. These two approaches were intertwined in Berkson’s class and are represented in her cantorial practice.

In the space of this essay, I will contextualize the musical lineages of these two musical educational approaches to the training of cantors that Berkson combined and juxtaposed in the class she led. I argue here that the two approaches represent two distinct conceptions of cantorial sound that emerged in different historical conditions and that offered a representation of Jewishness in sound in different ways. In the space of the zoom khazones classes, Berkson was attempting to reconcile two musical and social concepts of prayer leading. The goal of the class was to foster a sense of historically informed Jewish vocal music practices, inspired by the work of classic cantorial artists, and to offer a set of practical tools that her students could use in prayer leading contexts in contemporary synagogue spaces. As I will explore below, these two goals may in fact be at odds in terms of musical practices and on broader levels of meaning making. By way of a conclusion of this article, I will offer some tentative remarks about the uses her students, including myself, have put Berkson’s instruction to, or plan to in the future. The unique and highly specific sampling of her students, all creative artists working at the nexus of radical art practice and Jewish heritage reclamation, provides a glimpse of the aesthetic, communalist and spiritual goals of contemporary artists who have staked a claim on khazones as a performance genre.

In the class, Berkson attempted to impart an overall aesthetic of cantorial sound. The recorded musical examples she brought to our attention were drawn from the so-called cantorial “golden age” when the work of artists working in Jewish liturgical music emerged as a mass mediated popular art form. Gramophone era cantors performed a highly theatrical and aestheticized version of prayer music that was oriented towards aesthetic achievement, theatrical displays of emotion, and memorialization of the vanishing world of rural Jewish European lifeways. The class was also intended to impart practical skills in how to lead specific prayer services. This latter goal was achieved through reference to the pedagogy associated with the cantorial seminary schools that were founded in the United States in the mid-twentieth century.

In a common cantorial adage, a knowledgeable synagogue attendee is supposed to be able to know the time of day, the day of the week (i.e. whether it is weekday or Sabbath) and the season (whether it is one of the special seasonal festivals) based solely on musical clues offered by the prayer leader. According to this musical-temporal association, cantors are entrusted with regulating sacred time through their knowledge of the appropriate melodies for reciting the different prayer services of the liturgical calendar. This musical concept is represented by the term nusakh hatefillah (Hebrew, the manner of prayer), a phrase originally used to describe textual variants in the prayers used by different Jewish communities.

In a recent article, Jewish Studies scholar Jonathan Friedman suggests that the term nusakh only came to be used to describe cantorial musical knowledge in the mid-twentieth century. Nusakh was given an expanded meaning to describe the newly emerging musical professional domain of the institutionally supported and unionized American cantorate. [1] While I have found nusakh hatefillah in older Yiddish language sources to describe traditional prayer music, such as in Elias Zaludkovsky’s 1931 Kultur-treger fun der idisher liturgiye, [2] Friedmann’s key insight stands: that professional status among American cantors went hand in hand with the creation of a new domain of professional knowledge.

In accordance with the professional cantorial ideology of nusakh hatefillah, each prayer service is assigned its own set of melodic or modal ideas, that are ostensibly based on older musical traditions. This is not an entirely new phenomenon. Cantors had been making efforts to anthologize the liturgical cycle of the Jewish year with its varied musical repertoires for special prayer services since the mid nineteenth century. [3] A method for teaching prayer melodic forms associated with the nusakh for different services was developed in American cantorial training programs. This pedagogy is typically reliant on a “module” approach that condenses musical ideas associated with a specific prayer service into a series of motifs. These stylized figures can be combined with recitation tones and applied to the different prayers in a given service, or section of a service. The motivic approach to teaching prayer leading is associated with the theory and pedagogy of Max Wohlberg (1907-1996), who lead the nusakh department at The Jewish Theological Seminary’s Cantors Institute from 1950 to 1988. [4]

