AUDIO FEATURE: Hasidic artists in Brooklyn bring the golden age of cantorial music into the digital age

A new book by Jeremiah Lockwood, a musician and Jewish Studies scholar, explores the world of young Hasidic cantorial artists, who have mastered the vocal techniques of the great cantors of a century ago

From left: Jeremiah Lockwood, Shimmy Miller, Yoel Kohn and Yanky Lemmer, performing at Villa Seligmann, Hannover, Germany, March 20, 2024. Credit: Heiner Schlote

Apr 11, 2024 3:00 PM


Golden Ages: Hasidic Singers and Cantorial Revival in the Digital Era, by Jeremiah Lockwood

“What does a Jew sound like?” 

To Jeremiah Lockwood, an innovative musician with a doctorate in Jewish Studies, one answer to that question comes from a group of Hasidic musical artists in Brooklyn.

This group is now keeping alive a musical style perfected by virtuosic cantors a century ago, but which has largely faded from the synagogue scene in which it originates.

Listen to Jon Kalish report on this group of young chazanim in Brooklyn:

Musical album: Golden Ages: Brooklyn Chassidic Cantorial Revival Today

Musical artists featured:

Jeremiah Lockwood, Yoel Kohn, Yanky Lemmer, Shulem Lemmer, Shimmy Miller and Benzion Miller.

Works by Jeremiah Lockwood

Book: “Golden Ages: Hasidic Singers and Cantorial Revival in the Digital Era

Album: “Golden Ages: Brooklyn Chassidic Cantorial Revival Today

Read more about Cantor Benzion Miller, one of the last vestiges of cantorial music's golden age:
Future of legendary Hasidic cantor at storied synagogue uncertain after injury

From left: Jeremiah Lockwood, Shimmy Miller, Yoel Kohn and Yanky Lemmer, performing at Villa Seligmann, Hannover, Germany, March 20, 2024. Credit: Heiner Schlote

Audio Transcript:

[Glossary of Yiddish and Hebrew terms below.]

Jon Kalish: Brooklyn. June 2018.

[Cantorial soloist]

JK: In the dining room of a Satmar home in Williamsburg, an informal gathering for singing religious songs — a kumzitz — is under way.

[Cantorial soloist]

JK: About a dozen Hasidic cantors stand around a bare table singing “Sheyiboneh,” a prayer calling for the speedy rebuilding of the Holy Temple.

[Cantorial soloist]

JK: Accompanied by a portable synthesizer, each cantor solos and then, with the point of a finger, signals another cantor that it’s his turn.

[Cantorial vocalists]

JK: One of the men in the room isn’t singing. He is Jeremiah Lockwood, the grandson of a cantor. He’s not a Hasid. Lockwood is working on a Ph.D. in Jewish studies at Stanford University.

Lockwood: I became aware that there was a scene of young singers in the Hasidic community in Brooklyn who were interested in this gramophone era of cantorial music. That really perked up my ears. I saw something really fascinating and beautiful in this musical subculture that was taking place in Borough Park and Williamsburg. 

When I saw videos of young Hasidic men singing pieces by Mordechai Hershman or Zavel Kwartin, these legends of the 1920s, I was deeply struck by how profound their performance knowledge was. It’s astounding. Young artists have mastered the vocal techniques of the great cantors of the early 20th century. Forget questions about creativity versus imitation. Just the fact that they’re physically able to do it is just mind-blowing. 

In general, when you hear someone who is a cantor singing today, they are not singing the same style of music as the golden age era cantors, and a lot of the skill set that was associated with that style of music, people aren’t really learning how to do that anymore. So, I was very fascinated to see that there were self-trained artists who were approaching this music and learning how to do it. It’s kind of like if there were this scene of musicians who, not going to jazz music school, had learned how to play Charlie Parker just by fiddling around with a saxophone alone in their rooms at night.

