Q&A with Cantor Jack Mendelson

Feb 09, 2022 / 8 Adar I, 5782

‘They Ruled the Earth’

Discover the famous cantorial giants with Cantor Jack “Jackie” Mendelson when he performs at Temple on February 27

They were as beloved as the Beatles, as eagerly anticipated as an orchestra seat to “Hamilton.” They were the greats of Jewish music, and their story needs to be told, their legacy preserved. That’s where Cantor Jack “Jackie” Mendelson comes in. His “Cantor’s Quest” musical one-man show, which will be performed at Temple on Feb. 27 at 4pm, takes us deep into the world of the famous Eastern European chazzanim while weaving his own family story into a hilarious, unforgettable, poignant tale. Register to attend in person or plan to watch online on TELive. The archived preformace will be available for one week.

We can’t wait! Tell us about your musical show.
It’s an emotional story and in some cases riotously funny, about a boy who had great difficulties growing up — depression, inability to study. All his mother wanted was for her son to become a cantor. It all starts with the story of my bar mitzvah, a bittersweet story.

In the second act, it’s also a ticket into a world within the Jewish world that’s not well known. A world in which cantors were like superheroes. They ruled the earth. They waltzed around with an entourage, and clothes to match — top hat, cape and a cane. People worshipped them like rock stars today.

With today’s more informal worship style, that’s hard to imagine!
When people came over from Europe in the late 1800s through the turn of the century, they were struggling, They didn’t have the money to go to the theater, or to see an opera, so that type of satisfaction came in the form of this prayer art. Sometimes it was done in a very relaxed way, even a humorous way. Some of the arrangements they did were made to please from young to old, anyone could sing those tunes, easy tunes to listen to and go home and sing. There was an element of entertainment in the synagogue experience. They had rabid fans and there were tremendous arguments about who was the best cantor in the neighborhood.

It was a tremendous era, a love story between the cantors and the Jews who loved their music.

It’s so interesting that what we think of today as ‘traditional’ Jewish music was modern in its day, and infused with the music of the world it occupied.
There were real stars like Joseph/Yossele Rosenblatt. With the advent of the phonographs, people would play his music on 78 rpm disks. When the Titanic sank, he sang the memorial prayer for the victims. …There’s also Moishe Oysher. He started to bring an American jazz element into the music. He was a crossover artist, equally at home in jazz and cantorial prayer. He sold records galore and made movies, many in Yiddish.

How do you feel you have embraced this extraordinary legacy?
What I do as a cantor is that I serve the text. My job is to bring the text to the people, in such a way that they understand it and are moved by it. That’s what they all did.

Describe the quest in ‘The Cantor’s Quest.’
In far too many Reform congregations, you might not hear any sounds in a given service of the pure chazzanut art form as it was handed down from Eastern Europe, That’s one of the big points of this show. It’s about my quest to keep this music vital, to save it for now and for generations to come.

Yet we don’t hear it too much in synagogue today…
It’s interesting that students at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC), have a very rigorous program in Ashkenazi Eastern European cantorial music. They all have to learn it, but when it comes to the actual synagogue, they’re afraid if they don’t do something au courant, then they might not be successful.

Should Reform synagogues return to a more chazzanut-centered musical service?
I’m not saying chazzanut should be the lion’s share, I’m just saying I’d like for it to have a share, a seat at the table. Even if there are 12 seats, I’m happy with one, although two would be unbelievable. I’ll take what I can get. This is an art form that has come out of the Jewish experience. I don’t think it’s wise to just throw that out.

Help us understand the experience of this musical tradition.
There’s a concept of hiddur mitzvah. You don’t just do a mitzvah. You do it in a beautiful way. You don’t just cover challah with a napkin, but with a beautiful covering. That’s what chazzanut is, that filigree, those curlicues, a deep respect for the text. It’s beautiful.

How can today’s beautiful music exist with yesterday’s?
Synagogue music has always reflected the time and place the Jews were in. Here we are in America and have an American sound. Take “l’dor vador nagid godlecha” by Josh Nelson. That’s beautiful. It’s Americana, maybe a little Disney. You can’t tell me that doesn’t belong in a service. People will listen to that and get goosebumps.

Is there a chazzanut bridge between today and yesterday?
I co-teach a class at HUC with Elana Arian. It’s an elective where I take a Debbie Friedman tune and in the middle of it, I will do a modulation with some chazzanut. Then I find my way back to Friedman. It’s a way of fusing two art forms and we’ve been very successful.

On with the show! Introduce us to your collaborators.
The show is written by Mark Bieler, my dearest friend and the smartest guy in the room. His father had a radio show with the great cantors back in the ’40s. We would meet on a Sunday and I would tell him my stories and on the following Sunday, he’d bring me lyrics to review.

The songs are written by the great Cantor Jonathan Comisar, a brilliant man and composer. He’s also the accompanist. I’ve never done this show without him.

We’ve performed this show since 2014 in many, many cities. We haven’t missed with the audience yet!