The pedagogical efforts instituted by the Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College in their cantorial training programs, founded in 1951 and 1947 respectively, were intended to address a crisis of cultural reproduction. In the wake of the destruction of Jewish life in Europe, cantors could no longer be imported from the “old world” centers of culture. Training cantors in a quick and efficient manner that would produce competence without lengthy apprenticeships was seen as an urgent matter that cantorial institutions had to address. The cantors who graduated from these programs were put to work immediately, populating the profusion of newly constructed suburban synagogues with competent and professional prayer leaders who could support the growth of the community. The institutional reform of the cantorate involved music as part of a larger shift in the American Jewish community. Reforming the sound of the cantorial voice played a role in this process of social change. As Wohlberg, David Putterman and other early leaders of the Cantors Assembly made explicit in their essays and public addresses, the “star” cantor model of the earlier generation was considered to be outmoded. The leaders of the Cantors Assembly took as a given that the Jewish community was alienated from Yiddish expressive culture and increasingly at home in the culture of bourgeois white America. Their musical life would reflect this change. [5]

According to cantors who studied with Wohlberg, cantorial pedagogy at JTS prioritized studying prayer modes as a theoretical structure over learning repertoire from written sources, or by listening to and imitating actual cantorial performance. Elder cantors such as Noah Schall and Robert Kieval (of blessed memory), who held powerful attachments to the cantorial tradition of the early twentieth century, offered a critique of the motivic approach to cantorial education. According to Schall and Kieval, Wohlberg’s pedagogy was most effective as a teaching method for students who grew up with familiarity with cantorial performance from synagogue attendance and listening to classic records—in other words, the second-generation children of Yiddish-speaking immigrants who maintained ethnic affiliations and listening habits. The motivic approach, in their view, was less effective for later generations of cantorial students who had less exposure to the sound of older cantors. For Schall, Kieval, and other cantors of their aesthetic temperament, the stylized and atomized approach to cantorial pedagogy was inadequate to the task of imparting the details of phrasing, intonation and idiomatic ornament that are characteristic of the genre. The Wohlberg-style of pedagogy contributed to shaping a generation of cantors and a sound that is specific to the American synagogue. This cantorial approach draws on conventions of non-metered chant and pitch groupings that are considered traditional in the cantorial style. These stylistic elements are typically performed using a vocal approach drawn from western art music or Broadway singing, and that minimize the individualistic styles and localized variants in melodic forms that seem to have been typical of immigrant cantors of the earlier generation. A standardization of American nusakh was achieved at least by the 1980s, when Mark Slobin conducted his broad reaching field work with seminary trained American cantors. The cantors Slobin surveyed demonstrate a broad degree of stylistic uniformity. [6] In this context, nusakh describes both a concept of fidelity to (invented) tradition and a specific body of melodies that are mostly shared across the cantorial profession.

In contrast to the regularity of the performance of nusakh documented by Slobin, recordings of earlier generations of cantors offer a startling degree of heterogeneity. In the past decade, with the rise of YouTube and other file sharing sites, a previously obscure body of bootleg recordings of prayer leading has become broadly available, greatly diversifying the object of study in the realm of cantorial performance. These recordings are commonly referred to as “live davenings” [from daven, Yiddish, to pray] by cantorial music fans. Previously, the work of “golden age” cantors was known primarily through their commercial recordings. These records were typically restricted to the 3-5 minutes length of the side of 78-rpm record. Working creatively with these technical limitations and affordances, cantors crafted aria-like settings of excerpts from the liturgy. In contrast, live davenings document actual prayer services for Shabbos or holidays, often in field recordings of over an hour in length that reveal the durational quality and improvisational style of cantorial prayer leading. These recordings seem to have begun to be made as soon as commercial tape recorders came onto the consumer market, in the late 1950s. Live davenings were recorded surreptitiously, presumably without the knowledge of the performers, by fans willing to break the halachic (Jewish legal) conventions forbidding the use of electronics on the Sabbath and holidays. They document complex and rich suites of music that rotate between non-metered recitative-like improvisations, set pieces often sung with choir, and metered melodies in a folk song-like vein. Major cantorial figures such as Moshe Koussevitzky (1899-1965), Pierre Pinchik (1900-1971), Moshe Stern (1914-1997), and Moshe Ganchoff (1905-1997) are documented, as well as a host of other less well-known figures.

Cantor David Koussevitzky (1912-1985) sings the Shabbos morning service.

It is difficult to generalize about this vast body of music that is still emerging in greater quantity. However, it is apparent upon listening to a sampling of live davennings that each cantor had their own musical approach to the prayer service. The liturgy receives different treatment in the hands of different cantors. These differences are not merely variations on a theme but reflect a broad range of compositions and underlying motivic themes that cantors drew from and that inform their improvisatory ornamentation.

