12 Nov

A couple of weeks ago I was in New York for the start of this year’s cantorial certification program where I teach Shabbat music to the first year students. We were so fortunate to have the introductory class on traditional chant presented by Cantor Jack Mendelson, one of the finest cantors on the planet. Both Cantor Mary and I studied traditional Rosh Hashanah music with him while we were students, and I told my students that when she and I are standing on the bima at Temple Beth El during High Holiday services, there are moments when we look at each other and smile because we both know that, at that moment, we are channeling Jack Mendelson.

What makes Cantor Mendelson so outstanding is not merely his mastery of traditional chant. His artistry and knowledge is unsurpassed — but he exudes such enthusiasm and reverence for the music that you can’t help being swept up by it. And he is also an incredible mensch. He worked with the students both as a group and individually, coaxing from each of them the beauty and the subtlety of the style. He is kind. He is funny. And most of all, he’s genuine through and through. At the same time he makes you relax into the beauty of the music, you also realize that you are in the presence of greatness.

Listening to him teach the class, I felt full — filled with the incomparable artistry, filled with the respect and love of the music, filled with the warmth and humor of a man who lets the notes and the sacred words pour forth from his very being. It is a wonderful — and often rare — feeling of being full.

That same feeling is the ideal when we make the transition to Shabbat on Friday night. Every week we ask you to let go of the busy-ness and the stresses of the week gone by — to empty yourselves of the frantic and the mundane in order to make room for the peace and the sanctity of Shabbat. There are many weeks where, frankly, I’m thrilled just to be able to stop the sense of agitation, to empty out the noise and the hysteria. But truly experiencing Shabbat is not feeling empty, but feeling filled — filled with warmth and beauty and a sense of being in the presence of something so much greater. It is a sense of awe that simply makes me smile.


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