[Upbeat music by cantorial vocalists]

JK: Lockwood went on to write his doctoral dissertation on what’s going on in this Satmar home, the beginning, he believes, of a revival of cantorial music in Brooklyn by Hasidic cantors. That dissertation was published as a book titled Golden Ages, and Lockwood produced an album of the same name with some of these cantors, who travelled to Europe with him.

[Cantorial soloist Yoel Kohn]

JK: That was Yoel Kohn, who performed with cantors Yanky Lemmer and Shimmy Miller at the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival in 2022. He’s the son of the Satmar baal tefilah Baruch Mayer Kohn

Here’s Lockwood addressing the audience in Krakow:

Lockwood: What I find so inspiring about Yoel and Yanky and Shimmy is they have taken their very personal visions of what the past sounded like and what it meant, and have used it to create something that is breathing, that is on fire, with the soul of yiddishkeit and with the soul of the human spirit.

JK: Yanky Lemmer and Shimmy Miller are Hasidic cantors. Lemmer grew up as a Belz Hasid. Miller grew up in Bobov. Lemmer is employed at the prestigious Lincoln Square Synagogue in Manhattan. Miller grew up davening at Young Israel Beth El of Borough Park, where his father Benzion has served as cantor for more than 40 years. 

Years ago, Yanky Lemmer sang in the Beth El choir.

Yanky Lemmer: There was a concert with Benzion Miller, and he was gracious enough to allow me to sing one number. The next morning somebody dropped off a DVD in my mailbox and he’s, like, “You may want the recording of your piece.”

I uploaded it to YouTube, and the morning after my email was flooded: “Oh, my gosh! You have to do this for a living. You have to do this!” And that weekend I got a gig to daven in a hotel somewhere. 

That was basically my first foray into the professional side of things. 

Back then, YouTube was pretty much the only medium someone was able to find a five-minute, ten-minute piece of cantorial music. Right now there are countless Whatsapp groups with all the mavens, the connoisseurs, that put up all kinds of interesting material.

JK: These days, Yanky Lemmer has a regular presence on Instagram, as does his younger brother Shulem.

[Lemmer brothers singing “Adon Olam”]

JK: A few months ago they used a smartphone to record some brotherly harmony in a Warsaw dressing room.

[Lemmer brothers continue singing “Adon Olam”]

JK: Shulem Lemmer is a huge star in the Orthodox community but not as a cantor. He’s a pop singer who‘s crossed over to the world of secular music, singing in English, as well as Yiddish and Hebrew.

[Shulem Lemmer singing in Yiddish]

JK: Lemmer is the first Orthodox pop artist to be signed by a major record company. He records for Decca Gold, which is part of the Universal Music Group, one of the three big record labels. But his globe-trotting commercial career hasn’t diminished his commitment to yiddishkeit. His Instagram feed features videos of him singing to his 99-year-old great-grandmother Lily as Shabbos approaches and at the bedside of an incapacitated rabbi in Los Angeles.

[Shulem Lemmer singing “Teniyele”]

JK: Lemmer was singing a song called “Teniyele” to the bed-ridden rabbi. “Teniyele” means a fragment of melody. He recorded the song on his debut album. A music video of “Teniyele” features five members of the Shira Choir, which Lemmer sang with before he broke out as a solo artist. Three members of the choir joined him at a 2015 bar mitzvah to sing “Chad Gadya,” the playful song sung at Passover. A video of that bar mitzvah performance has garnered more than a half-million views on YouTube.

[Shulem Lemmer singing “Chad Gadya,” accompanied by Shira Choir]

Lemmer: When I record an album, I do one track of original cantorial music, which I enjoy and I like performing.

JK: Shulem Lemmer…

Lemmer: On my previous album I did “Modim” from Hershman, and my first album I did “Ve’al Yedei Avodecha,” from Kwartin. I still study it. I still learn pieces. I don’t get to perform it a lot but from time to time I do.