I hesitate at the use of the term “ornament” to describe cantorial vocal style—it feels inadequate, even misleading. Rather than serving as decorations of melodies or harmonic movement, the melismatic turns and connective passages that cantors deploy are central to musical meaning making. These stylistic markers of cantorial voice are transferable across the different prayer services and are not tied to underlying motifs. I would tentatively suggest that perhaps it is the “ornament” and not the “underlying motif” that in fact provides cantorial performance with its legitimizing stylistic sense of gravity and recognizable authority. In the context of live davening recordings that ostensibly document the epitome of cantorial prayer leading, unified motivic content across the service in the sense that is implied by the cantorial ideology of nusakh does not emerge as the most recognizable source of musical information. Instead, improvisational deployment of characteristic vocal gestures (including the distinctive cantorial coloratura) and a cantorial vocabulary of harmonic progressions play a prominent role in organizing the cantorial music of prayer. (See my recent blog post about harmonic movement in cantorial recitatives for more on this subject.)

In Berkson’s class, we learned both by using a “motivic” approach, derived from the pedagogy of Wohlberg, and by pursuing a “listen and imitate” approach to transcription from live davening sources. The two approaches offer very different representations of Jewish sound. To take one example that highlights the difference between the two concepts of prayer sound, Berkson taught the class a set of motifs for the introductory prayer of the Shabbos morning shakhris service that begins with the words “B’fi yesharim.” Berkson taught the class this section of the liturgy using a “module,” or series of four motifs. The motifs were intended to be used to create a musical form for the following paragraphs of the liturgy as a recurring formula, used in combination with recitation tones. The module Berkson used for the beginning of shakhris is broadly recognized in American Jewish liberal movement settings.

Four stylized phrases to be used for the recitation of the prayer text “B’fi yesharim” from the Shabbos morning service and the following paragraphs of the service

As another resource for studying the Sabbath morning prayers, Berkson directed the class to a live davenning of Cantor Moshe Stern. The Hungarian-born Stern is considered by fans of the genre to be a late master of the “golden age” style. Stern was cited by Cantor Yanky Lemmer, a young star cantor with a background in the Chassidic community, as an early inspiration and a living link to the recorded style that inspired him as a youth. Berkson specifically suggested to the class that we listen to Stern’s approach to performing “B’fi yesharim.”

Cantor Moshe Stern performs the Shabbos morning service in a bootleg “live davenning” recording. The video is cued to the paragraph, “B’fi yesharim.”

While the motivic elements taught to the class by Berkson contain some of the same intervallic information as Stern’s performance of “B’fi yesharim,” there is little sense as far as I can discern that these two settings of the same text represent a unified “nusakh” for the recitation of the prayer. Rather than a motivic sequence, Stern’s performance is characterized by distinctive ornamentation, figuration that implies harmonic movement, and an approach to intonation that fits poorly with the conventions of Western equal tempered tuning. The intervals of the minor third and fourth heard in Stern’s live davenning are at times sung sharp for emotive effect or in accordance with unwritten rules of cantorial intonation. The stylistic distance between Stern’s “B’fi yesharim” and the version based on motifs struck me as I practiced singing the two different settings. I noted that the “listen and imitate” approach produced markedly different results in the work of the students. Details of ornamentation and intonation emerged in the students’ performances as they sang their transcriptions of the work of Stern and other cantors, such as Perele Feig.

For me as a student, I felt a change in my singing as I tuned my voice to a recording of Feig, closely attending to small details of her ornament and timbre sequence. Another student in the class made a recording inspired by Feig. On this practice recording the student shared with the group, the singing carefully imitated the sound of Ashkenazi liturgical Hebrew pronunciation, yielding a sensitive rendering of the role Yiddish-accented vowel diphthongs play in timbral details of cantorial singing. The effect was remarkable in producing a cantorial sound.

