TOP STORIES A group of Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn are resurrecting...

A group of Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn are resurrecting the golden age of cantor music.

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Jeremiah Lockwood and Yoel Kohn performing at the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, Poland.

John Kalish


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John Kalish


Jeremiah Lockwood and Yoel Kohn performing at the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, Poland.

John Kalish

Jeremiah Lockwood comes from a family of cantors, spiritual leaders who guide Jewish communities in prayer and song. His grandfather, the late Yakov Konigsberg, served as a cantor in several cities and performed at concerts outside of worship, always hoping to inspire people with liturgical music.

No wonder that Lockwood would include cantor music in his group, Influence Machines, and wrote his dissertation on Hasidic cantors in Brooklyn who sing in a way that recalls the golden age of cantor music that began in the 1920s. The virtuosos of that era sounded at times as if they were singing an opera, but improvised during the solos.

Cantor Moshe Koussevitzky sings Veliyerushalaym Ircho.

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The same can be said about those who live in modern Brooklyn.

“It’s amazing,” Lockwood said of the Brooklyn cantors’ ability to master vocal techniques from the early 20th century. “Forget about creativity and imitation, the fact that they are physically capable of doing this is mind blowing.”

“They are self-taught artists,” he said. “It’s like there were musicians who didn’t go to a conservatory or jazz school and learned to play Charlie Parker just by fiddling with the saxophone alone in their rooms at night.”

While in graduate school, Lockwood came across a YouTube video of cantors on an informal Hasidic chant known as kumzita kind of cantor jam session, where solos are played with a finger.

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The video inspired Lockwood to create a new album. Golden Ages: The Resurgence of Brooklyn Hasidic Cantorials Todaywhich was recorded by Daptone Records, an analog recording studio known for its soul music.

Three of the six cantors on the album went with Lockwood to fulfill in Jewish Culture Festival in Poland at the end of June, an important annual Jewish musical event that has been going on for almost 30 years. They were given the opportunity to perform accompanied by a string quartet arranged by Lockwood, who occasionally accompanied the cantors on his electric guitar.

One of the cantors who spoke in Krakow, Janki Lemmer, explained that as a child and teenager growing up in the Hasidic community, he had little entertainment other than what was considered “kosher.” These households often do not have televisions or Internet access for children.

“Cantorial music is one of those [kosher] things,” he said. “Oh, let me get into it. It’s interesting, it’s different.”

Lemmer said that when he improvises during worship services, it is “one of the most special feelings in the world.”

“When you start to improvise, and it works, there is this feeling: “Wow, this is something going through me. I don’t even do that,” Lemmer said.

Lemmer, one of the world’s most famous cantors, worships at Manhattan’s prestigious Lincoln Square Synagogue and has served everywhere from the Catskills to Australia. He believes YouTube has put him on the map. After he uploaded the first video of his online performance, his inbox was full the next morning.

“The emails said, ‘You have to make a living from this. You have to do it,” he told NPR.

Shimmy Miller during recording for Golden Ages: The Resurgence of Brooklyn Hasidic Cantorials Today.

Tatiana McCabe


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Shimmy Miller during recording for Golden Ages: The Resurgence of Brooklyn Hasidic Cantorials Today.

Tatiana McCabe

One of the other cantors involved in the project is Shimmy Miller, son of Benzion Miller, who holds a Sabbath service once a month in the Borough Park congregation. This service runs for three to four hours and everything is improvised on site. Lockwood, who participates in the choir, called the experience “musically challenging”.

“After one of those services, I’m always ready to faint,” Lockwood said.

The statement about the revival of cantor music in the new album is not shared by all cantors.

“This is not really a rebirth, but a dying breath,” said Yoel Kohn, a former member of the Satmar Hasidic community. “Whether enough interest remains for it to continue indefinitely as some obscure genre of music like baroque music, I don’t know.”

Cantor Yoel Cohn.

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Cantor Yoel Cohn.

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But Hankus Netsky, a professor at the New England Conservatory of Music, thinks what’s happening with the Brooklyn cantors could be either a departure or a revival of the genre.

“I think Jeremiah Lockwood is the arbiter between the generation that sees cantor music dying in the community and the younger generation that sees that cantor music can be rediscovered,” Netsky said.

Lockwood fervently believes that these “young” cantors (the oldest of them is 46) deserve to be discovered.

“These guys are brilliant singers, brilliant artists, and they are so underground that no one has heard of them,” he said. “I wanted to create an opportunity for them to do what they are the best in the world at, and I wasn’t sure who would be the audience for that and whether there would be an audience for that.”

Golden age The album is available for both digital download and vinyl.

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