JK: On the High Holy Days, Shulem serves as cantor at the Kingsway Jewish Center, a Modern Orthodox congregation of 500 in the Midwood section of Brooklyn.

Lemmer: The truth is, at first I didn’t want to. I didn’t feel that I am capable, or able to do it. But my brother Yanky said, “You can do it.” He pushed me to do it seven, eight years ago. And my Rosh Hashanah, my Yom Kippur, my High Holy Days wasn’t the same since. 

I feel like a chazan is also a shliach tzibur, a messenger of the community, which means you take everyone’s prayers and present it to God. It’s a certain responsibility, and I feel that responsibility. It’s an incredible spiritual moment for me to be leading the High Holy Days, and I just love it and try to perfect it and get better at it, and obviously it’s not a performance at all whatsoever. It’s to try and evoke emotions into the community and try to have them pray a little bit better for themselves and for the community.

They asked one of the greatest cantors of the golden age what a successful cantor needs to have. And he said, “You need to have three things. You need to understand what you’re saying, which means the exact translation of the lyrics. You have to understand music. And you have to know the nusach, which is the modes and the motifs of the types of music that is done by certain davenings. You know, Shachris is a specific way, Musaf is a certain way, the High Holy Days is a certain way. You can’t just mumble your way through. It needs to be under a specific motif for that time. And then he added, “If you have a voice, it’s also good.”

Jackie Mendelsohn, the great chazan, he once came to a music school that they were learning nusach. And they asked him, “OK, give me the nusach for ‘Ochilah La-keil.’” And they opened the sheet music, and they look at the notes, and they’re like, [sings stilted cantorial song]. And he’s like, “No, no, no. Come on. Close the books. Follow me.” [Sings] And they were, like, “Wait a second. Is that a half-note, a quarter-note?” He’s, like, “That’s your problem! Don’t think, just speak from the heart!” [Sings]

That raw nusach, raw emotion and raw singing and the music obviously within the realms of the nusach and the music, that is the most integral part. And this is really the foundation of the success of today’s chazanim and the nusach and what keeps it alive.

JK: Young Israel Beth El of Borough Park is one of the last vestiges of the golden age of cantorial music. It was home to some of the greatest cantors of the 20th Century and came to be known as the “Carnegie Hall of Brooklyn.”

Here is Jeremiah Lockwood:

Lockwood: Beth El has this reputation as being the epicenter of cantorial culture in New York. Their past cantors have included Berele Chagy and Moshe Koussevitsky, some of the greatest artists in the genre.

JK: Chagy was at Beth El in the 1940s and ‘50s. Koussevitsky served as cantor there from 1952 to 1966.

[Koussevitsky singing]

JK: When Yanky and Shulem Lemmer were growing up, Koussevitsky’s records were on the playlist thanks to their father’s love of cantorial music. By the time Yanky Lemmer joined the choir at Beth El, Koussevitsky was long gone. 

[Sounds of people praying]

At that point, the great Benzion Miller was leading the davening there. This is a recording of Miller and the Beth El choir at a May 2012 Sefiras Haomer concert in the shul:

[Benzion Miller singing, accompanied by the Beth El choir]

JK: Benzion Miller is known for improvising during the three- to four-hour Shabbos morning service. There was a time when Jeremiah Lockwood sang in the Beth El choir.

Lockwood: It’s highly virtuosic. It’s very improvisatory. It’s many, many hours long but it goes by in the flash of an eye. I’m just concentrating so hard, trying to follow the music, trying to understand where his voice is going to move, watching the choir director for cues about when we should come in. Everything’s improvised. There’s no sheet music, and nobody knows the music exactly, because a lot of it is being created on the spot. So, it’s very musically challenging. It’s very technically challenging. And it’s also incredibly fun. You know, just thinking really hard and listening deeply. After one of those services, I’m always ready to collapse.