I felt a cognitive dissonance between the two strands of pedagogical material in the class, the “aural” guided improvisations and transcriptions from recordings on the one hand, and the “module” based work with motifs on the other. I brought this topic up in class, suggesting that the two forms of pedagogy were oriented towards different musical styles and different periods in the history of cantorial culture. I suggested the possibility that the motif approach may actually be of recent origin, basing this conjecture on the fact that the sounds of motivic prayer leading is not a primary element in the sounds of cantorial prayer leading heard in documentary evidence of elder cantors. Berkson was open to this critique but was also committed to the value of the motivic approach. She asserted that the motivic approach has its own aesthetics and potentials for creativity, especially when combined with stylistic markers of cantorial vocal production. Her own work as a cantor is a fine example of the vitality and aesthetic possibilities of this approach. Furthermore, regardless of the historical “accuracy” of the motivic approach as a representation of the cantorial tradition, the professional cantorial nusakh has its own “authenticity” as a representation of the Jewish American community. It is traditional in that it is heard as being appropriate for prayer leading in many or most American synagogues, across Conservative, Reform and Modern Orthodox movements. It is the sound that she herself has experienced as representative of synagogue life, growing up in a Conservative synagogue.

I might hazard the comment that the division between the sounds of the post-war Conservative cantorate and the gramophone era “golden age” style has an audible trace in Berkson’s musical life. As a theorist, composer and stage performer, Berkson’s engagement with khazones is oriented towards qualities of the music that can be interpreted as modernist. In her performances of pieces of khazones and her original compositions that reference the style, Berkson highlights emotive vocal noises, microtones, detailed timbral and dynamic sequences, virtuosic melisma, and chromatic mode mixture. Berkson’s attention to these details put her in the company of a small group of cantorial revivalists who are attempting to reanimate an historically informed vocal style of early 20th century cantors. Most of these cantors are Chassidic men. While Berkson has a different kind of Jewish identity than her male Haredi cantorial revivalist peers, she shares with them a jagged, problematic relationship between her khazones and the synagogue, where ostensibly this music would find its “natural” home. Like Chassidic cantors, Berkson must perform a different set of sacred music repertoire in her synagogue employment, based in the conventions of contemporary Jewish life. The work with cantorial heritage that she has cultivated over the course of a lifetime and has garnered a prestigious international reputation for is not at home in the institutions of Jewish American life.

To the extent that the participants in the khazones class might be seeking to incorporate their studies with Berkson into a practice as a cantor in a currently existing Jewish religious community, professional cantorial nusakh is a likelier fit than the sounds of khazones. It is not clear, however, that synagogue prayer leading is a goal for all of the students in the class. For the participants, including myself, Berkson’s pedagogy was significant on a number of levels and contributed to a variety of musical goals. I spoke to two of the students, Anat Spiegel and Hadar Ahuvia, who told me about ways they are applying their studies of khazones. (Unfortunately, I was unable to talk to the fourth participant in the class in time for this blog post).

Anat Spiegel is an accomplished composer and vocalist whose work crosses a variety of forms of media, incorporating theatrical frames of performance and habits of close reading of texts into her compositions. Her recent video-based performance piece “Anna” (2021) drew on the modernist poetry of early twentieth century Yiddish author Anna Margolin. The electronically manipulated vocal and instrumental sounds in the piece revealed an adventurous and insightful engagement with Margolin’s work and its highly contemporary themes of gender ambiguity and historicizing of identity.

For Spiegel, studying khazones is closely related to her recent interest in Yiddish literary modernism. Spiegel was born into an intellectual Israeli family, a context in which religion and Yiddish culture were “a big no-no.” Her recent delving in the archive of Yiddish aesthetics have helped her acquire a sense of “gaining a past.” According to Spiegel, obscuring the riches of Yiddish culture was a byproduct of the secular Zionist milieu. She compared the study of khazones to “a physical sensation of being part of archaeology…it is a very visceral thing…it arrived as a gift.” The rigorous approach to transcription and the pedagogy of improvisation that Berkson offered have provided Spiegel with a set of tools she is already experimenting with in a new project. Spiegel has recently begun work on a song cycle based on the work of revered elder Yiddish poet Irena Klepfisz, a project that promises to resound with some of Spiegel’s explorations of khazones. As with Yiddish modernist poetry, Spiegel has taken hold of khazones, as represented in Berkson’s class, as a means to signify diasporic experience, Jewish modern aesthetics, and the memory of Eastern European Jewish experience.

Hadar Ahuvia (whose work I profiled in a recent blog post) has been involved in a prayer leading practice for some years, both working in a synagogue and leading an independent internet-based community. Like Spiegel, Ahuvia was born into a secular Israeli family. Studying and performing Ashkenazi liturgy is important to her in framing a Jewishness that is linked to heritage uncoupled from the political resonances of Zionism.

