Jewish cantor’s melodies and songs

Sing us a song, you’re the cantor, man

for The Brooklyn Paper
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Dear Cantor Matt,

I remember a lot of the different tunes that my cantor used in the temple where I grew up. I really love those melodies, and the cantor at our synagogue sings all different ones. I thought it would be really nice if she could sing at least some of those tunes at my son’s bar mitzvah service, especially because so many of my family will be there. I’m afraid to ask. Is it considered bad etiquette to ask the cantor to sing something different?

—Just a Song Before I Go

Dear Song,

It’s only bad etiquette if you ask the cantor to stop singing.

Usually, cantors never mind taking requests from congregants. In fact, I love when members of the congregation ask about a specific tune, because it shows that they’re taking an interest in the service and feeling connected to the prayers.

One time a couple that had scheduled an aufruf (getting called to the Torah the Shabbat before the wedding) asked if I knew a certain tune for a well-known text. It turns out that I had never heard the tune before, but I asked one of them to get me a recording of it so I could hear it. They did, and I spent a little time learning it. Then I surprised them by singing that beloved melody at that special service for them. That was a win/win situation, because not only did I bring added joy and meaning to their occasion but I also now know a wonderful new tune.

Would a cantor ever say no to such a request? Sure, there may be some reasons — some good, some not so much.

First, some cantors (luckily very few) resist taking any input from congregants or guests. Sometimes it’s to show that they’re in charge (after all, they may say that the rabbi doesn’t solicit sermon ideas from people). They might feel that they know best what should be sung from the bimah, and they don’t want to relax their standards in any way. I’m sure when these cantors were little kids, they didn’t play well with others.

But there are actually some good and valid reasons why I might politely refuse to sing a certain song during services:

Does the song take my mind off the prayers?

The last prayer recited at many services is a poem entitled “Adon Olam.” Because this poem is written in an even meter, it lends itself perfectly to be sung by a multitude of different tunes. Very often, kids and teens will sing “Adon Olam” to any number of popular songs or TV show themes. I’m glad they’re having fun and enjoying services, but I’m not crazy about doing that sort of thing myself because it takes my mind out of the Siddur and puts it on some other subject.

Does the song fit the words?

There are a lot of different emotions used in the Siddur. Would you sing something upbeat and happy on a text about mourning? Even if a tune is beautiful, it may just be the wrong match for that specific set of words.

Is it a good tune?

This is pretty subjective, but when I sing something, I want people to join in with me. So I want it to be a pleasant melody and something that the congregation can learn easily.

So, the bottom line is, yes! Go ahead and ask your cantor about your childhood temple melodies. Who knows — your new tune may become her favorite.

Cantor Matt Axelrod (Congregation Beth Israel, Scotch Plains, NJ) is the author of “Surviving Your Bar/Bat Mitzvah: The Ultimate Insider’s Guide.” He’s always happy to hear from you and he might answer your question in a future column. You can email him at

Posted 1:22 pm, June 12, 2014
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Reader feedback

Cantor Judi Rowland from New York City says:
I agree with Cantor Matt but would add a fewone more important point and then pose several questions.
The service is not the service of the Bar or Bat Mitzvah family. It is the service of the congregation. I certainly understand what the melodies of our youth mean to us and how we cherish them and miss them when we don't get to sing them. But imagine being a congregant whom comes to synagogue on Shabbat morning for a reason other than the Bar or Bat MItzvah. He or she is deprived of HIS/HER synagogue melodies.
So the answer has to be, "it depends".
Answer the following questions:
Will there be other congregants at the service or is the Bar or Bat Mitzvah going to be "private"?
Does the cantor already know the melodies you refer to or would he/she need to learn them (along with the pianist/organist, etc.)?
Can you identify these melodies clearly, ie do you know the names of the composers or can you sing them well so that they can be identified?
And how many melodies do you want to change? One? That's great. Many? That may be asking too much.
Aug. 12, 2014, 2:50 pm

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