JK: In 2012, Hankus Netsky conducted an interview with Benzion Miller for the Yiddish Book Center’s Wexler Oral History Project. Miller said he learned the tradition of improvising from his father Aaron.

Miller: My father’s davening was always different, no two pieces the same. There was always improvisation.

Netsky: Can you give me an example of that? Something like, if it was plain, and then more improvised.

Miller: Let’s say “Shochen Ad” on Shabbos morning, where the regular is [singing]. You can go [singing several variations of “Shochen Ad”]. 

You can do whatever you want with it. There’s no limit. So why be tied down — week in, week out, week in, week out? It’s boring.

[Benzion Miller singing “Mimkomcha” and demonstrating improvisation]

JK: Benzion Miller had been leading the davening at Beth El once a month in recent years, but his appearance at the pulpit has been intermittent since an injury in 2022. His son Eli has been filling in for him lately. Another son, Shimmy Miller, is one of the Hasidic cantors featured on the Golden Ages album Jeremiah Lockwood produced.

[Shimmy Miller singing “Birchat Hachodesh”]

Miller: According to my father, we’re talking about eight generations of chazanim, baalei tefilah, and shochtim — ritual slaughterers — and mohalim.

JK: Shimmy Miller…

Miller: When I was two years old, I knew all the records that my father had. [Laughs] My mother always tells me I used to jump from one record cover to another and that I could identify the chazanim by their voice. From when I was two, I could recognize them and call them out by their name, whichever chazan was being played on the record player. 

I don’t think there’s a resurgence. Every art form — they evolve. It’s a continuous evolution of everything. I do think that there’s always going to be the few that are pulled towards it as an art form. But to say that there’s a resurgence and it’s going to be the next big thing — I don’t think so.

JK: Shimmy Miller recently joined Yanky Lemmer and Yoel Kohn for two performances in Germany. The cantors were accompanied by Jeremiah Lockwood on electric guitar and a quartet of string players from a radio orchestra.

Lockwood: They want to be able to inhabit this role of being a cantor in the old sense of being a great artist, who people understand for the music and crave it and they’re in a dialogue with the community through this music.

JK: Once again, Jeremiah Lockwood:

Lockwood: And that isn’t necessarily out there, or at least not in synagogues. People aren’t necessarily going to shul anymore expecting to hear a multiple hour-long concert of spiritual music. That’s just not the vibe in most synagogues in the world at this point. 

So, if the synagogue isn’t going to nurture this music, where will it live? 

It’s not a normal supply and demand kind of issue, because in this case, the supply will create the demand. Because if the artists are great enough and are doing something that is profound enough, a niche will emerge where they can do their work. 

So, the community might not know it needs it, but there is an answer out there to a question that people haven’t even asked yet: What does a Jew really sound like? Who are we? I believe that the young chazanim in the Hasidic community are trying to answer that question.

[Cantorial choir singing “Shetechadesh”]

JK: Jeremiah Lockwood’s book is “Golden Ages: Hasidic Singers and Cantorial Revival in the Digital Era.”

Editorial guidance for this podcast was provided by Jack Falk, Hankus Netsky and Shulem Deen. For Shtetl, I’m Jon Kalish. Thank you for listening.

[Cantorial choir ending out with final notes of “Shetechadesh”]


Glossary of Terms

baal tefila: as a profession, a hired prayer leader for major services, such as those on the High Holy Days, usually skilled in the cantorial style

chazan (pl. chazanim): cantor

daven (anglicized davening): religious Jewish prayers

kumzitz: informal gathering for singing religious songs

Musaf: supplemental prayer service on Shabbos, following the morning service

mohel (pl. mohalim): performer of circumcisions

nusach: traditional musical style for Jewish prayer, especially among Ashkenazi Jewish communities

yiddishkeit: religious Jewish life and culture

Shachris: Jewish morning prayer service

shliach tzibur: prayer leader; lit. “emissary of the community”

shochet (pl. shochtim): ritual slaughterer