The class has offered Ahuvia new perspectives on “how to listen.” Working with Berkson feels to her like a link to the historic cantorial tradition, “There’s a connection, an embodied connection.” On a practical level, the class has challenged Ahuvia to deepen her exploration of khazones as a source of prayer practice. In an example of this process, Ahuvia was recently called upon to lead a shiva (mourning) service. In preparation for this prayer leading responsibility, Ahuvia studied the famous recording of “El Mule Rachamim,” originally released in 1946, by Sholom Katz (1915-1982). Katz’s record repurposes the traditional mourner’s prayer as a crucial piece of post-Holocaust memorialization, mentioning by name the death camps where Jews had so recently been murdered.

Sholom Katz’s 1946 recording “El Mule Rachamim.”

Moved by the depth of feeling in Katz’s performance, Ahuvia listened deeply to the record, closely imitating several of Katz’s phrases. She used these phrases as the basis for her own improvisation, seeking to harness the classic cantorial performance for emotional resonances that could be brought into the ritual she was leading. Assessing her work on “El Mule Rachamim,” Ahuvia highlighted the processual nature of her learning and performance. “I would have loved to be more rehearsed, but I feel like I’m in the realm. I’m building a new muscle.”

As a fellow student in the class, I too feel that something new occurred in my body from the practices of deep listening and embodied transcription that Berkson fostered in the class. The pedagogical methods of the class recalled the descriptions of learning that I have heard from some of the leading Chassidic cantors of the generation that center on record listening. Deep lovers of khazones use their bodies as the sounding board for old records, allowing the electronically captured voices of dead cantors to train the musculature of their vocal apparatus. The pedagogy of performance transcription, in which direct imitation of recorded sources is a central activity, emerges in these anecdotes about cantorial revival as having a special power. Records serve as a transmission from “lost” art forms that experienced a period of heightened activity in the early period of recording technology but have since undergone an interruption in the chain of transmission.

In the khazones class, Berkson built a learning community based in the pedagogy of transcription; the learning community was brimming with creative possibilities. How this potential will interact with the American synagogue is unclear. It may well be that concert venues or internet-based video are a more likely home for experimentations with Ashkenazi heritage prayer music than institutions of religious life. The fact that a group of artists drawing from a range of Jewish identities have alighted upon khazones is indicative of a shift in the perception of the meaning and value of this form of expressive culture away from its association with the synagogue and is a bellwether of new forms of creative work that are emerging.

Musicians drawn to khazones include Chassidic intellectuals, leftist Yiddishists, Israelis seeking post-Zionist forms of cultural expression, and experimental composers. The diversity of this group suggests that the emotional and spiritual content of this music has something to say to the current moment, even if the precise nature of the need it can fulfill has not yet been fully articulated. The audience that will receive this transmission has not yet been convened but may ultimately draw from the same outsider communities as the artists themselves. The efforts of these artists to explore memory, emotion and the attractive alterity of the sounds of khazones will not remain underground in perpetuity.


[1] See Jonathan L. Friedmann, “From text to melody: the evolution of the term nusach ha-tefillah,” Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 20 no. 3 (2021), 339-360.

[2] See Elias Zaludkovsky, Kultur-treger fun der idisher liturgye (Detroit, Michigan, 1930).

[3] See Edwin Seroussi, “The Jewish Liturgical Music Printing Revolution: A Preliminary Assessment,” Textual Transmission in Contemporary Jewish Cultures, edited by Avriel Bar-Levav, and Uzi Rebhun (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 100-136.

[4] See Charles Davidson, From Szatmar to the new world: Max Wohlberg, American cantor (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 2001). A number of cantorial training manual compile and expand upon Wohlberg’s pedagogical approach using motivic training for prayer leading. See Charles Davidson and Max Wohlberg, Imunim be-nusaḥ ha-tefilah (Elkins Park, Pa: Ashbourne Music Pub., 1996).

[5] See the discussions of the new role of the cantor in Cantors Assembly of America, Proceedings of the annual convention (1947, 1949). See also the discussion of suburbanization on the culture of synagogues in Riv-Ellen Prell, Prayer and Community: The Havurah in American Judaism (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1989), 30-68.

[6] Mark Slobin, Chosen Voices: The Story of the American Cantorate (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1989), 256-279.


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